In November 1973, as he was sinking deeper and deeper into the quicksand that was Watergate, President Richard M. Nixon made a memorable statement during the Associated Press Managing Editors convention in Orlando, Fla. Answering questions about the unfolding political scandal, as well as about his underpayment of income taxes, the president said, “I welcome this kind of examination because people have got to know whether or not their president is a crook. Well, I'm not a crook.”
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie had his own Richard Nixon moment on Thursday. During a two-hour long press conference in Trenton, facing questions about what he knew and when he knew it about an improbable scandal involving the George Washington Bridge and the mayor of Fort Lee, N.J., Christie declared, “I am who I am. But I am not a bully.”
It was a remarkable denial from a man who has built his political career ... by being a bully. Some might call his in-your-face style “brash” or “pugnacious.” A more accurate term would be “thug.”
This is the man who famously flies off the handle in public, delighting in berating reporters, political opponents unions, educators, and even members of the public. Who could forget his attack on a public school teacher on a Jersey Shore boardwalk, all the while waving around an ice cream cone?
This is the man who called a former Navy Seal an “idiot” at a town hall meeting. He told the media to “take the bat out” on a 76-year-old Democratic state senator. He called another Democratic legislator “a jerk” after she criticized him for taking a state police helicopter to his son's baseball game. A reporter was branded “stupid” and an “idiot” for asking a question the governor didn't like. Another Democratic lawmaker was “numb nuts” after comparing Christie to segregationist Southern governors. And he reportedly had aides post videos of some of these encounters on YouTube so everyone can see him in action.
Indeed, the scandal the governor finds himself embroiled in is so over-the-top it can't help but remind folks of the tactics of another bombastic New Jerseyite — Tony Soprano.
Some of Christie's closest aides are accused of deliberately ordering the closure of several lanes on the George Washington Bridge for several days last September, all to create a massive traffic jam in Fort Lee. This came after the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee refused to endorse Republican Christie's re-election.
After weeks of the governor deriding the story and denying it amounted to anything, damning emails surfaced showing his deputy chief of staff telling a political appointee on the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”
“Got it,” the port authority official responded. (He, by the way, took the Fifth on Thursday when asked to testify about the exchange under oath.)
The result was chaos for commuters in Fort Lee. An elderly woman died en route to the hospital in an ambulance that had been delayed in traffic. Whether her death can directly be attributed to the snarled roadways is unclear.
Now Christie has fired that deputy chief of staff — not for what she did, he said Thursday, but because she lied to him when he asked her about it. Other heads have rolled and more are likely to follow. But the governor has furiously denied any personal “knowledge or involvement” in the scandal. State and federal investigations have already been launched. If any evidence emerges that undermines Christie's claim, his political future will be dim.
It wasn't supposed to turn out like this. Overwhelmingly re-elected in a blue state last November, the governor and his supporters expected to be spending their time plotting his path to the White House in 2016. Those plans must, of necessity, be placed on hold for now.
Can they be resurrected? It's already clear that, despite his denial, Christie is a bully. But is he also a crook? We all know what happened to Nixon. Christie has to be hoping the same thing doesn't happen to him.