And the Oscar for best performance by a governor in a leading role goes to….
Or is that “supporting role”?
I must say, I did not intend to view all 108 minutes of Chris Christie’s press conference Thursday, at which the New Jersey governor denied any involvement in the plot to gridlock traffic on the George Washington Bridge for four days in September as a form of petty political payback.
But there is just something about the Garden State’s chief executive that commands one’s attention in a way that few other public officials do. In this case, it was the sort of attention one might otherwise reserve for a high-speed car chase or a film by Paul Thomas Anderson—the fascination that comes from a pure, audacious, jaw-dropping spectacle.
The kerfuffle in question entails the revelation that a top Christie aide conspired with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to close precious access lanes to the George Washington Bridge—the most-traveled span in the world—for no reason except to punish the mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey—the city on the bridge’s western end—for the crime of not endorsing Christie’s bid for re-election last year.
Facing the obvious questions—What did the governor know and when did he know it?—Christie’s court proved to be one giant mea non culpa: An exhaustive insistence that Christie himself had nothing to do with this dastardly scheme, complete with a passionate and thorough accounting of how and why this was the case. (For one thing, Christie repeatedly claimed, he never sought the mayor’s endorsement in the first place.)
As supposedly “out of character” as the governor was, substituting his usual bluster with contrition and introspection, what was most remarkable about the whole episode recalls the signature of the Christie we know and (sometimes) love: His knack for saying exactly what he thinks and leaving no doubt whatever as to precisely what he means.
Yes, by flatly denying involvement in a flagrant act of government mischief, Christie traced over the footsteps of every public official who has ever been so accused. With no smoking gun to prove his culpability, what other choice did he have?
The difference, then, is one of degree.
In point of fact, Christie did not mimic the usual routine of vagaries and lawyerly evasions that might get him off the hook in some future legal showdown. There was no “I do not recall” or “It depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.”
On the disputes that matter most—Did he know the true motive behind the lane closings? Was he aware that some of his top deputies are callous, vengeful pukes? Was the whole thing his idea?—he offered his side of the story in the most certain possible terms. He has established a narrative of innocence and he’s sticking with it to the bitter end.
What this means—as we will learn soon enough—is that either he is telling the truth, or he is lying in the most spectacular and self-destructive possible way.
By denying allegations of corruption in such an absolute, “read my lips” manner, Christie has left himself no feasible trap door through which to drop, should his pleas of non-involvement be proved false. Were evidence of his own handiwork on the bridge caper to come to light—as he must assume it would, if such evidence existed—his status as a serious statewide (and potentially national) leader would vaporize on contact.
Accordingly, if Christie harbors even half the ambition for higher office that everyone assumes, and if he possesses any semblance of political self-preservation, his performance at Thursday’s press conference suggests he is either not guilty of all charges, irretrievably deluded, or simply the dumbest man on planet Earth.
In any case, “performance” is the correct term for the ridiculousness to which curious onlookers were treated last week, for better or for worse. By proclaiming a lack of culpability for a bizarre bridge debacle until his voice grew hoarse and reporters’ quills ran dry, Chris Christie reaffirmed his status as America’s most singularly watchable chief executive, assuredly leading many to question whether it will become that much more tempting to ultimately look away.