When it first emerged that Barack Obama lied about policy cancellations under Obamacare last year, Governor Chris Christie had some advice for the president: “Don’t be so cute,” he told Jake Tapper, “and when you make a mistake, admit it.”
Today, Christie had to practice what he preached. After initially denying that his administration had any knowledge of a suspiciously timed lane closure in Fort Lee, N.J., emails surfaced showing that his deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, encouraged a member of the Port Authority to cause “traffic problems.” The closures, allegedly for a traffic study, resulted in massive gridlock on the already torpid George Washington Bridge.
Christie announced at a press conference this morning that he had fired Kelly, and then let forth a volley of apologies: “I apologize to the people of Fort Lee,” “I apologize to the members of the state legislature,” “the people who were affected by this conduct deserve this apology,” “I also need to apologize to them for my failure as the governor,” “Later today I’m going to Fort Lee to apologize to the mayor personally,” “I thank them for the willingness to consider this apology,” “I apologized for that this morning, David.”
It was all a bit jarring, coming from a man who had upbraided so many teachers and political opponents. But it was also refreshing in a way that only Christie can be. When the nation’s top lawmaker is willing to shove underling after underling into the buzz saw to avoid culpability in the IRS and Benghazi scandals, listening to a politician respond with forceful contrition seems almost a novel experience. Conservatives take note: This brand of undiluted candor is what attracts so many political independents and even Democrats to Christie.
They, and the rest of New Jersey, will almost certainly forgive him. The lane closures are garden variety in the Garden State; real Jersey corruption entails, say, a ring of city mayors and rabbis laundering money and smuggling organs through Israel and Switzerland. Causing a traffic jam is barely a blip on the radar. Still, the copious mea culpas were necessary. Christie got his start fighting corruption as a U.S. attorney and won his reelection pledging to clean up Trenton. For him, even the slightest whiff of corruption is pungent with hypocrisy.
Despite the apologies, Christie also walked a careful balance during the press conference: regretful but still himself, never abandoning his pugnacity. “I’ve been doing a lot of soul-searching. I’m sick over this,” he said. But regarding other conflicts he’d had: “Politics ain’t beanbag, and everyone who engages in politics knows that.” He still shut down reporters who interrupted or asked stupid questions. At times, he sounded like UCONN basketball coach Jim Calhoun when he apologized for letting star forward Ryan Gomes go to Providence: “You want me to say I f—ked up? For the fifth time, I f—ked up. So print it five times.”
Unequivocal admission of said f—k-up means one of two things for Christie: Either he’s sorry and truly had no knowledge of Kelly’s actions, or he’s densely stupid and did know. If it’s ever proven that the corruption rose to the top—that Christie had any role in the politicization of the lane closures—today’s presser will toast his political career. Christie, of course, isn’t a stupid man and I’m inclined to believe him, not only because of his statements, but also the nonsensical nature of the accusations. The mayor of Fort Lee, Mark Sokolich, is a Democrat. There are over 550 mayors in New Jersey, many of whom are Democrats, and most of those Democrats didn’t endorse Christie. Why pick on Sokolich, and do so in such an arbitrary and blatant way? It seems preposterous.
Nevertheless, many Democrats are reacting with glee, hoping they can use the suggestion of scandal to damage Christie if he runs for president in 2016. To them, or those who are chortling at Rand Paul’s plagiarism problems, or sneering at nebulous allegations of wrongdoing by Scott Walker, I say: Good luck with that. Hillary “What difference at this point does it make?!” Clinton is a lot of things, but squeaky clean isn’t one of them.