By Ken Feltman
I have never regarded politics as the arena of morals. It is the arena of interest.
– Aneurin Bevan
Some defenders of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie are whining that the media are making too big an issue over Christie’s supposed bullying. They are wrong for two reasons.
First, his actions as governor are fair game for the media. Christie may run for president. How he performs as governor is an indication of how he may perform if he becomes president. Secondly, the Christie apologists should be happy that the media are concentrating on the “bullying” aspect of Christie’s personality. Why? Because every moment spent on bullying is a moment not spent on what people really want to know about Christie.
The media tend to be lazy and follow the easy story line. A few weeks ago, the media called Christie’s more bellicose behavior refreshing, decisive, tough, direct. Now Christie is a “bully.” The public adjusts to the outward personalities of elected officials. No matter what people thought of President Clinton’s actions, very few thought he was vindictive enough to inconvenience ordinary citizens. People sensed that Clinton liked people. The closed traffic lanes leading to the George Washington Bridge are causing people to wonder whether Bridgegate signals a darker side of Christie’s nature. Is he petty, does he have an enemies list, a mean streak? Does he retaliate when opposed?
Bullying is one thing. It is out in the open. Vindictiveness is another. It can be hidden. The media have only touched on this aspect of Christie’s personality. But the public is learning.
Former New Jersey Governor Tom Kean (R) showed how to play the vindictive card. The venerable Kean, one of New Jersey’s most respected public officials, has known and mentored Christie since Christie was a boy. Why would Kean attack the wounded governor over Bridgegate? The answer is bound up in the primal nature of politics, with a few New Jersey Mafia aspects mixed in to add flavor.
The revealing recklessness
Late last year, Christie tried to unseat Kean’s son, Tom Kean, Jr., as state Senate minority leader. Should Christie have known better than to take the risk of offending one of the state’s most well liked politicians? Moreover, should he have attacked the son of the man who gave him his start? Talk about ungratefulness! But sometimes success and the adulation of fawning followers lead a politician to recklessness – the revealing recklessness that comes when a person believes he has outgrown his teachers, his coaches, his mentor.
The plot against Kean, Jr. was a bad idea even if it succeeded. But the plot failed. Christie could not pull off the power play.
In politics, wounds never heal. These wounds were still so fresh that the senior Kean must have been startled that the moment for revenge came so soon, so easily. He would not need to spend time whispering rumors and dropping hints at political gatherings. All he had to do was answer a reporter’s question about what he thought of the growing Bridgegate scandal. He could have given a non-answer or laughed off the question.
Instead, he said, “On the one hand, I think (Christie’s) got a lot to offer. I think he’s the most able politician since Bill Clinton. On the other hand, you look at these other qualities and ask, ‘do you really want that in your president?”
Whack! Just like the Mafia movies: You whack my son, I whack you back. Christie gave his respected mentor a made-to-order opportunity to retaliate. How revealing of Christie’s judgment is that? He gave a respected man a chance to settle a score and to defend his son by retaliating in the traditional Jersey way. What did Christie expect? No one thinks the less of Kean, Sr. What do they think of Christie’s political smarts now?
Kean could be joined by others who have personal or family wounds inflicted by Christie or one of his minions. Politicians seem to find their own wounds heal faster when they inflict wounds on others. People with no wounds at all but with an ax to grind may invent wounds to bedevil Christie. A potential presidential front-runner is about to learn what it is like not only to be bullied but what it is like to be the victim of political retaliation.
More tales of errant vindictiveness may be out there. Christie cannot make them go away and he has given every political foe a reason to search for more revealing tidbits. He has also given his friends license to spill what they think, just as Kean, Sr., did. Hey, this almost makes New Jersey political retribution seem like a public service.
Christie can survive being a bully. Can he survive if people think he allows bridges to be closed in a political game of retribution? The media have more work to do. Christie has more explaining to do.
Remember Watergate? Sen. Howard Baker asked the most important question: “What did the President know and when did he know it?” The clues were in the Oval Office tapes, which were products of Richard Nixon’s vanity. Christie’s vanity was most revealed when he thought he could attack the son of his mentor and suffer no repercussions.
One email from destruction
Today, Christie is just one email, voice mail or overheard comment away from political destruction. Think about the folks who have hired (or are about to hire) opposition researchers to find the “smoking email.” Sen. Ted Cruz, Sen. Rand Paul and any other Republicans who are thinking about running for president in 2016 are anxious to force Christie out. Every potential Democratic candidate wants Christie gone. This will generate business for a lot of political researchers and private detectives.
Consider another level of concern: If you are a key Republican official, are you going to worry that if Christie is nominated in 2016, the roof will fall in when the Democrats leak that “smoking email”? Will you now be less inclined to want Christie as your nominee?
Forget about the post-mortems on whether, in his mea-culpa press conference, Christie could have handled things better to get Bridgegate behind. This will not be behind him until he has whacked-into-silence every person with a motive to whack him. Think about that: He has whacked the most respected political figure in the state (yes, perhaps that is a low bar) and ordinary citizens trying to cross a bridge. There are a lot of people left to be heard from.
They vote and they now have reasons to worry that Christie is too petty to be presidential.