January 10

Chris Christie managed crisis well – until ‘I am not a bully’

Experts say the New Jersey governor did almost everything right to control the damage from an apparent act of political revenge orchestrated by a top aide.

By Matt Townsend
Bloomberg News

NEW YORK — Chris Christie got high marks for deftly managing his George Washington Bridge crisis – until he channeled Richard Nixon.

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New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, second left, arrives at Fort Lee, N.J., City Hall on Jan. 9. Christie traveled to Fort Lee to apologize in person to Mayor Mark Sokolich.

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The New Jersey governor was apologetic and remorseful during a news conference in Trenton on Thursday after sacking the aide he said was behind a scheme to shut down access lanes and snarl traffic in a political rival’s town. Then he answered a question about whether the bridge maneuver backed up critics’ contention that he’s a bully by saying, “I am not a bully.”

With those words the Republican broke a basic tenet of damage control by echoing one of his foes’ favorite attack lines, said Davia Temin, head of the Temin & Co. crisis management firm in New York. “The No. 1 rule is don’t repeat the allegations. I am not a bully or I am not a crook – it’s the wrong thing to do.”

Christie did most everything else right, crisis managers said, taking responsibility, expressing outrage, promising soul-searching, apologizing to the rival, firing the aide and insisting he knew nothing about what, inescapably, is being called Bridgegate.

All of that reinforced his branding as a strong straight-talker who could be in the White House, said Mark Irion, president of Levick, a Washington-based strategic communications firm. He said the risk is that voters will also be reminded the 51-year-old has a reputation as a gruff guy who holds grudges.

“His real political Achilles’ heel is that he may be a small-minded political bully, and not that straightforward consensus builder that he wants to be known as nationally,” Irion said. “His ultimate weathering of this is going to be determined by his ability to give absolutely no occasion for his opponents to reinforce that negative belief about him.”

Crisis management experts praised the governor for taking pages straight from their manual once incriminating emails and texts emerged to show that aides and political associates had orchestrated the closure of the lanes for four days in September. The resulting jam paralyzed Fort Lee, a town at the end of the bridge connecting New Jersey to Manhattan and whose mayor, Mark Sokolich, refused to endorse Christie for governor in the election in November. The intention was to punish the mayor, according to the messages.

Before they were made public, Christie had laughed off the incident, which delayed commuters and crews on their way to medical emergencies. At one point he responded to questions about the gridlock by saying he’d put traffic cones down himself. He said Thursday that he would never have joked about it if he’d known what people close to him had done.

“There’s no justification for that behavior,” he said, saying he’d been “stunned,” and was “heartbroken.”

Christie made a pilgrimage to Fort Lee after the news conference, to meet with residents and deliver an apology to Sokolich. Unlike dozens of other Democrats, Sokolich didn’t back Christie against his Democratic challenger.

Even as the governor’s visit was publicized, the “bully” quote was flashing on television screens and lighting up Twitter with comparisons to other infamous one-liners. Among them: Delaware Republican Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell saying “I am not a witch” in response to chatter about a decades-old comment that she’d dabbled in witchcraft, and President Bill Clinton declaring about Monica Lewinksy, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”

What Christie said is now “a soundbite that will repeat again and again for years to come,” said Rob Baskin, a president and general manager for the public-relations firm Weber Shandwick in Atlanta, in an email.

The lasting impact of an unfortunate comment is hard to gauge. O’Donnell lost her 2010 race. While Clinton was impeached over his affair with Lewinksy, he wasn’t convicted and remained in office. Nixon uttered “I am not a crook” months before he resigned the presidency over Watergate.

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