The Right Opinion

How Christie Ended Up in This Jam

Political operatives, intoxicated with victory, think they can get away with anything.

By Peggy Noonan · Jan. 11, 2014

Gov. Chris Christie acquitted himself well in his “Bridgegate” news conference, and emerged undead. He said he had “no knowledge or involvement” in the apparent scheme by his political operatives to take revenge on a New Jersey mayor who refused to back him in the 2013 election. He had “no involvement,” in the four-day-long traffic jams they arranged on the George Washington Bridge. Learning of it left him feeling “blindsided,” “embarrassed,” “humiliated” and “stunned by the abject stupidity that was shown here.” He claimed personal responsibility, announced the firing of a top staffer, apologized to the state, and said he’d go to Fort Lee to apologize to the town and its mayor. Instead of leaving the podium at the end of his statement he stayed for a barrage of questions. The appearance went almost two hours. You can make mistakes, lose your focus and poise, when you let the press exhaust itself asking questions of you; it took guts and brains to pull it off.

He made some mistakes. There was a lot of “I” and “me” even for a modern politician. He tends toward solipsism and is too interested in his feelings. At times he seemed to see himself as the victim, when the victims of course were the state’s commuters, including children on school buses.

It was reminiscent of President Obama’s sighing, a few months ago, that he’d been “burned” by the rollout of ObamaCare. Actually America got burned. If only he, so much more powerful and consequential than a New Jersey governor, ever faced a barrage of questions.

* * *

The news conference saved the day but didn’t solve the problem. This is a rolling story and phase two is coming. We may soon see the March of the Redacted – steady revelations and rumors as to who else was texting, emailing about, aware of, or in on the scheme. A lot of reporting will be done, and Democrats will have a field day after four years of not being able to lay a hand on him. Mr. Christie will experience in the concrete a political rule he knows in the abstract: “Friends come and go, but enemies accumulate.” The fired deputy chief of staff, Bridget Kelly, and others who have stepped down or aside in the scandal, may or may not talk, and may or may not back up the governor. Did staffers and appointees think they were carrying out the boss’s wishes or did they just go rogue? Why did Ms. Kelly set the lane closure scheme into motion at 7:34 a.m. on an August morning, and why did a Port Authority official who was a Christie appointee agree to the plan, with no questions or requests for clarification, one minute later?

The Washington Examiner’s Byron York, during the news conference, tweeted his cool-eyed read. There are only two possibilities – “he’s innocent or he’s a Clinton-level liar.”

If everything the governor said stacks up, he’ll wind up diminished but the story will fade. If it doesn’t – if there are new revelations or questions that cast him in a dark light – he’ll be finished as a national figure.

His uphill fight for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016 just got uphiller. Those Republicans who didn’t quite like him for other reasons have something new to hang their antipathy on.

How lucky is Hillary Clinton? Mr. Christie was leading her in the polls. If he got through the nomination he’d be a real threat.

* * *

I end with a thought about staffers and operatives in politics. They’re increasingly important. More and more these political players are weighing in on serious policy questions that affect how America is run. As Bob Gates makes clear in his memoir, political players in the Obama White House were to an unprecedented degree involved in foreign policy. That will be even more true in the future, whoever runs it.

Here’s a problem. Policy people are policy people – sometimes creative, almost always sober, grounded, mature. But political operatives get high on winning. They start to think nothing can touch them when they’re with a winner. They get full of themselves. And they think only winning counts, because winning is their job.

The ones who are young lack judgment, but they don’t know they lack judgment because they’re not wise enough. So they don’t check themselves.

They vie with each other for Most Loyal. They want to be admired by the boss. They want to be his confidantes. They want to be the one he trusts to get the job done. You can get in a lot of trouble when you’re like that.

There’s an ethos of wise-guy toughness among these staffers and consultants, and they often try to out-tough each other. That’s how dirty tricks happen.

It’s also how policy is hollowed out, by too many people thinking only of immediate political gain and not something bigger.

A bit of this ethos is traceable to the late GOP operative Lee Atwater, who worked in the Reagan and first Bush campaigns. Lee was a political guy who wanted to be appreciated as a significant player, so he bragged to the press about the wicked things he’d done. That allowed Democrats and journalists to tag him and say the GOP doesn’t win on the issues, it wins because it’s brute and ugly and tricks everybody. Lee didn’t mean for that to be their line! He just wanted respect, wanted people to understand political professionals are important.

The documentary “The War Room,” about the 1992 Clinton campaign, also made a contribution. It celebrated the toughness of operatives who yell on phones and warn people they’ll pay a price for coming out against the boss.

That was a generation ago. Young operatives are still re-enacting what they saw, and acting out what they see in a million other movies and shows – “Scandal,” “The Good Wife.”

There’s a twist on this you can see in the Christie story. You read the emails and texts his operatives were sending, and you realize: This is TV dialogue. It’s movie dialogue. They get everything off the screen, not real life, and they’re imitating the sound of tough guys.

Those emails and texts, they were “Sopranos” dialogue. “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” is pure Tony. “Got it” is pure Silvio. “I feel bad about the kids,” is druggy Christopher, or maybe Adriana. “They’re the children of Buono voters” is Paulie Walnuts, in all his aggression and stupidity.

Christie operatives are not the only ones in politics who talk this way. And they all do it not because they’re really tough but because they think that’s how people like them – rock-‘em sock-'em operatives – would talk. They don’t have the brains, heart or judgment of people who’ve lived a life because they haven’t all lived a life. They’re 30 or 40 and came of age in a media-saturated country. They saw it all on TV. They saw it on a screen.

They sometimes forget they’re not in a TV show about callous operatives who never get caught. They’re in life, where actually you can get caught.

Advice for politicians: Know who they are, and help them mature. If you don’t, they’ll do goofy things, bad things, and they’ll not only hurt us. They’ll hurt you.