For two hours New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie did a full hangout, or at least as close as we’re likely to get in politics these days. He held a marathon press conference to respond to the George Washington Bridge traffic scandal that exploded Wednesday and imperiled his presidential aspirations. He announced that he was firing the staffer responsible, cutting some ties with one of his top political aides, and investigating what other abuses might be left uncovered. He then took round after round of questions in which he fulfilled most of the compulsory requirements of the public self-flagellation routine. He apologized, took responsibility, called himself “embarrassed and humiliated,” said the “buck stops here,” expressed regret, denounced the activity several times as “callous” and “stupid,” and announced that he was visiting the injured parties today.
Christie did the best he could given the circumstances, which are that a petty act of vindictiveness by one of his aides closed down access to a portion of the busiest bridge in the world. This act, in which Christie has not been directly implicated, but which until Wednesday was not nearly so close to him, threatens to transform Christie’s blunt, hard-charging image into that of a bully. Or at the very least it raises the possibility that his administration tolerated this kind of hardball freelancing. You don’t recover from that in a single press conference, but you can start the road to repair.
Christie’s press conference matched his political personality. At times it was a virtuoso performance. In an age when presidents and other politicians only grudgingly accept responsibility, Christie appeared to embrace his duties as the chief executive not just in words but in action. At other times his emphasis on himself made it seem for stretches like he was more upset that he had been lied to by a staffer than that the staffer had snarled traffic in Fort Lee. Christie said he was simply reacting on a personal level to a breach of trust, but it highlighted a question that comes up at any such press conference: Is it a self-centered act of political preservation or a genuine moment of public outrage?
Christie had said several weeks ago that his administration was not involved in the closure. That turned out not to be true. Why should anyone believe him now? The hope with this kind of press conference is that by showing that you have nothing to hide, you rebuild credibility.
But as you let it all hang out, you also build a Jenga tower—an impressive structure that raises the stakes. Christie made a lot of promises Thursday afternoon: He didn’t know about the episode; he had been lied to; the bullying wasn’t indicative of his administration; he was simply a longtime acquaintance of David Wildstein, the Port Authority official who took part in the closure, not a childhood friend; he didn’t condone a culture of retribution; he didn’t know the exact details of the supposed traffic study that was used as cover for the lane closures. If one of those turns out not to be true, then the entire structure comes crashing down. Also implicit in the candid responses was the promise that Christie wasn’t holding anything back about any of the related issues. When you let it all hang out, you can’t survive if later it is discovered that you had more to give.
Some claims, like Christie’s that he is “nowhere near” thinking about a 2016 presidential campaign and that this episode wasn’t reflective of his way of doing business, are exaggerations that shade his effort to show candor. Christie is certainly somewhere near thinking about 2016, and his career has been defined at times by his brusque manner. There were also a few internal inconsistencies in Christie’s remarks. He promised to do an intense investigation, but he didn’t talk to Bridget Anne Kelly, the main perpetrator. (Christie said that when he learned she had lied to him, it was a sufficient firing offense and that to talk to her would have been to prejudice ongoing investigations).
If Christie’s pitch is that he’s a straight-ahead guy who doesn’t BS, that is the guy most people will see as the press conference is replayed to them in the coming days. Few will have watched the meandering two hours. People will hear about action items—apology, fire, responsibility. Those fit with the Christie image and with the kind of leadership that people expect from executives. “The test of leadership is what do you do,” said Christie, framing his actions. “That’s pretty swift action for a day’s work, and that’s exactly the way I’ll continue to conduct myself if there’s any other information surrounding this that comes up, or anything different that comes up over the course of the next four years.”
There are other tests of leadership, though, including what kind of organization you run before your people get caught. That’s where Christie still faces political exposure. By admitting that he didn’t know anything about it, the governor admits to allowing a rogue political operation to operate underneath him. Given how cavalier these aides were about this infraction and how small the political stakes, it’s hard to imagine that in bigger instances at least some other gambits weren’t tried. If you are caught firing your six-shooter willy-nilly around the house at fruit flies, there’s a pretty good chance you’re behaving recklessly because you’ve become habituated to the recklessness and it isn’t your first time. This offered another moment in which Christie’s story seemed ripe for puncturing. He seemed confused at how on earth anything like this could be possible. That would be a hard posture for any politician to maintain, especially one with Christie’s reputation for political fortitude.
As this story unfolds, we’ll see if this was an isolated incident that grew in a culture that was otherwise hostile to such low behavior or whether this was a part of a broader pattern. At the very least, this will complicate Christie’s efforts to sell himself in the future as a hands-on manager.
It will also presumably neuter him a bit. Christie will have to rein in his garden-variety toughness for fear of reanimating this story. He seemed at pains during the press conference to do nothing that would lend to the tough-guy image. He repeatedly said he was “sad” and said he might someday find himself angry but that he wasn’t experiencing that emotion now. Message: not a tripwire vindictive fellow. Now he just has to hope that the two aides he dispatched aren’t either. Or aren’t in this specific case.
There are also investigations to come. The U.S. attorney has launched one. Christie promised to cooperate. “I have nothing to hide,” he said, one of the many claims (“I am not a bully”) that will squash him if future facts come out to undermine it. If future claims don’t appear or are weak, then it’s possible that the story of crisis management that Christie kicked off with his press conference will start to overtake the story of rogue vindictiveness.