Chris Christie and Mark Darr are loudmouthed, corn-fed politicians whose unbridled ambitions took a dive last week owing to failures that they considered trifling to the point of silliness.
Do they have anything else in common other than enjoying the honorific “Governor,” a shared political party and the fact that by week’s end they seemed to offer mournful apologies for the misdeeds?
Darr lost a minor state job in a state on the margins of the political universe while Christie is fighting to keep his job as governor of a seaboard state and as the leading contender for the Republican nomination for president in 2016. But they are in sync on this: their bungled apologias for what had happened to or by them. And they had many, many examples from recent political history to draw lessons from.
Christie knew the big lesson — be totally honest and repentant — but he just couldn’t do it. He may yet survive — he will for sure in New Jersey, where bluff and swagger are admired — to confront Hillary Rodham Clinton in the 2016 election, but I doubt it.
As a politician who once got into trouble explained it to me, here is one lesson from political scandals big and small: If the average guy can imagine himself under some conditions doing what you did, he will forgive you if you are straight up and sorry about it. That includes robbing a bank.
Darr got caught cheating on his campaign and government accounts to the tune of about $40,000. He apparently needed the money but he couldn’t explain it that way. He said that he was not smart enough to know that he was violating the law, which was entirely credible, but he blamed others for not telling him and whined that the people who exposed his cheating were the bad guys for treating him so shabbily.
Christie or his friends shut down a whole city, Fort Lee, for four days to pay back one or two local officials who had not supported him, stalling workers, schoolchildren and ambulances for hours each day at the foot of the world’s busiest bridge and then chortled over their plight. The children stranded for hours on frigid buses were just the spawn of Democrats. Few people can imagine themselves ever doing anything that callous.
Many are the politicians who perished for trifling misdeeds and few who survived. The other party offers instructive examples. In 1988, Sen. Joe Biden, a rising candidate for president, was caught plagiarizing a speech by the British Labor Party leader. He apologized and withdrew, returning 20 years later for another race, which won him the vice presidency. Sen. Gary Hart, after a lot of hectoring by the press about his suspected womanizing in 1988, got caught and quit presidential politics, for good.
And there’s Bill Clinton. When a nightclub singer announced in the middle of his presidential campaign in 1992 that she had once had a fling with him, he appeared on television with his wife deeply penitent and she pronounced him forgiven. Voters did, too. When the whole play, this time with a White House intern, was re-enacted, including the penitence, at the end of his presidency, Clinton left office with soaring approval ratings.
The George Washington Bridge caper is not so easily forgiven as Gennifer Flowers, or whoever Bill Clinton had dalliances with, although the Clinton and Christie foul-ups both seemed to be personality patterns. Christie is famous, even admired, in New Jersey for swagger and hardball politics. Political enemies, even mild public critics, are made to pay. The stories about Christie employing the power of government for political payback are legion. He repeatedly vetoed a small line-item appropriation from the health budget for post-partum depression treatment because a sufferer of the ailment, the wife of a political opponent, had championed it.
For months after the bridge donnybrook, while reports circulated that the governor’s office had ordered the lane closures on the bridge to punish Fort Lee’s Democratic mayor for refusing to endorse Christie for re-election, Christie scoffed and said it was much ado about nothing. When emails surfaced showing that his deputy chief of staff, his friends at the Port Authority and his campaign manager, adviser and candidate for Republican state chairman were all involved in the intentional traffic snarl, Christie changed.
He held a tearful press conference and apologized profusely, but it was not a Clinton performance. He said he did nothing wrong and, indeed, he was the victim. Two friends at the Port Authority had already quit and he severed his association with his campaign manager and fired his deputy chief of staff, a mother of four who had sent the message to the Port Authority that it was time to implement the plan to punish the people of Fort Lee. Christie called her “stupid” and “deceitful.”
Christie was credited in the media with a bravura performance but most viewers, I think, sensed that he, not Bridget Anne Kelly, was the deceitful one. He said that when he realized his office was involved he worked tirelessly to get to the bottom of it. But he clearly had done nothing to get to the bottom of it besides making a blanket request one day for staff members to volunteer within one hour if they knew what the Fort Lee problem was all about. He refused to even talk to any of the four friends and associates who clearly were involved because he did not want to be reminded of how things worked. It is the standard rule of leadership. The man at the top must be able to preserve deniability. If Kelly or any of the others, under oath, ever decide to betray their loyalty and explain how things worked, Christie can be shocked.
People remember the class bully from school. No matter how smart he is, they don’t want him to be president. Christie’s many foes in his party will have no trouble putting Chris Christie’s face on the bully.