Only in New York. Yes, only in the New York media market would a barely-sworn-into-office mayor get in hot water so fast over so trivial an issue. But there was Mayor Bill de Blasio last week, forced to apologize for eating pizza with a fork and knife, like they do in Italy, instead of shoveling it in with both hands, like they do in New York City.
Of course, de Blasio wasn't fazed by the media buzz saw. He knew that New York media sharks are experts in a reporter's favorite indoor sport: building up a politician, only to delight in tearing him down. It's a lesson New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie just learned the hard way.
If this were any other bridge, or any other governor, anywhere else in the country, we'd never have heard about it. Do you really think anybody cares about the I-64 bridge between Indiana and Kentucky? But this was the world's busiest bridge, funneling thousands of New Jersey commuters into New York every morning. So when rumors began that the George Washington Bridge might have been partially shut down by Gov. Christie's office to get even with a perceived political enemy, members of New York's Fourth Estate, who had helped make Christie a national political star, saw an excellent opportunity to take him down a notch or two – and did so.
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They could not have succeeded in puncturing Christie's political balloon, however, without a lot of help from Christie himself. For four months, he'd made fun of the whole bridge shutdown. In typical bully fashion, he lambasted reporters for "sensationalizing" the story. By his own admission, he never even asked his senior aides about it until January. Then, overnight, he was forced to acknowledge it was a major problem, with serious consequences, which his close aides had instigated as a childish act of political payback.
Suddenly, in last week's news conference, we saw a Chris Christie we'd never seen before. He was embarrassed. He was contrite. He was even, almost, humble. He flat-out apologized for the closure of two out of three lanes of traffic leading into New York for four days in a row last September, and accepted full responsibility for it. He fired his deputy chief of staff, who had first suggested the closure in an email to a Port Authority official – "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee" – as a way of punishing Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich for not endorsing Christie for re-election. Christie severed his ties with political consultant Bill Stepien for expressing too much glee over the closures. Yet, throughout, he still insisted he knew nothing about the bridge closure or his office's involvement in it until incriminating emails were released Jan. 8.
It was an Academy Award-winning performance by Christie. There are only two problems with it. First, nobody believes him. Not even my Republican friends believe him. Nothing to do with his politics. It's just hard to believe that a man who brags about being such a hands-on governor – and proved it, after Hurricane Sandy – could hear about massive congestion on the GWB for even one hour, let alone four days, and not raise holy h--l about it and demand a top-to-bottom review.
Second problem: What the New York media gleefully calls "Bridgegate" is far from over. Christie may be asked to testify in two ongoing investigations, by the State Legislature and the Port Authority of New Jersey and New York, which could drag on for weeks. Federal officials are probing Christie's possible misuse of Hurricane Sandy relief funds to produce TV spots featuring his family. And the U.S. attorney for New Jersey is weighing a possible criminal investigation because shutting down a public roadway for political games is, in fact, a crime. Meanwhile, much depends on what his former deputy, Bridget Anne Kelly, says when she finally emerges. Will she fall on her sword for Christie? Or stab him in the chest with it?
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As they say in New Jersey, "It ain't over till the fat lady sings." The question of Christie's political future is still very much up in the air. If he was lying, he's toast. But even with no evidence of direct involvement in the shutdown, he's already been weakened by the certainty that he created a work environment where political vendettas were not only tolerated, but encouraged. When you have to insist "I'm not a bully," you probably are one.