Gov. Chris Christie’s news conference Thursday reminded me of the latest version of Richard Nixon’s 1952 “Checkers” speech. For those of you not immersed in political trivia, that was when the then-GOP vice presidential nominee took to the airwaves to refute charges he used a secret slush fund provided by campaign donors. “Checkers” was the name of Nixon’s dog, a gift from one of those donors.
Nixon basically said, look, I haven’t made a dime off of public service, my wife wears a “good Republican cloth coat,” and we’re keeping the dog. Then he asked for the American people to send telegrams to the Republican National Committee urging them to keep Nixon on the ticket with Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower.
The gambit worked. Eisenhower called Nixon “my boy,” and Nixon went on to a long career culminating in his landslide re-election to the presidency in 1972. Hardly anything happened to him after that.
In Christie’s case, the news that several of his aides engaged in closing the George Washington Bridge to punish the mayor of Fort Lee, N.J., prompted Christie to hold what turned out to be a tour de force news conference. Christie, an accomplished thespian on the order of Ronald Reagan, managed to appear contrite and transparent. The operative word is “appear,” and it remains to be seen whether or not he’s telling the truth. My guess is that he is.
What he wasn’t exactly forthcoming about was the creation of an atmosphere that permitted aides to operate in such a manner.
New Jersey politics are famously rough. One only needs to see the recent movie “American Hustle” to see a largely accurate portrayal of New Jersey politics: the 1980 FBI Abscam sting operation that netted a U.S. senator from New Jersey, six congressmen, not all from New Jersey, and the mayor of Camden.
Since Christie has become governor, he and his staff have been, shall we say, aggressive in their pursuit of power and endorsements. Christie’s score-settling and, at times, bullying tactics are well-documented, and he managed to score a 22-point victory over his Democratic challenger. The question of whether they did anything illegal in the pursuit of that is not clear, now that we know about the bridge closure incident; the question of whether it’s an isolated incident or not isn’t. Maybe, maybe not.
I get that politics is a tough game. California is the fastest league there is, and money and power are hard forces to check. But I have a really hard time envisioning Gov. Jerry Brown punishing some small town California Republican mayor with anything other than a long Platonic dialogue about the nature of man’s imperfectability.
Christie has said some unkind things about our governor relative to his age. Maybe he ought to be forced to listen to one of Brown’s lectures about how to conduct oneself in public and private. At times, people may find themselves perplexed by Brown, and sometimes complain he is aloof. I’ll take aloofness over bullying anytime.
Christie showed some humanity. He can show more now that he has created an atmosphere where contrition is valuable.
I don’t rule out Christie as the 2016 GOP nominee. It’s too early for that, and given the lot of GOP aspirants excepting Sen. Marco Rubio and former Gov. Jeb Bush, he still looks better than all of them. So far.
But if he eventually resumes the bullying persona, and you think he can still win in 2016, I’ve got a bridge I’d like to sell you, and it’s not in Brooklyn.