The Crux of Christie’s Legacy: Selective Candor

With Chris Christie’s tenure as governor about to end Tuesday at noon, it is worth remembering that a little more than four years ago, he was triumphantly reelected with more than 60 percent of the vote.

Now he’s leaving office with approval ratings in some polls of less than 20 percent.

How did that happen?

His downward spiral is similar to a baseball team with a 15-game lead at the All-Star break collapsing and missing the playoffs. As an avid sports fan, Christie would get the analogy.

In sports, there are often “turning points,” a noteworthy event that seemingly all at once stops your momentum and sends you cascading in the wrong direction.

For Christie, of course, that was the so-called Bridgegate scandal.

Still, scandals eventually die down and people move on.

But for that to happen, there needs to be some acceptance of blame, some acknowledgement that mistakes were made.

Many politicians are unable to say, “I messed up. It was my fault. I’m sorry.”

Christie is hardly the only one.

One supposes that expressing sorrow for your own actions is seen as, “weak,” and Lord knows, a politician can’t be perceived as weak.

In the real world, however, saying, “I’m sorry,” is seen as being human.

All this seemed apparent to me as I watched the governor’s interview over the weekend with NJN’s Michael Aron.

Aron raised two issues in particular that had put the governor in embarrassing positions. One was naturally Bridgegate and the other was the infamous beach photo.

This was an exit interview, so it was the time for Christie to say, “Hey, I screwed up.”

But he didn’t. He continued to say that he knew nothing at all about the George Washington Bridge lane closures until well after they happened. Christie has been consistent on that, but it contradicts courtroom testimony.

More surprising was a refusal to accept any blame for the beach photo, calling it a “Star-Ledger hit job.” Actually, it’s what newspapers are supposed to do in a free society.

The larger point is that six months after the fact, the governor was still unable to acknowledge he used poor judgment. Just why in the world would you bring family and friends to a state park that was officially closed? I am sure the governor had other options for swimming that day,

What a sign of arrogance.

It’s always amusing when politicians say, as the governor once did when this case unfolded, that they don’t care about “optics,” What a crock. So much of a politician’s public persona is built upon optics.

All politicians care about how things look. Or they should.

I covered Christie as a reporter for the Morristown Daily Record back in the stone age – that would be more than 20 years ago when he was a Morris County freeholder.

His appeal always has been brashness, candor, and yes, “telling it like it is,” to coin a phrase from the governor’s presidential campaign.

But, you see, there has to be a time when “telling it like it is,” means saying, “I messed up and I’m sorry.”

When Christie left the freeholder board at the end of 1997, he was  mocked and ridiculed – a bit unfairly – by many local Republicans.

While it may seem ludicrous to compare being freeholder with being governor, the fact remains Christie is now leaving the governor’s office the same way.

And that really is unfortunate, given the governor’s accomplishments in terms of the property tax cap, teacher tenure reform, pension reform, restructuring of higher education and Sandy recovery.

People know well what happened when Christie became a former freeholder. He got involved with the George W. Bush presidential campaign, became U.S. Attorney for New Jersey, and the rest, as they say, is history.

On Wednesday, Christie may discover what the late Brendan Byrne once said about being a former governor. And that was, “I got in the car as usual and nothing happened.”

The soon-to-be former governor still has a lot going for him, and he likely will be successful in whatever he does.

But he would do well to remember that one is not right all the time, and that it’s no crime to admit mistakes.

After all, even journalists can be wrong – sometimes.

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