Imagining President Christie
JAN. 10, 2014
by Gail Collins
Let us count the ways that this week’s traffic-jam scandal is actually good for Chris Christie’s presidential prospects.
First of all, he proved that he could definitely handle an international crisis that required apologizing when the United States did something really stupid. Like — let’s see. What if the secretary of commerce, in a fit of pique over a Chinese official’s refusal to endorse American seafood products, sent a flotilla of cargo planes to dump tons of surplus mackerel on a Beijing highway? President Christie would be terrific! He could apologize profusely while making it clear that his administration actually had nothing to do with the incident whatsoever and, in fact, was itself a pathetic victim of betrayal by a double agent for the fish industry.
And Christie has stamina! On Thursday, he held a press conference on the George Washington Bridge traffic-jam fiasco and talked for nearly two hours. The historian Michael Beschloss says he can’t think of any actual president who ever went on that long. It was even longer than the longest presidential Inaugural Address, which involved an hour and three-quarters of William Henry Harrison.
Of course, Harrison then died one month into office. But he did not have a personal trainer, and Chris Christie does. I must admit that I had a mixed reaction to the revelation about the trainer. Good for him on the healthy life front. But there really was something seductive about the idea of a chief executive without a physical fitness regimen. Four years bereft of jogging photo-ops or anecdotes from the pickup games in the White House gym.
Anyhow, there are lots of other ways that Christie’s press conference could be viewed as presidential.
For instance, Richard Nixon had “I am not a crook.” Chris Christie gave us “I am not a bully.”
Also, during Christie’s press conference, he referred to “mistakes” 18 times. He seemed to be channeling Ronald Reagan, who famously said “mistakes were made” after his administration got caught secretly helping arm rebels in Central America with money made from selling weapons to Iran.
O.K., that was a bigger mistake. Although having associates who create a four-day traffic jam on the world’s busiest bridge out of apparent political pique isn’t exactly a multiplication error.
Christie expressed confidence that the voters would conclude: “Mistakes were made; the governor had nothing to do with that, but he’s taking responsibility for it.” Here we have an echo of Harry Truman’s announcement that “the buck stops here.” However, Christie took the more modern approach, which is to make it clear that while you’re responsible, you are totally not at fault. The buck that stopped at Christie’s desk was not his buck, just an errant piece of currency that wound up in the office because of treacherous fools over whom he had no actual control whatsoever.
So far, so good.
Among the critical qualities for a modern president is the ability to instantly cut off old friends and cast them adrift if they become political baggage. Maybe you remember the way Bill Clinton dumped his law school pal Lani Guinier when her nomination to lead the Justice Department’s civil rights division ran into trouble.
Or maybe you have no memory of that whatsoever. It doesn’t matter, because Christie’s example is much better.
The central figure in the traffic-jam scandal is a guy named David Wildstein, who is frequently described as a youthful chum of the governor’s. The two were at high school together, and Wildstein later became mayor of Christie’s hometown.
Asked about Wildstein — who spent Thursday pleading the Fifth at a legislative hearing — Christie expressed joy at having the opportunity to clear up the true parameters of their relationship. “David and I were not friends in high school. ... We didn’t travel in the same circles in high school,” he said coolly. “You know, I was the class president and athlete. I don’t know what David was doing during that period of time.”
The most fascinating part of the governor’s talkathon was his explanation of what he did when he discovered — just as he was toweling down from a workout — that his deputy chief of staff had been involved in creating the bridge crisis.
Christie claimed he swiftly axed said aide, wasting no time in attempting to find out why she had done it, who she had conspired with, or why she imagined he would think it was a good idea.
“I’m telling you that when I ask for an answer from a member of my staff and they lie ... they’re gone. So I never had to get to the conduct, the underlying conduct,” he said.
What do you think about that, people? Andrew Jackson-like decisiveness? Seems more like a really eerie lack of curiosity.
But then we have had presidents who were less inquisitive than a sidewalk. Look at George W. Bush. And he got elected twice.