Turning Damage Control into Fame

Fourteen years ago, late on a cold December night in Paris, it was watching the Simpsons on the small television set in the small hotel room – dubbed in German of all things. That was fine. It was perfectly understandable, and for years the show was carried in Paris dubbed in French too. That family is universal, or perhaps what everyone in Europe imagines Americans to be. There must have been some smug sneering involved, although Homer Simpson is a bit of an everyman, basically a good guy not quite getting what life is about and boldly faking it, but not very well. Outside the window, to the left and across the street, they were shutting down the two famous cafés for the night – Les Deux Magots and the Flore – where Sartre and Camus used to hang out, endlessly discussing the absurd. Ah, that was it. The Simpsons traveled so well because it expresses the unavoidable existential absurdity of life, even if it’s just a cartoon show. Any thinking man, who’s honest, knows that life is tragically absurd. There’s no preexisting universal truth – we just make stuff up, and that’s tragic. But it’s also comic – a joke the universe plays on us. Sartre and Camus just chose the wrong medium. They could have coproduced a weekly cartoon show. The closest any of that crew came to doing that was that Irishman in exile in Paris at the time, Samuel Beckett, giving us Waiting for Godot, a play with two Homer Simpsons pretending it all makes sense. The comedy there was too bitter for primetime television, but the general idea was the same. There’s something awkward and painful, and also somewhat comic, about the absurdity of our lives.

That’s why the Simpsons upset those who like to pretend that life can’t possibly be absurd. You know the type. In the October 1, 1990, edition of People magazine, Barbara Bush called the Simpsons “the dumbest thing she had ever seen” – but she soon got an outraged letter from “Marge Simpson.” The producers of the show were having a bit of fun. Barbara Bush apologized, even if it was an appropriately tongue-in-cheek apology, but on January 27, 1992, the first President Bush, the one no one remembers, in a campaign speech about his big thing, family values, a speech at the National Religious Broadcasters’ convention in Washington, offered this – “We are going to keep on trying to strengthen the American family, to make American families a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like the Simpsons.”

That was a bad move. The very next broadcast of the Simpsons was a rerun, but with a new opening. It’s the Simpsons’ living room, with Homer, Patty and Selma on the couch and Bart and Lisa at their feet. They all stare at the television and watch the clip of Bush’s actual speech, and Bart is offended – “Hey, we’re just like the Waltons. We’re praying for an end to the Depression too!”

Ouch. Bush then lost the election – he didn’t get a second term. Perhaps all that back-and-forth made no difference at the polls – but maybe it did. The lesson was clear. Don’t mess with the absurd. People know better – they understand the Simpsons’ existential predicament, so to speak – nothing is ever what it “should” be. And of course the first George Bush learned that lesson well – in a 1996 episode of the Simpsons he played an animated version of himself. He had finally embraced the absurd, even if his son probably still watches syndicated reruns of the Waltons. The son never got it. He was a bit of a Homer Simpson himself. Unfortunately, the joke was on us, and it wasn’t very funny.

Yeah, yeah – it’s just a cartoon show, but there’s that 1994 episode where Bart is working as an assistant on a local television show and screws up big-time, somehow accidentally destroying all the props on the set, and live on-camera shouts out “I didn’t do it!” The studio audience erupts in laughter and applause, and he’s suddenly a star. He’s asked to deliver the same line on every show and ratings go through the roof. Soon everyone in town is saying they didn’t do it, every chance they get. It’s the new cool thing to say. I didn’t do it! Those words become an in-your-face rebellious declaration of independence. Bart gets famous, even if the whole thing confuses him and becomes a burden. That doesn’t matter. It’s still a way-cool thing to say. Those words are defiance and absolution all wrapped up in one. What could be better than that?

Ask Chris Christie. He just said the same thing:

In a remarkable day of swirling political drama, Gov. Chris Christie tried on Thursday to control the damage from revelations that his administration ordered the revenge-closings of traffic lanes at the George Washington Bridge by firing a top aide, cutting ties with a longtime political adviser and repeatedly apologizing in a nearly two-hour news conference.

Sounding somber and appearing contrite, the normally garrulous Mr. Christie said he had no advance knowledge of the lane closings and had been “humiliated” by the entire episode.

“I am a very sad person today,” he said. “I am heartbroken that someone I permitted to be in that circle of trust for the past five years betrayed that trust.”

But he didn’t do it! And we’re all supposed to see that he’s the real victim here – he’s sad and heartbroken, and humiliated. He was betrayed!

He’s also going to fix the mistakes of others:

Mr. Christie fired Bridget Anne Kelly, the deputy chief of staff who sent an email approving the lane closings, who he called “stupid” and “deceitful.” Her deception, he said, led him to mislead the public, but he did so unwittingly.

He also asked his two-time campaign manager, Bill Stepien, to step down as a consultant to the Republican Governors Association and to withdraw his name from consideration to lead the state’s Republican Party. Mr. Christie is the chairman of the association.

Four weeks ago, Mr. Christie told reporters, he gathered his top staff members and asked them if anyone had anything to do with the lane closings. He said he gave them one hour before he publicly denied his staff’s involvement.

“They all reported that there was no information other than what we already knew,” Mr. Christie said.

He said he was “led to believe by folks around me that there was no basis to this.” But, he added, “I was wrong.”

But he didn’t do it! He’s the victim here, as much as those folks in Fort Lee, or even more so, and he needs to emphasize that:

For Mr. Christie, one of the leading figures in the Republican Party and a likely candidate for the party’s presidential nomination in 2016, the scandal represents the gravest challenge to his political career. It either suggests a failure of management skills or confirms what some critics have described as bully-like behavior.

“This is not the tone I have set over the last four years in this building,” he said. “I am who I am. But I am not a bully.”

He needed to prove that:

“I had no knowledge or involvement in this issue, in its planning or its execution,” Mr. Christie said. “And I am stunned by the abject stupidity that was shown here. Regardless of what the facts ultimately uncover, this was handled in a callous and indifferent way.”

Mr. Christie’s apology seemed aimed at trying to preserve his carefully developed everyman image. His office sent out video clips of his saddest moments at the news conference. And he offered that he thought voters would forgive him, because they recognize that people sometimes make mistakes and get hurt by even close friends.

That worked for Todd Starnes at Fox News:

I am not a fan of Gov. Christie. He’s not exactly a friend of conservatives and he’s been way too chummy with his BFF President Obama. But give credit where credit is due.

Gov. Christie stood before the cameras and took his lumps like a man. He did so without the use of a Teleprompter. The buck stopped with Christie. In the Obama White House, the buck stops with his newly-bearded spokesman.

The governor seemed genuinely contrite and remorseful. He did not stand before the reporters defiantly shrieking, “What difference does it make?”

He took immediate action and fired the person responsible for the political payback.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but to my knowledge, no one has been fired for Fast & Furious, the Benghazi terrorist attack, the IRS scandal, the NSA scandal or the ObamaCare debacle. No one!

In short, at least the guy’s not Obama – he’s a man – and he didn’t do it.

Defiance and absolution are so cool, and Andrew Sullivan explores that:

He’s a pro. He stood there and took the heat, kept on message, revealed an impressive grasp of detail, explained what he’s been doing these last few days, and declared himself “betrayed.” The general assertion is that he could have had no direct responsibility for creating a culture in Trenton that gave us “callous indifference” to the welfare of the citizens of New Jersey and what he called a rogue political operation run by his own deputy chief of staff. He was poised; he did not seem too rattled; he took responsibility for the blow to New Jerseyans’ confidence in the integrity of their government. He claims, moreover, that he had no idea who the mayor of Fort Lee was. He had no idea he refused to endorse him. So he had no motive to do anything nefarious. So it remains a “mystery” to him.

As long as he’s telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, I think he did about as well as anyone in that pickle could. But one thing truly stuck out to me. Christie fired Bridget Kelly without talking to her since the emails emerged. That does not seem to me a chief executive entirely interested in how this actually came about.

What did Hillary Clinton say at that Benghazi hearing? What difference does it make? Sullivan thinks it matters:

Kelly was fired because she lied to him. Not because she engaged in petty vindictive politics. But because she deceived him. He claimed that she had never deceived him previously in any way. Again, his core issue is what was done to him, not what was done to the inhabitants of Fort Lee. What he cannot explain away, it seems to me, is the tone of the emails which suggest that this kind of thing was so routine it could be talked about almost in code and another official would instantly respond “got it” to a mere suggestion of “traffic problems.” That’s not a rogue moment, it seems to me. It’s part of an obvious pattern. The vindictiveness is not a leap; it’s a premise. The idea that Christie had no responsibility for creating a culture in which that premise was unremarkable is, to my mind, deeply implausible.

But he sure has put himself out there on a very long limb.

His administration, he tells us, as he told us for months, has “nothing to hide.” He wants to be judged now for expeditiously firing the responsible people, not letting this kind of petty, vindictive abuse of power spread in the first place. He is, he insists, a total victim in all this, blindsided, shocked, surprised. And he nailed that performance.

But if I were Christie, I’d be a little worried about Bridget Kelly. He threw her under the bus without even seeing her face to face. He’d better be damn sure she has no way to implicate him as well. And, after being blindsided by one bunch of leaked emails, what happens if he’s blindsided by more?

Then he’s toast, and at Forbes, Anne Marie Squeo explains why:

During a press conference, Christie said, “I am who I am, but I am not a bully.” And maybe by Webster’s dictionary standards, he isn’t abusive or intimidating per se. For sure, he has strong positive attributes –genuine, smart and pragmatic. But when you start listing the characteristics most closely associated with Christie, it’s hard not to find the words pugilistic and caustic are front of mind. … Christie says he had nothing to do with Bridgegate, and no evidence has been released to suggest otherwise. But his personal brand makes it easy to believe he was and that’s the kind of culture he developed and rewarded. And that’s the jam he needs to get out of to have a serious run at the White House.

That is a jam. Defiance and absolution don’t mix well, except for Bart Simpson – and that was in only one episode of an absurdist cartoon show.

That may be so, but the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza thinks Chris Christie was up to something else:

It became clear as the news conference wore on (and on) that Christie and his team had decided beforehand that he was going to stay at the podium until no reporter (or anyone else) in the room could think of any more questions. That seems like the right approach – get out everything you can in a single day and make clear that you are open and ready to answer whatever is asked of you. As the presser wore on, some of the more “traditional” Christie began to peek out – he could have done without his answer on knowing David Wildstein in high school – but we still think politicians are better off going long rather than short when it comes to press conferences called to address controversies.

This was a wear-them-out thing, not defiance or anything else. The press conference was almost two hours long. Bore them to death. They’ll move on, except Josh Green isn’t so sure that worked this time:

One school of thought in professional crisis management is that it’s best to come clean all at once: Say everything you know and answer reporters’ questions until they run out. That was obviously Christie’s approach, and it didn’t serve him well. The direct, forceful statement and list of actions he delineated at the beginning petered out into standard-issue political dodges and passive-voiced buck-passing. “Mistakes were made,” he said at one point. The longer Christie talked the less he sounded angry and resolute and the more he sounded as if he were making excuses. It became harder to believe that he could have been ignorant of what his closest staffers were up to. The famous Christie narcissism also reappeared when he began referring to himself as a straight-talker and touting his achievements – and this, too, undercut the force of his opening statement.

He turned into Bart Simpson. I didn’t do it! I didn’t do it! How many times can you say that, in how many ways, before it becomes a joke?

In the New Republic, Alec MacGillis sees something else here:

Will the scorned aides seek payback? Christie is generally known for his loyalty to his closest aides and confidantes, and the favor is mutual. … But so dire is Christie’s current spot that he went a bit heavy on the condemnations of his implicated team members, repeatedly lacing Kelly for “lying” to him and, remarkably, disputing the notion that he and Wildstein were high school pals by all but declaring Wildstein a teenaged loser – whereas Christie, he reminded reporters, was “class president,” Wildstein “didn’t travel in the same circles.” Would you like to add anything, David?

That makes Christie a first-class asshole, and the conservative blogger Allahpundit smells a rat here:

I find it hard to believe that Bridget Kelly is the mastermind of a revenge operation that extended to Christie appointees in the inner circle and at the Port Authority, especially in the middle of a reelection campaign. Even if Kelly wanted to punish the mayor of Fort Lee for not endorsing her boss, it’s mind-boggling to think that various members of Team Christie would have played along knowing that exposure could have jeopardized his reelection bid and presidential chances. It’s one thing for the candidate himself to be that reckless; it’s his life, after all. It’s another thing for subordinates to do it to their superior. That being so, how likely is it that Kelly, Stepien, and Wildstein would have instigated this retribution without any of them so much as mentioning it to him? They’ve briefed him on this before, at length, and no one said anything? Ever?

Michael Tomasky games that out:

With regard to the governor, there are not just two possibilities – that he either knew or didn’t know. There are three:

1. He’s telling the whole and complete truth in yesterday’s statement, that this was the first he’d known that the lane closings were political;

2. He was in on it from the start and helped mastermind it or at least winkingly approved it;

3. The middle position, which is that he didn’t have prior knowledge but he learned it was political some time ago – not long after it happened, say – and is now lying about having just learned.

If it’s two or three, I’d say you can forget not only his presidential ambitions. He’ll have to resign the governorship. Right? Hard to see any way around it. To have lied to your people for months about something like this, if that’s what he did, is a pretty good definition of being unfit for office.

Tomasky goes for number three:

Think about it. You’re the sitting governor. It’s the first day of school. You get reports – and mustn’t he have gotten these reports? – that school children are delayed in Bergen County because of access-lane closures on the GWB. You ask a couple of questions, but ah well, you think, that’s the GWB, they’re always fixing something up there, plus it’s the Port Authority, not entirely your jurisdiction, you have to tussle with Cuomo over it, and it’s just one day.

But then day two comes. Same thing. And then day three. Don’t you start asking somebody something?

Of course you do:

His story is that he got an explanation that was a lie and it’s only now he’s learned the truth. That requires just a gargantuan lack of curiosity on his part. I don’t think my #2 is true. I just can’t believe a governor, even this one, would collude to do something like this to his citizens. But it seems hard to believe that former prosecutor, who’s presumably questioned or overseen the questioning of dozens or hundreds of witnesses in his day, could ask questions of his staff, get some bullshit answer about a traffic study, and not smell a rat.

And if he did smell a rat and just stopped asking questions so he wouldn’t know, he is in essence part of the cover-up. In any case, the reputation he has built for himself – a man of no-nonsense, let-the-chips-fall-where-they-may action – would have suggested that he’d have wanted to get to the bottom of this himself long before now. That he didn’t and has been doing the usual tawdry dance that politicians do in this circumstance is another incriminating indicator.

Now he’s stuck:

He can fire Bridget Kelly and a few other people today, or soon, and try to take charge of this. He can demand an investigation. But the fact that he hasn’t done that already is suspicious. Remember the hurricane-era Christie? My state and my people come first, the hell with the politics. That was laudable. But his posture here has been the direct opposite. Here it’s been politics first. He’s not completely knocked out by this yet. There seems a good chance he will be knocked out by it. But even if he’s not, that old Christie is tarnished forever.

This has happened once before when a minor matter got out of hand – you fire some people to prove you’re a great leader and on top of things. You turn damage control into fame, just like Bart Simpson. Nixon, after all, fired Haldeman and Ehrlichman, and everyone admired him for that, and knew how sad that made him, and that saved his presidency, and Nixon is now considered the finest president we ever had.

No, wait – this isn’t an episode of the Simpsons. Alec MacGillis discusses real life:

Christie’s problem all along has been that he would be seen as too Nixon – a Republican whose curious ideological mix of moderation and conservatism is overshadowed by a toxic combination of insecurity and power-hungriness that leads to a politics of spite and retribution. Remember, Christie and his team was pulling all the stops last year to ring up Democratic endorsements and run up his vote tally in a re-election where his victory was never in doubt – just like a certain other chief executive’s reelection 41 years earlier.

But neither re-election keeps people from being revolted at a guy who uses sleazy power-play tactics and has henchmen who throw around ethnic insults, as one of Christie’s crew did about the “little Serbian” mayor of Fort Lee (who, it turns out, is actually Croatian).

Yeah, there’s that parallel, although Nixon had a problem with Jews, and Harvard Men, not Serbs or Croatians. And firing people didn’t save him.

I didn’t do it! When you hear those words you can think of Bart Simpson, or Richard Nixon. One is a cartoon character. The other turned into one. Now it’s Chris Christie’s turn, and now you see why the Simpsons each week has been so popular all around the world for so long, whatever language it’s dubbed into. It’s the honest absurdity. Everyone gets it. That cold December night, so long ago in Paris, wasn’t that odd. It wasn’t odd at all.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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2 Responses to Turning Damage Control into Fame

  1. Rick says:

    That comparison of Christie to Nixon is appropriate. Does anyone else notice how “I am not a bully” sounds suspiciously like “I am not a crook”?

    What was weird was when Christie said that the reason he was firing his aide, without even talking to her about it, was not for the dangerous political prank she pulled, but for lying to him about it. Later, when a reporter gave him a chance to walk that self-centered claim back — that whatever wrongdoing there was, he was not the victim — he doubled down on the fact that he fired her for lying to him, not for thoughtlessly and recklessly creating havoc for the mayor of Ft. Lee, the people of Ft. Lee, the citizens of New Jersey, not to mention whatever citizens of anywhere who were just trying to cross the bridge that day.

    Why would he try to confine the damage to his immediate office? Other than it makes him look like a no-nonsense leader, it also keeps the focus from wandering out into the real world, where the truth might be found. And whatever the truth is may or may not be important, but it would have to explain this whole scandal better than the explanation floating around so far — that one or more people working for the Republican governor of New Jersey took it upon themselves to inflict confusion for several days on the George Washington Bridge as “payback” to the Democratic (that’s right, Democratic!) mayor of Ft. Lee, a man who the governor claims he’s never even heard of, for refusing to endorse the governor in his recent election — an endorsement the solicitation of which neither the governor nor the mayor is aware of having taken place.

    Which is to say, at least on the surface, this whole scandal seems to be a fish story. If none of the main characters in this story is aware of any of this endorsement stuff, then who is it who’s claiming that this is what it’s all about? And not only that, why aren’t any of the pundits who have been discussing this story asking this question?

    Actually, at least one media person is. Rachel Maddow thinks the real backstory may have to do with the fact that Christie exploded in fury in a news conference back in August of last year when senate Democrats indicated they would challenge one of his state Supreme Court appointments. The next day, his aide, Bridget Kelly, sent that memo that allegedly called for the traffic jams as payback to Sen. Loretta Weinberg, the state Senate Democratic leader, who’s district happens to include Fort Lee.

    But whatever the truth, let’s face it, Christie comes off looking better if the backstory to the wrongdoing he’s accused of doing is obviously absurd and baseless. This, I’m sure, is why he himself is not encouraging any digging any deeper.

    Rick

  2. Richard Thomas says:

    In Punch, a now defunct British magazine of humour and light entertainment, there was a cartoon whose caption became part of our traditional funny lines – collapse of stout party. It seems to fit Governor Christie rather.

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