There were no call girls, explicit tweets, mistresses or hush-money payments. In fact, in this most New Jerseyan of controversies, there was merely the petty shutting of toll lanes on a bridge.
But the huge implications of this politically motivated action on the George Washington Bridge began to close in around Republican NJ Governor and 2016 presidential favourite Chris Christie today. “I am a very sad person today,” he said this afternoon, having already described himself as “embarrassed and humiliated”.
For Democrats who regard him a condescending bully, the most stunning revelation of the day may have been this: Christie can do contrite.
In truth, it has been a dreadful two days for the heavyset Governor. Some 36 hours after the explosive disclosure of emails from his inner sanctum proving his aides’ involvement in the traffic drama, he is headlining a damaging national political scandal. In a presser lasting almost two hours, his customary swagger was absent. He was sombre and, some have even suggested, almost humble:
“I had no knowledge or involvement in this issue, in its planning or its execution. And I am stunned by the abject stupidity that was shown here, regardless of what the facts ultimately uncover, this was handled in a callous and indifferent way.”
What he speaks of is that bridge and the sudden, mysterious peak-hour closure of lanes in Fort Lee over four consecutive days back in September. The result was traffic carnage and hours of frustration for anybody in a car or bus. Several ambulances with critically injured patients were held up. It was an unmitigated disaster.
As The New York Times pointed out today, the closings and the ensuing gridlock was dangerous, abusive and probably illegal. And his long list of enemies piled on swiftly looking for retribution.
It is an incredibly unflattering turn of events for Christie. He and his team have handled the situation poorly, using a strategy that is either stunningly arrogant, blatantly stupid or a combination of both. Christie, at the time amid a re-election campaign, was seeking endorsements from Jersey’s Democratic mayors. The idea was the more Democrats he could get to endorse him in what was to be a landslide victory, the better his bipartisan credentials when he inevitably began his 2016 presidential run.
Not all Democrats acquiesced (some who did now suggest they were bullied or felt threatened). One Democratic hold-out was Fort Lee mayor Mark Sokolich. When the Fort Lee bridge lanes were ordered to be closed, New Jerseyans began to wonder if it had something to do with the mayor’s failure to endorse Christie.
The Christie camp (and Christie himself) initially mocked such assertions. However the police denied involvement, and the US attorney launched an investigation. Emails leaked yesterday show David Wildstein, a Christie friend and political appointee, had ordered the closings. Most explosively, emails revealed this petty act of revenge had come from inside Christie’s office: deputy chief of staff Bridget Kelly directly asked Wildstein to do it.
“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Kelly (whom Christie fired today) had emailed to Wildstein. “Got it,” was his reply. When the mayor called bridge authorities in a panic about the closures, emails back and forth from Christie’s cronies ordered his calls not be returned. Further emails had Wildstein ruminating on Sokolich further: “It will be a tough November for the little Serbian.”
“There is a chance this will be the end of Chris Christie’s political career. That’s the gravity of this.”
Last night, Sokolich, whose family is Croatian, said Christie had not yet apologised to him. As for Wildstein, who already resigned last month, Sokolich had this message: “David Wildstein deserves an ass-kicking. There, I said it.” Christie’s local daily The Star Ledger produced a stern editorial this morning:
“Christie bears responsibility. If it turns out he did know, he is obviously lying and unfit for office — let alone a 2016 presidential run. And even if he did not, his officials are liars. If Christie can’t control them, how can we trust him as a potential future leader of our country?”
The wheels have slowly begun to fall off what seemed to be an irrepressible — and by his supporters’ imagining, inevitable — ride to the Republican Party presidential nomination for 2016.
The NY Times has ran two forceful hatchet jobs on Christie in the last three months, the most potent of which ran on Christmas Day. It described a thin-skinned micro-manager who played up to his bully image. A piece in October revealed 26,000 people remained out of their homes a year after Superstorm Sandy hit. Christie, much like mayor Rudy Giuliani after 9/11, had built an image for himself as “America’s governor”. A diverse group of Jersey residents asserted Christie is not the storm saviour his national image depicts.
The Times isn’t the only New York media outlet not enamoured with him. Last year, after a bizarre, spiteful Christie attack on one of its football reporters, The Daily News struck back on its front page. The headline: “Who are you calling an idiot, fatso!” And in what now looks like a poorly timed exercise in conceited lecturing, clips of Christie speaking at Washington conference in November in which he chastises DC politicians for a lack of bipartisanship, were airing frequently today on American television.
Jersey’s socio-economic troubles have also been laid bare of late. A recent spate of carjackings culminated in the murder of a man shot in front of his wife at a Jersey mall the week before Christmas. Also last month, Rolling Stone ran a disturbing piece from gun investigative reporter Matt Taibbi on the decline of the city of Camden. In it, Taibbi graphically exposed more of the state’s social ills.
Back in the 2012 presidential race, Christie had been considered a prime VP candidate for Mitt Romney’s ill-fated ticket. In their book Double Down, Mark Halperin and John Heilemann disclosed details of a vetting dossier on Christie, with unanswered questions about his work as a lobbyist, details about his household help and a Securities and Exchange Commission settlement involving his brother. “The dossier on the Garden State governor’s background was littered with potential land mines,” the book said.
Romney also allegedly made fun of Christie’s weight, using the code name “Pufferfish” in campaign documents. A filmed meltdown while eating an ice-cream did not help, either. Many, including Time magazine, have pondered whether America should elect a morbidly obese president. Christie himself countered this by getting lap-band surgery, but it has not yet greatly impacted his appearance.
Today, his physical appearance is the least of his worries. More important is the stereotype around Christie (that he is a bully and a thug) has gained more credence. His office collectively lied about the lane closures. It undermines the argument he has fervently put forward: that he can work across political lines. At best, he now has a significant credibility gap and he has diluted a narrative he has been carefully composing for more than three years.
Asked today if he believes Christie is lying, the author Heilemann was circumspect:
“Most of the national press does not believe that he did not know about this. Most people, their gut tells them his lying. I am not saying he is, but the burden of proof is now on him.”
And politically speaking, Christie is looking a little lonely. Heilemann again:
“No Republicans have really come to his defense yet. That’s a bad place to be. There is a chance this will be the end of Chris Christie’s political career. That’s the gravity of this. And this will be with him forever if he runs.”