New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has nurtured a reputation for belligerence, but he’ll probably be looking to make friends with his State of the State speech today -- a little infrastructure project here, a few million in state funding there. What’s to get upset about?
Yet at Christie’s Jan. 9 news conference he seemed to be more carefully selecting his enemies. Why would Christie be making enemies at his hour of maximum peril? His performance gave us little sense of what actually transpired in the bizarre tale of traffic cones and comeuppance. But his two-hour rolling thunder revue in Trenton seemed to target two potential sources of counter-narratives.
In discussing Bridget Kelly, the former deputy chief of staff whom Christie fired last week, the governor cited no redeeming qualities. His former aide was simply a “liar.” I counted 13 separate instances of Christie using “liar” or “lie” in reference to Kelly. Half a dozen might have sufficed. Though she worked for Christie for five years, and is characterized by friends as a Christie loyalist, it seems that you can’t believe a thing the woman says. That’s surely what Christie will say should Kelly begin making unflattering statements about him to investigators.
The other obvious Christie outcast was David Wildstein. Christie appointed Wildstein to a $150,000-a-year patronage job at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, from which Wildstein resigned in December, soon after the scandal began taking form. At his news conference, the governor made it blazingly clear that Wildstein was not the sort of guy he would choose to have around. Christie devoted 500 words -- almost as long as this post -- to distancing himself from Wildstein, and insulting Wildstein in the most deliberate and gratuitous manner. To the suggestion that Christie and Wildstein were old high school pals, Christie responded: “We didn't travel in the same circles in high school. You know, I was the class president and athlete.”
How did this hapless high school loser end up with a plum job from the administration of Mr. Cool? Christie blamed it on another of his Port Authority hires, former deputy executive director Bill Baroni, who also made a timely exit from his job last month. “I know David and, you know, I knew that Bill Baroni wanted to hire David to come to the Port Authority, and I gave my permission for him to do it, but that was Bill's hire. He asked for permission, I gave my permission for him to hire David.”
Why so begrudging? So denigrating? One possibility, of course, is that Christie, the “class president and athlete,” is such an incorrigible bully that he can’t resist stuffing a dweeb in his locker even when he’s ostensibly apologizing for malfeasance. But that seems highly unlikely for a politician who desperately needs friends. Instead, Christie may believe Wildstein, like Kelly, is prone to talk, and that his talk may be especially harmful. Better to cast him as a loser -- the sort who might well resent Christie’s success -- and lay the groundwork for a more savage thrashing of Wildstein’s credibility down the road.
Of course, this is all speculation -- rank if not entirely unfounded. Yet the most ruthless forms of political damage control share a similar choreography. (Monica Lewinsky might have some thoughts on that.) In his news conference last week, Christie appeared to be taking familiar first steps. Whether Kelly and Wildstein are crushed underfoot, or trip up a governor dancing for his political life, remains to be seen.
(Francis Wilkinson is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)