Thursday, January 09, 2014

Christie’s Nixonian Moment

Was diverted a short while today by that press conference in which Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey who was re-elected back in November by a wide margin, addressed the ongoing controversy surrounding the Fort Lee lane closure back in early September.

The affair is being packaged by some under the catch-all heading of “Bridgegate,” alluding, of course, to the first “gate” -- Watergate. And indeed Christie’s statements today about staff members acting on his behalf yet without his authority -- or knowledge, as he repeated many times -- certainly echoed some of Richard Nixon’s memorable statements regarding others’ actions and his own culpability from about four decades ago.

I was most reminded of Nixon’s still-amazing-to-watch November 17, 1973 presser -- well after many of the firings that preceded Nixon’s own resignation -- in which he met with the nation’s newspaper editors (and not the White House corps) and with almost manic energy responded to questions about the scandal. That was the one in which Nixon infamously circled around to the “I’m not a crook” line, actually delivered with reference to questions surrounding his tax returns, not Watergate.

Without delving too deeply into the specifics of either Watergate or the Fort Lee story, both appear to demonstrate in different ways political leaders failing to control those whom they appoint to work for them. Watergate, of course, developed into a complex cover-up that ultimately unearthed much, much more regarding Nixon’s leadership methods. Meanwhile it appears more is to come regarding the extent of the malfeasance perpetrated by Christie’s senior staff, and perhaps even about the governor himself as far as this particular story is concerned.

As I’ve mentioned here before, I have been reading and thinking about Nixon quite a bit, studying his entire life and political career and not just Watergate. Looking at his life through the lens of his poker playing, I’ve begun to develop an idea of the man as one who was intensely competitive and who unfailingly believed in the value of hard work and individual effort as a means to accomplish anything, including political goals.

I’ve also come to recognize him as someone driven to control as much as he possibly could no matter what the endeavor. Thus in his early campaigns -- indeed, in every one of them until the last one in 1972 -- he was involved in seemingly every detail when it came to planning and executing those plans on the campaign trail.

So, too, did Nixon study poker with a similar intensity when first becoming serious about the game as a Naval officer. (I’ve found that Nixon was introduced to poker well before his days in the Navy, although I don’t think he took the game seriously until he found himself playing for significant money with fellow officers in the Pacific.)

Something changed for Nixon prior to the 1972 campaign, however, or at least his preoccupations with the responsibilities of his office made it impossible for him to exert the same degree of control over his final campaign that he demonstrated with each of those that had come before. This lack of focus (to carry forward the poker analogy) led to some reckless play, then by the time Nixon finally retook his seat and began playing his chips for himself he was already too far behind to mount any comeback.

Like Nixon, Christie apparently harbors hopes for a run at the country’s highest office. Losing the “Bridgegate” hand definitely reduced the New Jersey governor’s stack going forward, but it seems he’ll be remaining in the game, perhaps even to recover today’s losses.

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