For such a smart politician, Chris Christie sure can be dumb. How stupid is it to go after an ally who could hurt you by hurting him first and where it hurts most: revisiting his awkward teenage years?
You, the governor of New Jersey, were too cool for school. Your political friend, David Wildstein, whom you appointed to a job at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, was not.
In a corollary to “it’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up,” Christie’s handling of Wildstein doesn’t tell us so much about the controversy swirling around the governor as it does about his cruel streak. He’s a bully who looks for an adversary who is bruised and punches his tender spot.
Christie hit Wildstein below the belt at a news conference Jan. 9, just after he said he learned that the closing of several lanes of the George Washington Bridge might not have been part of a traffic study but a vendetta against a mayor who remained neutral in Christie’s re-election campaign. (“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Bridget Anne Kelly, the governor’s deputy chief of staff, wrote in an e-mail to Wildstein.)
Christie was at pains to clear up any confusion about his so-called childhood friend, claiming that Wildstein was a nobody back when they attended Livingston High. “We were not even acquaintances in high school,” Christie said. “We didn’t travel in the same circles in high school. You know, I was the class president and athlete. I don’t know what David was doing during that period of time.”
Here’s where the stupid part comes in: What if Christie hadn’t gone after Wildstein in the most personal way possible right out of the gate? Until that news conference, Wildstein hadn’t done anything except lose his job and keep quiet about it. If Christie hadn’t then insulted him, he might have stayed quiet. But on Jan. 31, Wildstein charged through his lawyers that Christie knew about the bridge closing in real time -- not months later, as the governor has said -- and that his aides didn’t act alone.
And then Christie got personal, petty and stupid again. While still denying Christie knew anything about the man-made traffic jam until he read about it in the paper, the governor’s staff piled on with more details about why Wildstein was such a loser in his earlier days.
How small can Christie go? “As a 16-year-old kid, he sued over a local school board election,” the Christie camp’s memo to supporters said about Wildstein.
Only a short while ago, this might have been held as a sign of political greatness to come for a guy Christie once called “his eyes and ears” at the Port Authority.
The memo also noted that Wildstein “was publicly accused by his high school social studies teacher of deceptive behavior,” with no further specifics. No doubt, a manhunt is under way in Essex County to find that teacher. I’m waiting for info that Wildstein fudged his response to how a bill becomes a law.
Until Christie reopened adolescent wounds -- the kind that are always one slight away from being recalled vividly -- Wildstein hadn’t been a particularly sympathetic character. After the news conference put-down, my heart went out to him. Even now, if I see someone sitting alone at a restaurant, I remember the embarrassment of searching the school cafeteria for a spot to eat my steam-table hamburger when my friends had neglected to save me a place. The trick was to march straight ahead, even though I felt eyes burning a hole in my navy blue cardigan, acting like I wanted to sit with the other kids all along.
Wildstein didn’t have the option of faking it after Christie’s attack. Dredging up someone’s days as an unpopular kid is especially painful if, as a grown-up, that person has left those days behind. Whatever Christie, the big man on campus, felt toward Wildstein in the 1970s, he had elevated the unpopular kid he wouldn’t recognize in the yearbook to a plum job. Upon Wildstein’s resignation, the governor praised him as a “tireless advocate” for the state.
Christie humiliated Wildstein without waiting to see what Wildstein was going to say or do. We’ll never know if an unprovoked Wildstein would have turned on Christie. He could have followed the path taken by Kelly, who last night refused to turn over documents to investigators. She, of course, was fired but not publicly humiliated by Christie.
By the time the Christie response was out, the governor was discharging his duties as host of the Super Bowl. The opening ceremony in Times Square, which should have been a triumphant moment, will be remembered for the loud boos amid the cheers. On Sunday, Christie answered no questions as he entered his box at MetLife Stadium in the company of his family, accompanied by the mixed blessing that is former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, his designated defender.
Whatever happens next, we now know so much more about who Christie is. The e-mail from the governor’s office ended with this: “Bottom line -- David Wildstein will do and say anything to save David Wildstein.”
As we said in high school, it takes one to know one.
(Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.)
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