Thursday, January 09, 2014

Christie's Great Performance

I missed the news yesterday so I knew nothing about the emails from Chris Christie's deputy chief of staff Bridget Kelly.  They indicate that the traffic study that jammed the nation's busiest bridge for a week and clogged the streets of Fort Lee, New Jersey was not the reason of the jam.

Instead it was done intentionally to punish the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee who did not endorse Republican Chris Christie for governor.

I didn't know any of that when I got up this morning and my mom had on Chris Christie's news conference on CNN.

I haven't watched Christie closely.  I live in Alaska.  New Jersey's far away.  But my superficial knowledge was that he was the sensible Republican among those being mentioned as potential presidential candidates.  He worked with President Obama and praised his hurricane Sandy response just before the 2012 election causing other Republicans explode.  He seems to be able to work with Democrats and won reelection as governor by a wide margin in a Democratic state.  He was, I understood, the most likely Republican to be able to defeat Hillary Clinton in 2016, but the question was whether he could survive the Republican primaries.

So that was the background I watched the news conference with.

I was impressed.  He sounded sincere.  He didn't seem to be using any notes.  He said the right things about his responsibility - he didn't know anything until yesterday, but he's the governor so he's responsible - and he'd fired the Kelly as soon as he learned about the incriminating emails.

He went on and on - almost two hours.  It was riveting television.  He was good.  He's obviously both intelligent and experienced.  In response to a question about why he didn't ask Kelly about what actually happened before firing her, he said he fired her for lying to him, not for what she did.  Since there were state and federal investigations already announced, if he questioned her it actually might be seen as inappropriate.  He mentioned his own experience as a prosecutor.

He expressed his sadness and disappointment with a close associate he trusted who lied to him.  

But we saw the Wolf of Wall Street the other night. Leonardo DiCaprio as Wall Street huckster Jordan Belfort makes me pause in my judgement.   Belfort could sell anyone anything.  There's a scene that everyone should see.  Belfort is starting his own brokerage firm and he's teaching his crew how to make cold calls to sell penny stocks - ones where the broker gets 50% commission - that are worth basically nothing.  He's got a client on the speaker phone and smoothly tells him the thickest lies about about the potential of the stock, while his body language to his employees tells the story about reeling in the fish and then screwing him.

Everyone should see this scene and have it implanted in their brain so that it rises to one's consciousness every time a car salesman, a cable tv or phone salesman or a stockbroker opens his mouth.  People should see DiCaprio thrusting his pelvis for his salesmen while he so sincerely assures the client that nothing could go wrong. 

I walked out of the three hour movie telling my wife that as skeptical as I already am, this movie makes it hard to trust any one.

And so that's what I brought to this news conference with Christie.  Christie's performance was perfect.  But I also wondered if he were thrusting his pelvis in his head.  There are so many questions.

Was Kelly the culprit or the scapegoat? 

How could he have a staff person he worked closely with for so many years who would lie to him like this?

How did he misjudge who she was so enormously?

Why would they jam up the 'busiest bridge in the world?' to punish a political opponent who, according to Christie, wasn't even on his radar?   This reeks of the kind of dirty tricks that, while both parties commit them, have become more associated with Republicans since Watergate and then the rise of Karl Rove.  

Politics attracts people who need or want power, power over others.  People who need power, I suspect, feel some inferiority, some lack, that this power will help them overcome, that will show others that they are somebody.  And such people seem particularly vulnerable to using their power inappropriately.  This was truly a petty act of retribution.  Petty only in the sense of inappropriately demonstrating one's ability to take revenge for some assumed slight.  But the impact on people was hardly petty.  I saw petty people like this with giant chips on their shoulders in 2011 when I blogged the state legislature in Juneau. 

Was this even a plot by the more conservative wing of the party to derail Christie's presidential campaign?  Or less likely, but plausible, a Clinton plot?

The biggest question outstanding seems to be whether Christie's performance today was genuine or whether he actually knew about this.  If he knew, and today's news conference was just a giant lie, I don't see how he can recover as a presidential candidate.  I don't see how he could stay in office in New Jersey for four more years.

If follow up investigations support his claims of innocence, I'd say today's performance shows him as a very competent leader.  People will still attack him for letting Kelly into his inner circle.  But lots of people have secrets that they hide from those around them and other politicians have had close aides resign because of scandals.

I would note that CNN had a feeding frenzy over this story, repeating parts of the news conference over and over again.  

[UPDATE 9pm - whatever the outcome, this political cartoon by Bill Bramhall of the NY Daily News is priceless:

click image to go to the source:  Bill Bramhall/NY Daily News


  1. Chris Hayes and Rachel Maddow have had some very interesting critical questions and informative guests on their programs yesterday and so far, today.

    1. Thanks KaJo, I did see the Maddow show from before the news conference, but I saw it after the news conference and after I wrote most of this.

  2. That's not flop sweat, the fat man's goose is cooked.

    "Charlie" in the emails is the smoking gun. Charles McKenna, former Chief Counsel to Governor Christie until late December last year. Who appears as "Charlie" in the Bridgegate emails.

    Who knew what when? Chief Counsel to the Governor involved in the coverup. Christie who was a former US Attorney hired McKenna and other former colleagues when he was elected. Including Charles McKenna.

    Chris Christie didn't know? About either the retribution or the coverup of the retribution? Or about his subordinates impeding the investigation into the coverup? Uh huh.

    There will be a lot more dirt exposed unless he Palins right away. It may be exposed even if he Palins. This is a well oiled machine and they sold access and sold knee capping for donations and favors imo.

  3. He's had some practice making speeches like this.

    Long Ago, Chris Christie Lost The Benefit of the Doubt
    By Susie Madrak June 4, 2013 There's a pattern of Chris Christie doing questionable things -- for which he then demands the benefit of the doubt.

  4. Thanks, Anons - the crooksandliars link gives a long list of questionable Christie actions. Knee caps? Well, it is New Jersey after all, I should have kept that in mind. Jamming the traffic by blocking the bridge is a form of political knee capping. But it's so juvenile and he's running for president, which also makes it stupid. But when people get away with things all their lives - as the link suggests he has - then they can come to believe they are immune.

    Thanks for offering more context.

    As I say, everyone should have that scene from The Wolf of Wall Street sitting there in their brains for situations like this to remind them that people do lie very convincingly.

    I'm waiting to see what comes next here. I want to believe that there are some decent politicians, but I if there's something linking Christie to this, I want that to come out.

    1. I've followed Christie for years. He is as venal and dirty as they come.
      He's a younger version of Roger Stone or Karl Rove or Roger Ailes.
      He has cleaned up well enough to be elected, unlike the other three.

  5. WSJ (paywall) story, but the headline and lede actually make the point if you don't have a subscription. Not sure how this report and the others below here can be reconciled. If there is nothing to this bridge fiasco, and Christie didn't know anything about it, then why would Christie contact Governor Cuomo prior to asking his employees what they knew?

    Governors Spoke Privately About Bridge Controversy
    Chris Christie Complained to Andrew Cuomo That His Appointee Was Pressing Too Hard for Answers
    By Ted Mann, Erica Orden and Heather Haddon Updated Dec. 12, 2013 9:58 p.m. ET

    New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie called New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo this week to complain about a Cuomo appointee's handling of a growing controversy over traffic pattern changes on the George Washington Bridge, a person familiar with the matter said.

    Mr. Christie, a Republican, complained in a private phone call to Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat, that Patrick Foye, the executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, was pressing too hard to get to the bottom of why the number of toll lanes onto the bridge from...

    This was in the WSJ on the 12th of December, and was one day prior to the events Christie described in the press conference Jan 9, 2014.

    The transcript has Christie referencing a one hour window for his staffers to tell the truth as follows:

    This morning I've terminated the employment of Bridget Kelly, effective immediately. I've terminated her employment because she lied to me. I brought my senior staff together I think about four weeks ago tomorrow. And I put to all of them one simple challenge: If there is any information that you know about the decision to close these lanes in Fort Lee, you have one hour to tell either my chief of staff, Kevin O'Dowd, or my chief counsel, Charlie McKenna.

    And I told them that in an hour I was going to go out in a press conference. And if no one gave me other information to the contrary that I was going to say that no one on my staff was involved in this matter.

    Over the course of the next hour, Kevin and Charlie interviewed each member of my senior staff, came back and reported to me that they all reported that there was no information other than what we already knew that had been testified to by Senator Baroni regarding this incident. I then questioned Kevin O'Dowd and Charlie McKenna directly, since they are the only two who report directly to me, and they assured me that they had no information that would change my ability to be able to say that no one, in response in Angie's (sp) question, on my staff was involved in this matter.

    That was obviously a lie. And the emails that I saw for the first time yesterday morning, when they broken in I believe the Bergen Record story, proved that that was a lie.

    I believe the press conference referenced is the one that took place December 13, 2013. As reported here for example.
    It was at this press conference that Christie announced Bill Baroni had joined David Wildstein (Wildstein announced his resignation December 6 2013) in resigning.

    Christie placed a call to Cuomo requesting, in essence a stonewall, (if the WSJ report is accurate) prior to allegedly interrogating his staff to see what if anything they had done. Another explanation is that Cuomo told Christie something which led to the described interrogations and resignation. One can imagine what an astute investigator or prosecutor might do with a fact set like this.

  6. Watergate, the past and actors conspiratorially evolving 'dirty tricks'. 'Pelvis thrusts' and smarmy speech. Ever-growing complexity in details thrown this way and that.

    And much like any armchair observer of others' intentions, we might get it right as observers -- and we might get it wrong. Heck, let's just vote on what we feel!

    I sometimes ponder why your blog gets so few comments to the questions laid for us. What do I know? To know that there are game-layers and players, to trust that power can rarely be used without some form of coersion. To step back and ask ourselves how power is appropriately used in the exercise of its objectives. This is politics, after all.

    I despair of self-interest and yet recognize it is, in the main, what keeps most of our daily lives in harmony with others. As mortal beings, we weigh our actions against assumed benefit and harm in primary benefit to self and secondary relations with others. Christie is our freshly-written morality play.

    The limits of power meet at that well-lit junction of suspicion and proof; a well-trained press and an independent judiciary its best reprove.

    Not following this story much at all, there will always be blameless-guilty Christies as we humans know we harbor that pelvis-thrust in our thoughts, sometimes, somewheres -- but when, and where?

    We are faced with power, democracy and the first stone.

  7. When large number of somebody's underlings perform blatant acts of bullying and dirty tricks, it's because the vibe has come down from the boss. Nixon feigned ignorance of Watergate for months and months until the truth finally came out -- and who among us was shocked! shocked! ?

    Christie may not have explicitly told the kids to take it out on Fort Lee, but he certainly created an atmosphere in which that was OK, something to be proud of. Deniability for the big boss is an essential part of that modus operandi, as is the self-righteous press conference in which the big boss fires the underling who had the bad luck/technique to get caught.

    "Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?" It's not exactly new.

  8. Anons, thanks for the additional info. The national press has clearly failed to look closely at Christie and let the rest of us know. Fortunately it appears he and/or his team are forcing them to do it now. What should we know about the others who are running for president?

    Jacob - I'm guessing that the questions are too open ended, that a good answer takes too much time, but I do appreciate that you take them on now and then. Or raise new ones.

    Kathy, I should have thought of deniability when I was doing the post. But how do you play that game when the boss asks you directly "if any of you know something I don't know, tell me know?" Do you cross your fingers and hold them up for all to see when you ask your team that?

    We shouldn't let the cynicism blind us to all the decent people around us.

    1. part of the game is that the boss doesn't ask that question

      another part of the game is that the underling has to accept being thrown off the sleigh if the wolves are getting too close

    2. But at the news conference Thursday he said he did. It was how he 'proved' he knew nothing.

  9. Steve. It's funny, but at moments such as this, I find it important to think large. I was preparing a post on a comparison of DeCaprio's characters in "Wolf..." and "Catch Me..." and decided against it.

    'What Do I Know?' to me, asks that I ponder cause rather than effect. As we dip into the current muck and mire of politics, we can ignite the emotions, take our stands and then fail to consider the systems behind the headlines.

    As the Christie scandal unfolds, it raises immediate and practical issues for politics and law, but more importantly -- for your founding purpose -- it yields the promise of exploring what we want of government and what we expect of governance. It also prompts us to look at oursleves.

    I was asking why more people don't weigh in ordinarily. Perhaps it's because your admission is reason rather than opinion. Too many blogs operate by orchestrating braying opinion that too often ridicules reflection, perhaps even human decency.

    I don't see that as your purpose. Christie is the tragic figure unfolding before our eyes. I know something of the flaws that trace that rise and fall as can anyone who reads great literature. It's been attributed to Abraham Lincoln, yet whoever said it, it is good to recall now: "Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power."

    This be Mr Christie.

    1. P.S. I like the new captcha coding -- I can make sense of numbers much easier. Hope it works as well for you.

    2. I do ask people to be respectful and if they label someone, I want the evidence. My purpose here isn't to judge (though I do slip over the line now and then) but to understand why. What motivates someone to act that way? Being evil or despicable isn't an explanation. At what point could the right person have sat down with Belfort and asked him the right questions to get him to change? Maybe no one could have done that. But there were points where he seemed to be asking questions, then avoided them with the drugs.
      The other issue is that he violated enough non-stock related laws - drugs, prostitution, dui - that he should have been arrested for any of them. I think of all the people that were imprisoned for having a couple of ounces of weed. Or all the cops harassing poor people on the streets and ignoring the Belforts.


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