Sunday, January 19, 2014

Hubris

Hubris: -Noun
1. Excessive pride or self-confidence;arrogance

Chris Christie's recent difficulties with respect to the George Washington bridge lane closure scandal are yet another example of Hubris in our political system and in our politics. 

The story is not new for New Jersey nor for this country.  I went and saw American Hustle last night, which was a stylized account of the Abscam sting operation in the late 1970's and early 1980's which netted a series of New Jersey politicians in a bribery and corruption scandal.  It got me thinking about Mr. Christie and the notion of political leaders abusing their power in general.

Mr. Christie is a leader.  Of that there can be no doubt. He swept into office in 2009 running as a conservative Republican in one of the bluest Democratic states in the country.  He was of course helped by the feckless and questionable practices of his predecessor, John Corzine, but nonetheless, won. He and his team proceeded to implement the policies he ran on and with significant Democratic support, accomplished much of his objectives. Christie's characteristic brashness and aggressiveness was front and center in his actions.  He is a person who is massively convinced of his capabilities and one who doesn't take criticism well.  Mr. Christie is often characterized as a "bully".  Certainly, some of his appearances at press conferences or in the media suggest that label is appropriate. 

Here's the thing about bullies, even if they are competent: At some point in time, your actions will have a rebound effect.  The more you alienate people, especially those who are suspicious of you in the first place, the more fuel you give to the eventual "payback" that will be coming. Call it Karma, or whatever you want, but it seems to be a fact of nature that what goes around comes around.

Christie is also known as an efficient and effective leader, with a tightly run administration that makes very few mistakes with respect to political  messaging or actions.  His history, whether as a U.S. Attorney fighting corruption or as a governor is one that suggests that no action such as the bridge closure in Ft. Lee would be something that would be done by an administration underling, without someone in the Governor's office knowing about it.  Mr. Christie explained in his explanatory press conference that he had no idea what his deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly had done". Ms. Kelly is, right now, perceived to be the instigator of the traffic snarl by virtue  of an email that says to David Wildstein, the head of the Port Authority on the Jersey side, "Time for some traffic problems".   Mr. Wildstein's reply was simply: "Got it". 

It is difficult to believe that such an action would be taken without the Governor knowing about it beforehand or afterward, which is exactly what he says is the case.  How can an administration run so tightly have such a massive event take place and the Governor not be aware of it?  Is it possible?  Perhaps.  Is it possible that Mr. Christie placed so much trust in his staff that he simply didn't pay attention to the matter until it spun out of control? Again, perhaps. However, it doesn't seem likely. Mr. Christie acted swiftly according to him.  Mr. Wildstein and several others associated with the scandal resigned quickly.   Ms. Kelly was summarily dismissed by the Governor who said he did this because she "lied" to him.  

There is an active investigation underway and I'm not going to comment on the matter as I'd prefer to see the investigation play out and make a fact based comment on what happened and who was involved.  What I will comment on is the "tone" that seems to be in place in Trenton.  Mr. Christie's press conference was full of sadness on the part of the governor that his trusted people had "lied" to him. He spent a significant amount of time bemoaning how he had been victimized by betrayal.  There was very little acknowledgement of the troubles that the lane closure had caused to the people in Ft. Lee or the travelers on that bridge. This press conference was all about Governor Christie, who seemed "shocked" to find his lieutenants would do something like this without his knowledge, which of course would never have happened had they asked him for permission to do it.  Also, to tone, is the seemingly swift retribution that occurs if Mr. Christie's wishes are not heeded.  Whether it is firing internal staff, which he seems to do regularly, or external actions against people who don't endorse him or his plans.  See the Mayor of Hoboken to get more details about political payback.

The story is weak tea to me.  Either Mr. Christie's story is not accurate, or if it is, he is purposely setting a firewall between he and his staff so they can do his bidding, but keep him distanced from being touched by any responsibility.  It reminds me of the phrase attributed to King Henry II regarding his friend, the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket, when he said "Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?".   His followers, acting on the presumed desires of the King, murdered Becket in Canterbury much to Henry's chagrin, because after all, he was his friend and would never want him murdered.  

So again, the whole thing needs to be investigated and the facts brought to light.  Mr. Christie is an effective and efficient leader, and I truly hope there is nothing to this.  My instincts say otherwise, but we must let the facts bear out before deciding Mr. Christie was involved or not.

Hubris drives us to act irresponsibly because we become convinced that our way is best, and all others are just noise that must be avoided. This is a folly that infects politicians quite a bit.  Whether it is Christie or Bill Clinton, Richard Nixon or Huey Long, the idea that you are above the standards that the rest of us should follow is a dangerous thing to believe.   Mr. Christie, if found to be in the clear of this issue has an opportunity to reset a tone of what I call "effective but humble government" in New Jersey, which could then serve him well in his presidential ambitions.   Mr. Christie can turn this by invoking a philosophy that he was hired to do a job for the people of his state versus the idea that they were pleading with him to "lead them".  He can make his administration more accessible to the people and media. He can stop the bullying and focus on action without animus.   He can turn this lemon into lemonade.  If he wasn't involved.  If he is found to be lying, then he is done, and Hubris is the cause more than anything else.  If he was involved and it ends his political career, it will be too bad, because here will be another talented person who went into public service only to see their talents and energies overwhelmed by their missteps.   It's a story all too familiar.

Tell me what you think.

Regards,
Dennis

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