The media beast targets N.J. Gov. Chris Christie [Commentary]

Former Md. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich has deep empathy for N.J. Gov. Chris Christie in recent bridge scandal

January 26, 2014|Robert L. Ehrlich Jr

I know and like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the man who has accomplished so much while leading a blue leaning, labor dominated northeastern state.

And so it was with much angst that I watched the media circus (dressed up as a press conference) in the immediate aftermath of "Bridgegate" — the revenge play wherein two senior Christie staffers ordered lane closures on the congested George Washington Bridge — allegedly to punish the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, N.J., who failed to support the governor's re-election campaign.

It was all high drama — at great length. Actually, two hours worth of media interrogation and plenty of mea culpas broadcast to a curious world. In the end, it was quintessential Chris Christie, albeit with a bit more remorsefulness than usual.

My only criticism was the extended time frame; 25 minutes would have sufficed. Alas, Mr. Christie truly believed a no holds barred, answer 'til they drop performance would "feed the (media) beast" for a bit. He was wrong.

Once upon a time (during my tenure in Congress), I also believed that feeding (and defeating) the beast was possible. Fortunately for me, several early negative experiences with Annapolis beat reporters convinced me that my "easy access" Congressional modus operandi had to change. A lesson was learned: Every day brings new queries, rumors and deadlines to those who get paid to write about you on a daily basis and who buy ink by the barrel. And so began a journey to more brief encounters wherein I at least gained some control over the daily grind.

Not so much for my friend Mr. Christie in the bridge story, however. A day had not yet passed before a new series of questions and storylines emerged. And every newly unearthed fact brought the story back to the seminal question behind all modern day scandals: "What did he know, and when did he know it?"

In the short term, Mr. Christie and his staff have much daily unpleasantness to look forward to, including unrelenting partisan piling on, hostile media inquiries, grand jury subpoenas and a likely (significant) drop in poll ratings. Throw in daily media coverage of The Scandal That Could Derail A Presidential Nominee and there you have it: a pretty lousy winter for a guy grown accustomed to generally positive press over the past four years.

For my part, empathy runs deep. Recall the multi-year, seven-figure "investigation" into the hiring practices of my administration, replete with independent counsel and daily bad headlines, during a re-election campaign no less. An ultimate conclusion of no nefarious activity did little to mitigate months of negative coverage. The damage had been accomplished by the mere existence of the story, not the ultimate outcome.

Back to Mr. Christie's press event. He was humble, transparent and adamant about his innocence in the bridge shenanigans. Basically, he pulled a Gary Hart ("follow me if you want") but with one critical difference: We have every reason to believe the former U.S. Attorney known for his brutal honesty was telling the absolute truth.

All of which leads to two possible conclusions:

In the first, new evidence is uncovered that implicates Mr. Christie in the plan to exact political retribution on an entire city. Such a result would surely spell the end of Mr. Christie's presidential ambitions and guarantee four miserable years in Trenton.

Alternatively, and far more likely, months of investigation bolster Mr. Christie's original assurances about his non-involvement in the bridge debacle. Such an outcome has more than the obvious advantage, as Governor Christie can then contrast his "let it all hang out" leadership style against the imperial and never blameworthy President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (she of "What does it matter" Benghazi fame).

In scandal politics, it's always the cover-up rather than the original sin that is most damning and lasting. For context, check out Richard Millhouse Nixon, William Jefferson Clinton and Sen. John Edwards. These and other ugly cover-ups make an already cynical public justifiably suspicious of adamant denials from high profile politicians.

But maybe, just maybe, one governor's handling of a third rate dirty trick will show that "up front" and "brutally honest" can make a comeback — even provide a leg up in digging out of a mess that you did not create, but took place on your watch.

Now that would be a nice moral to an otherwise messy story.

Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s column appears Sundays. The former Maryland governor and member of Congress is a partner at the law firm King & Spalding and the author of "Turn this Car Around" and "America: Hope for Change" — books about national politics. His email is ehrlichcolumn@gmail.com.

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