Late last night, I thought New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s expected candidacy for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination was cooked.
And yet today, after watching him brilliantly, humbly and authoritatively react to a scandal that threatened to do him in, I think he will not only push through it but also probably use the setback to make himself a smarter and stronger candidate.
Here’s the backdrop:
A story broke yesterday that a few Christie allies, including his deputy chief of staff, had conspired to create huge traffic jams on the George Washington Bridge (between New Jersey and New York) last September for a truly jaw-dropping and diabolical purpose:
To exact vengeance on the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, NJ, for refusing to support Christie’s re-election last year.
In an almost-imagination-defying political concoction, two Christie allies on the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which controls the bridge, arranged with Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie’s deputy chief of staff, to deliberately inconvenience hundreds of thousands of commuters over a period of four days.
Playing “God of the Bridge,” Kelly set the stage for the mayhem with an eight-word email to a friend of the governor who worked at the authority. The email is destined to become the stuff of legend:
“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”
It turns out, very probably, that Christie had absolutely nothing to do with the scheme, although many people would argue that his reputation for dishing out retribution to people who cross him had created a get-even culture in his office.
Christie didn’t say much all day yesterday, except to deny previous knowledge of a trail of telling emails and to say he was “misled by a member of my staff.”
Today, though, he took the podium at a morning news conference and delivered what I consider a bravura performance.
“I am embarrassed and humiliated,” he told a roomful of reporters. He said he was “heartbroken” that the key players — friends and a key employee — had “betrayed my trust.”
He said he had fired Kelly and had cut loose his campaign manager, Bill Stepian, who knew about the scheme and had called Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich “an idiot.”
He said he planned to go to Fort Lee later today and personally apologize to Sokolich.
If Christie is to be believed on this — and just because of the direct, firm way he said it, I do — he said he had no reason to try to take vengeance on Sokolich, whom he said he wouldn’t have recognized before seeing on TV last night.
“I never even knew we were pursuing his endorsement,” Christie said. “…Mayor Sokolich was never on my radar screen.”
One of the things that impressed me about Christie and his performance was that he came off as relaxed, at least as relaxed as a person could be under such circumstances. He also appeared humbled and genuine. For example, he said at one point: “I don’t think I’ve gotten to the angry stage yet. But I’m sure I’ll get there.”
After opening remarks of about 15 minutes, he took one question after another — dozens — never rushing his answers and allowing follow-ups. Despite the tension and political stakes, he conducted the news conference as assuredly as if he were conducting a regular staff meeting. Almost invariably, he called on reporters by their first names. At one point, when several reporters began speaking at once, he raised a finger and said something like, “That’s not how we do things.”
A few minutes later, when a reporter began voicing a question while Christie was still answering another one, he said, “Not finished yet, guys.”
But more than tone and manner, Christie earned my respect mainly because he conceded that it was high time for him to take a long, close look at himself and how he does business. His apology, he said, covered not only the inconvenience that commuters had to bear but also “my failure as governor to understand the true nature of this problem sooner than I did.”
If he fixes that problem, then surely he will use this setback to become a smarter politician.
In the same reflective vein, he said he was asking himself “what did I do wrong to have these folks (the people he trusted) think it’s OK to lie to me.”
If he fixes that problem, he will emerge a stronger leader and candidate.
Whatever you think of his politics, Christie is a person who many people are drawn to because he is plain spoken, unchoreographed, and, as he said today, the exact opposite of a “focus-group-tested, blow-dried candidate.”
In the wake of John McCain’s trap-door act in 2008 and Mitt Romney’s equivocation in 2012 — and with dull and dangerous contenders like Rand Paul and Ted Cruz looming on the horizon — I’ll take Chris Christie any day for the Republican nomination. I would even be open to voting for him for president…He’ a guy I’d like to take to Oklahoma Joe’s and have a beef brisket sandwich with.