Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, is going to speak to the news media today about the revelations that his top aides seem to have ordered a traffic snarl in Fort Lee in order to punish a mayor who endorsed Christie’s opponent in last year's gubernatorial race. A patient whose EMS response was delayed by the jam later died, though it’s not yet clear that she could have been saved had the response been faster.
I’m frankly amazed that this is a scandal. By which I do not mean that I am amazed people find it scandalous; it’s utterly outrageous. I’m just amazed it could have happened. Leave aside the cretinous, bullying, petty nature of the offense, the willingness to hurt thousands of New Jersey residents to take out your childish pique against minor local politicians. Why retaliate against a mayor for an endorsement in a race in which the outcome was never in doubt? And why retaliate so ineptly? As a former lobbyist of my acquaintance pointed out, they could have accomplished exactly the same thing just by commissioning an actual traffic study. The combination of moral turpitude and incompetence is what you expect to find among petty felons, not the governor’s office.
Perhaps there’s an innocent explanation -- even very damning quotes, taken out of context, sometimes turn out to be basically innocent. But let’s just say, I am avid to hear what that explanation could be.
Now, to survive this, Christie needs to make it clear that this is as disgraceful and amazing to him as it looks to the rest of us. When he talks to the media at 11 a.m., he needs to go nuclear on his aides, and demonstrate that this is not how he does politics. If he indicates in any way that this is business as usual, he will find it hard to recover.
Sounds obvious, right? It does -- until you write a book about how people can recover from failure. Over and over again you see people who are clearly in crisis, but act as if nothing much is wrong. I started to think of it as watching a train wreck: You can see people heading for the cliff, but the engineer is smiling and they’re still serving cocktails in the cafe car.
Here’s the most amazing fact I learned: A surprising number of people survive plane crashes only to get hurt or die when they are on the ground. After a plane crash, it’s imperative to get off the plane as quickly as possible, because aviation fuel is highly flammable. But a lot of people just ... sit there. If you’ve ever watched a disaster movie, you’d assume that the biggest threat to a crash or a fire is people freaking out. But, in fact, often what you really need to worry about is not getting the hell out of Dodge fast enough.
It’s a phenomenon psychologists call “normalcy bias”: the tendency to act as if things are normal even when they are clearly not. This may well have some positive effects, like keeping us from completely going to pieces when things go wrong. But when things do go wrong, it means that we need to fight the temptation to act as if things are still all right.
How do you do that? The first thing to do is to make a plan. Don’t put on your headphones during the safety demo. Listen to the flight attendants explaining how the stuff works, and identify your exit. Then visualize yourself doing these things: Getting your life preserver, leaving your bags, and getting to the exit as quickly as possible. Or grabbing the oxygen mask and breathing normally. Yes, I know it sounds dorky. But I’ve got some descriptions of plane crashes I can send you that I guarantee will make you an avid creative visualizer.
That’s not going to do Chris Christie much good at this point, however. So how can he help himself?
Two ways: Listen to what outsiders are saying. And constantly remind himself that however much he wants to think it is, this is not normal. He needs to get out there and show the world that he understands that.