His “see no evil; hear no evil; my staff is evil, but I’m not” defense for the closing of bridge lanes in Fort Lee, N.J., allegedly because the mayor there refused to endorse his re-election may be true. But who is going to believe it?
“(Christie’s) the kind of leader ... who says, ‘It’s my way, or I shut down your highway,’” as Stephen Colbert put it the other night.
Christie wants to be the Republican nominee and win the presidency in 2016. Once again, the Republicans have a pretty weak field, and Christie leads the early (meaningless) polls for the nomination. But what has he shown the nation in recent weeks?
First, he surrounds himself with bullies and goons. Richard Nixon never was convicted of anything (he was an unindicted co-conspirator and then accepted a presidential pardon), but even if you believe he is not a crook, how do you explain all the crooks he surrounded himself with? How do you explain Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Mitchell, Liddy, Hunt and all the others who were convicted of crimes? Nixon assembled enough lawbreakers to staff several prison baseball teams.
New Jersey Assemblyman John Wisniewski, a Democrat, is heading the legislative investigation of the George Washington Bridge scandal. He says: “It strains credibility to say that somebody in as high a position as a deputy chief of staff, somebody in as high a position as the governor’s principal press spokesperson, somebody in as high a position as his campaign manager — all those names are in these emails — did not ever communicate this to the governor.”
But even if we do believe it, who assembled that team? Chris Christie, wasn’t it? “I am a very sad person,” Christie now says. “I’m sad. I’m sad.” Not the best presidential campaign theme I’ve ever heard. We’ve had enough sad presidents. And sorry ones.
Second, the current accusations against Christie fall on fertile ground. He says he is not a bully. But he has been captured on videotape bullying people, including ordinary citizens. And other mayors in New Jersey are coming forward to say Christie punished them for not endorsing him.
Third, ignorance is not much of an excuse in presidential politics. Ignorance is something you hide, not promote. Generally speaking, voters don’t elect chief executives who admit to being clueless. “I don’t know what makes a legitimate traffic study,” Christie said in his long everybody-but-mea culpa last week. “I probably wouldn’t know a traffic study if I tripped over it.”
But we know what a traffic study is not: It is not setting up orange traffic cones in the predawn darkness and shutting down two of three lanes to the busiest bridge in the world. We don’t need a traffic study to know what happens when you do that. Traffic backs up for miles, with 550 vehicles waiting to get on the bridge by 10 a.m.
Nobody now believes this was a legitimate traffic study. Except Chris Christie. Christie, like the rest of America, has seen the email from his deputy chief of staff saying, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” Christie’s longtime pal at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey responded to that email: “Got it.” The lane shutdowns followed.
Sound like bullying and political thuggery to you rather than a traffic study? Christie is unsure. “Whether there was a traffic study or not, I don’t know,” he said. “It appeared that there was one, based on what I saw in the testimony.” Is the man delusional or deceptive? What a choice.
Fourth, Christie claims he did not even know the mayor of Fort Lee. “If he walked in the room, I wouldn’t have been able to pick him out,” he said.
That surprises me. Smart pols know and remember people. That’s what pols do. I have never known a governor who was proud of not knowing an elected official in his own state.
True, Fort Lee has only about 35,700 people. But there are only four municipalities in New Jersey with populations in six figures (Newark is the largest, with 277,000 people), and geographically, New Jersey is the fourth-smallest state in the union. So it’s not as if you have to drive very far to find a mayor. They are pretty much bunched up. Easy to find, easy to get to know if you are an ambitious governor.
But Christie wants us to believe he couldn’t have picked the mayor of Fort Lee out of a lineup?
On the other hand, Christie does remember people who do favors for him. As The Wall Street Journal reported recently, “after the November election, Mr. Christie invited his Democratic supporters to a breakfast at Drumthwacket (the governor’s official residence). He encouraged them to call if they needed help cutting state bureaucracy or navigating agencies, said a Democrat who attended.”
So Chris Christie appears to be a guy who rewards his friends and punishes his enemies.
Which is how he makes sure people want to be his friends.
Roger Simon is Politico’s chief political columnist.