In order for Governor Christie to salvage his position, his presidential ambitions, and the public’s confidence in his administration, he has to cross not a bridge but a narrow tightrope, this while balancing his personal aspirations in one hand and the public good in the other.
It won’t be easy, but so far he has shown that he’s been able to sustain the precarious balancing act.
In order for him to restore his credibility, he has to make clear that he’s first and foremost a government servant whose sole responsibility is to serve the public; that this scandal is not just about his survival and that of his political allies. That means he has to fire anyone implicated in the scandal, no matter how near and dear they are to him personally.
Last week, the governor did just that. Heads rolled, even those who had worked for the governor for many years and were personal friends.
That was the correct course of action. Unlike the scandal at the IRS, where conservative groups were unfairly targeted and no one was fired, and unlike the Obamacare fiasco, where no one has been held accountable and where senior officials are still drawing government paychecks, Christie decided to fire first and ask questions later. When the stench of corruption is wafting in the air, there’s no room for personal sentiment.
Firing a close aide was the course President Eisenhower took when allegations began to surface that Sherm Adams, his chief -of-staff and close friend, had taken unlawful gifts from a Boston businessman. Eisenhower didn’t wait to see if the smoke would clear; he believed that the presidency couldn’t be tainted with even a hint of corruption — and gave Adams the boot.
The governor also has to show that even if he didn’t sanction the jam scam, he also didn’t participate in any form of cover-up.
While the jury is still out on what Governor Christie knew about the George Washington Bridge scandal, so far the governor has seemed to smartly avoid the course that has torpedoed many a political career: the cover-up. Cover-ups by politicians don’t work because when they are revealed — as they almost always are — they show the public that the officials are more interested in preserving power than in upholding the welfare of the public they have sworn to serve. Circling the wagons, attempting to protect those who commit wrongdoing, only leads to more illegality.
It was President Nixon’s cover-up of the Watergate break in — “a third-rate burglary” — that ultimately led to his downfall and disgrace. Like Christie, Nixon was enormously popular, winning the 1972 presidential election in an overwhelming landslide. The Watergate break-in, an attempt by some of Nixon’s staff to bug the Democratic Party headquarters in order to eavesdrop on the opposing political party, was totally unnecessary for Nixon to achieve victory. Had Nixon immediately fired those responsible, apologized for the behavior of his subordinates and come clean with what had happened, he would have likely been remembered as a great foreign-policy president, a leader who opened China and started détente with the Soviet Union.
On Thursday, Christie portrayed a governor that was embarrassed, blindsided and contrite. For two hours, he answered a barrage of questions from the media. Perhaps he answered some of those questions too jokingly, but he was apologetic and wasn’t on the offensive.
But Christie has more to do. He has to make sure that all emails and phone records are released, that he has nothing to hide. (That was another Nixonian mistake — trying to have the White House tapes concealed from the public.) If Christie is going to be a statesman, he must use this scandal as an opportunity to clean up New Jersey, one of the most politically corrupt states in the nation. He has to eliminate the cronyism and patronage that’s so baked into the state’s politics, where it’s even possible for political operatives to cripple critical infrastructure that affected tens of thousands of people.
Christie’s thorniest problem, where his credibility is frayed, is in trying to resolve the contradiction staring at him in the mirror. He has to, on the one hand, convince his constituents that he had nothing to do with the scandal, and on the other that’s he’s an executive in control. But that’s something of a paradox. If he’s a governor in control, how could he have hired a staff that would concoct such a harebrained and baleful scheme and have the ability to pull the wool over his eyes? That’s a credibility gap that may prove difficult to bridge.