‘Blunt and direct,’ he says; others say ‘bully’

He’s no “focus-group tested” or “blow-dried” candidate, Governor Chris Christie offered at his marathon “Bridgegate” news conference the other day. This was in the process of disputing the widely held impression of the New Jersey governor as a bully. Although he had to have known that the “bully” charge would be a sure bet in any open-ended session with the media, Christie really should have opted for something more nuanced than his “I’m not a bully” response. That was about as stupid as the caper he insists his aides, unbeknownst to him, engaged in as punishment for the Fort Lee mayor.

We don’t know whether Christie is truthful in his insistence that his first awareness of these shenanigans was when incriminating emails were exposed in the press last week. On the one hand, there’s the sense that Christie seems too clever a political operator to have signed on to a bit of malfeasance that was anything but free and clear of any trail that would lead to its perpetrators – a nefarious scheme concocted to tie up traffic on the George Washington Bridge. But then there’s also the governor’s reputation as an inveterate believer in political payback. And as the digging continues, more than one possible retribution scenario has become the object of speculation. Add to this, the high improbability of the governor, given what folks in the know say would be contrary to his style, being clueless about a wrong-headed cause célèbre in which his office was directly involved.

To many, the governor comes across as too much of a “force of nature” type for his underlings not to be channeling his m.o. in any action they embarked on, supposedly of their own volition. The operational culture established by Christie, some observers believe, would have been seen as providing tacit approval for his aides’ mischief, if indeed he wasn’t himself in the loop.

So for skeptics about Christie’s claim of innocence – and there obviously are many – he was simply putting on “a performance” in that overbearingly dragged-out mea culpa (of sorts) that the news conference was meant to be. Adhering to the script, he made sure in the early going to push all the right buttons. He was “humiliated.” He was “sad.” He was “embarrassed.” It evidently was the calculus in the governor’s camp that facing the media in an interminably long session would be good for the cause – unlimited access for the hounds to take their best shots, so to speak. Resulting in the almost two-hour epic to which we were treated. As fate would have it, going to such extremes proved, in some aspects, to be not as much of a plus as Christie expected. His rejection of the “bully” label was one instance in which some “classic Christie” couldn’t be suppressed, strongly hinting, even to the uninitiated, that the “I’m not a bully” contention was laughable.

Right there in the Q & A portion of his news conference was exhibited some of the “play by my rules or get lost” attitude that defines what Christie essentially is. It was of a piece with conduct associated with the governor throughout his first term.

From all we’ve gotten to know about this guy, there is nothing far-fetched about anyone’s proposition of Christie being typically anxious to “get back” at the mayor of Fort Lee or anyone else perceived to be ruffling his feathers. But as we noted here in an earlier examination of the governor’s documented bouts of boorish behavior, more concerning is that the mean-spiritedness is no less reserved for common or garden members of the citizenry than for political foes. Even if nothing surfaces, which links the governor to the dirty-tricks episode his minions participated in last September, there has already been enough seen of the Christie package to seriously question his fitness for the higher office for which, some have led him to believe, he is ready.

On last week’s PBS weekly news analysis by Mark Shields and David Brooks, Brooks suggested that, given Washington’s dysfunctional state, maybe the public would be fine with a bully as president. Shields’ disagreement was firm: “The public doesn’t want a bully. They want a strong leader.”

Regardless of whatever bare-knuckled tactics Christie thinks appropriate for his slugfests with other politicians, his penchant for demeaning, embarrassing, berating ordinary folk at the slightest hint of what he construes as provocation should be a deal breaker for the position he now holds, let alone the country’s highest elective office. Where does Christie get off telling that woman who asked at a town hall meeting, where his children went to school, that he doesn’t ask where her children go to school, so such information concerning his kids is “none of your business.” Where the governor’s kids were schooled was very much the woman’s business, first of all, as a resident of the state. But she was also referencing a legitimate education issue that’s an ongoing problem in New Jersey (as elsewhere), namely, a standards disparity depending on location. Blow-ups like that one, which is by no means isolated, measure Christie as petty, coarse and apparently incapable of maintaining his cool.

For some reason the governor’s cheering section either considers those qualities useful assets or maybe just ignores them, we think unwisely. Never mind G.W. Bridge, there’s a decorum bridge Christie seemingly can’t navigate that’s much more troubling.

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