FROM NORTH AMERICA SYNDICATE, 300 W 57th STREET, 15th FLOOR, NEW YORK, NY 10019
CUSTOMER SERVICE: (800) 708-7311 EXT. 236
FOR RELEASE FRIDAY, JAN. 17, 2014
BY BOB FRANKEN
It’s the burning question in Washington; you hear it in the grocery store, at the dog park, throughout this town: What effect will “Bridgegate” have on New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s presidential aspirations? Setting aside the fact that such intense interest in the trivial makes D.C. a ridiculous place to live, the answer is: “Who knows?”
We don’t have a full picture of how deeply Christie was personally involved or how aware he was of the malicious mischief his top aides were perpetrating. That’s key, of course. If no one puts him closer to the heavy-handed traffic-jam revenge, chances are this will be long forgotten in the many months before he decides whether to wade into the swamp of a national campaign. We don’t usually remember what sleazy outrage occurred just a couple of days ago, much less the past year. Without some way to keep the flames of controversy burning, news turns stale in a flash.
That’s one of the basic tenets of crisis management in politics: Devise a strategy to make a story boring. It is what made Christie’s nearly two-hour news conference so slick. By the merciful end, when he had said the same thing over and over, people nationwide were getting drowsy. At the very same time that he was appearing to face the scandal head on, he was succeeding in turning yammering into yawning. From here on out, anything short of a startling new disclosure can be shrugged off by his representatives as sooooooo yesterday.
But that’s not all that’s in play here. One of the default pushback tactics is to trash the media. It’s not that Christie said a word about the news coverage, but his partisans did. Immediately we were deluged with complaints about how we never gave the same kind of attention to President Barack Obama’s scandals, like IRS or Benghazi. Never mind that we went bonkers over both -- maybe excessively, as we witnessed with the “60 Minutes” misreporting on Benghazi. Even if we hadn’t, this is a false equivalence here. There has been no evidence that President Obama was in the loop in either of those foul-ups, but it is reasonable to wonder if Gov. Christie did play a role in the apparent vendetta against an uncooperative mayor.
If anything, we in the reporting game had been guilty of Chris Christie boosterism right after the last Election Day. Almost all of us jumped on the “Christie for presidential candidate” bandwagon, in our never-ending search for a great story arc. That’s the same reason so many journalists gave Obama an easy ride as he glided to the presidency. What a great story that was. It’s refreshing to see that the relationship finally has turned prickly. That’s how it’s supposed to be. So it has been with Christie. Not only was he an anti-candidate, a media darling, but he became the symbol of a terrific story: The Republican Party dividing into conservative and ultraconservative camps. Now we’re getting a grip and covering him the way we should.
Until now, many of us overlooked or understated the indications that our flavor-of-the-month was leaving a sour taste in the mouths of those who felt he had a mean streak. We aren’t glossing that over now, to the point that he had to state explicitly, “I am not a bully.” Which brings us to another key factor in determining whether this controversy has legs: Will investigators uncover other instances of vindictiveness? Will he complete the morph from refreshing to repressive? Watch for his party opponents to offer public expressions of support while privately delighting as he squirms. Those of us in newsbiz can expect detrimental tips about him from Republicans as well as Democrats. The phone calls will open with “You didn’t hear this from me, but ...” If Chris Christie decides to embark on the road to the White House, it’s particularly treacherous for him. Media manipulation has limits. Any further harmful disclosures, and he’s toast.
© 2014 Bob Franken
Distributed by King Features Syndicate, Inc.