Column: With Christie, the 'I's' have it
By Dana Milbank
WASHINGTON — Here are some things we learned about Chris Christie during his 108-minute apologia:
“I am not a focus-group-tested, blow-dried candidate.”
“I’ve worked for the last 12 years in public life developing a reputation for honesty.”
“I’ve engendered the sense and feeling among the people closest to me that we’re a family.”
“I’m a person who cares deeply about doing my job well.”
“I’m incredibly loyal to my people.”
“I was the class president and athlete.”
And this was all in the process of saying what he had done wrong in the George Washington Bridge fiasco that threatens to upend his presidential hopes. Christie apologized profusely — but not for anything he did. “I’m telling you, I had nothing to do with this,” he pleaded. Instead, he blamed bad people who lied to him, taking advantage of his trusting and honorable nature.
Even in disgrace, the New Jersey governor — and the nominal front-runner for the 2016 GOP nomination — managed to turn his nationally televised news conference into a forum on the virtues of his favorite subject: himself.
Use of the word “I”: 692 times.
When Christie delivered the keynote address at the 2012 nomination, the criticism was that he spoke more of himself than of Mitt Romney, the nominee. Now we see that, in adversity as well, Christie regards himself as the hero.
This tendency is what is likeliest to doom Christie’s presidential hopes — more than the details of “Bridgegate” or the question of whether he is a bully. Christie’s greatest obstacle is his own self-regard, and his blindness to the possibility that he might have erred.
Narcissism is the dominant theme in American politics today, and the man Christie would succeed in the Oval Office appears to suffer from an acute sense of his own righteousness. But Christie takes worship of self to a whole new level.
The governor said he fired Bridget Kelly, the aide at the center of the scandal, “because she lied to me” — not because she ordered up a traffic jam that ensnarled thousands, to exact retribution on a political foe.
Christie spoke of the scandal in terms of what it meant — to him: “I am a very sad person ... I probably will get angry at some point, but I got to tell you the truth. I’m sad. I’m a sad guy standing here today.”
Christie accepted responsibility, but only in the technical sense: “I have 65,000 people working for me every day. And I cannot know what each one of them is doing at every minute, but that doesn’t matter. I’m ultimately responsible for what they do.”
Christie invoked the Nixonian “mistakes were made” formulation, but they were not made by him. “There’s no way that anybody would think I know about everything that’s going on, not only in every agency of government at all times, but also every independent authority,” he reasoned.
The excuses flowed as if in their own HOV lane. “I was blindsided yesterday morning. ... That was the first time I knew about this ... I had no knowledge or involvement in this issue, in its planning, or its execution. ... I was told this was a traffic study. ... Why would I believe that anybody would not be telling the truth? ... I delegate enormous authority to my staff. ... Mayor Sokolich was never on my radar screen. ... I wouldn’t have been able to pick him out of a lineup. ... Sometimes, despite the best background checks beside, you know, despite the best interviews, despite your best instincts, sometimes people are a mistake hire. ... I probably wouldn’t know a traffic study if I tripped over it.”
The closest Christie came to self-awareness was when he told CNN’s John King that he asked himself “what did I do wrong to have these folks think it was OK to lie to me?”
The answer: not much, if anything.
“I think the history of this administration shows that we have hired outstanding people with great ethical standards who have done their jobs extraordinarily well,” Christie said, and, “I claimed to have the best government I could possibly make,” and, “I’m just trying to be a safe and careful steward of the public trust.”
This certainty of his own infallibility will be more of an impediment to Christie than any lane closures in Fort Lee.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.