There’s been a great deal of discussion the last few days among PR people about the impact of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s dramatic press conference on Thursday. It went on for nearly two hours, with the Governor and potential 2016 GOP Presidential candidate standing behind the podium and taking on all comers, answering every question about the shutdown of several lanes of traffic on the George Washington bridge which seemingly targeted the City of Fort Lee and its Democratic Mayor, who didn’t endorse Christie’s re-election bid last year.
Christie certainly earned points for coming forward, withstanding the heat and responding to every question thrown at him. There’s no question that wins him respect from the journalistic community, which is an important target audience.
It also marked a welcome shift from his previous approach to dealing with the matter, which involved making some statements that didn’t quite square with the known facts and trying to laugh off the controversy by suggesting he “worked the cones” at the bridge closure site. Once the emails hit the fan talking about causing a traffic jam and joking about kids being stuck on school buses, stock denials and mocking the seriousness of the issue weren’t going to cut it.
And one other benefit of the press conference–it allows Christie’s supporters to say he’s taken action and is in command, answering questions and taking charge of the situation.
That’s all good. Now let’s look at the downside.
When you spend that much time in front of the media, tackling a range of questions on a growing scandal, you are going to meander into dangerous waters and Christie did that when making several references to a non-existent traffic study which was initially tossed out as a justification for the disputed lane closures. If there was such a study, it would certainly have come to light by now and even if it did exist, the tone of the emails makes clear that Christie’s people didn’t give a rat’s behind about mitigating traffic problems. They were interested in causing some problems for Fort Lee and its apparently less than cooperative Mayor.
The Governor also made a point of attacking the notion that his people were seeking retribution for the Mayor’s refusal to endorse Christie’s re-election bid, pointing out the Mayor himself had said no one from the Christie camp had even sought his endorsement. That led one TV commentator, MSNBC’s Rachael Maddow, to posit an alternative theory of the scandal–that it meant to target the Democratic State Senator who represents the Fort Lee area who is in the middle of an ongoing testy dispute with the Governor about State Supreme Court appointments. This won’t be the last of efforts to scrutinize the motives behind the anger driving Christie’s team to cause trouble in Fort Lee.
Also, when you lay out a timeline of what you knew and when you knew it, as Christie did, you provide the media with an opportunity to go back and see if your past comments square with your latest words. Josh Micah Marshall’s Talking Points Memo rightly points to a Wall Street Journal story from December 12, 2013 which detailed a Governor-to-Governor phone call between Christie and NY’s Andrew Cuomo. In it, Christie complained that Cuomo’s appointee to the Port Authority (the agency which oversees the bridge and is at the heart of the scandal) was causing trouble for him by pressing to find out why the toll lanes to Fort Lee were blocked. Why make that call unless you knew there was good reason to rein in the guy? It suggests that maybe Christie knew a lot more about this a lot sooner than just after his workout last Wednesday morning.
Finally, when you look at the overall tenor of the press conference (which Jon Stewart described as “F-U Sharp”), it seemed to be about Christie dismissing the notion that he was a bully leading an organization that was all about seeking retribution from anyone who pissed him off. Instead, he basically offered up what Steven Colbert called a “someone else-a culpa”, essentially painting himself as a disengaged manager who had the poor judgement to hire people who were content to run rogue operations and then lie to him about it. That’s not exactly the kind of management style that is going to resonate with voters in a Presidential campaign, is it?
At the end of the day, I tend to think Christie made the best of a bad situation. I don’t know what the outcome of this scandal is going to be, but if things get worse, I suspect Thursday’s presser will at least turn out to something of a temporary respite for Christie. And when you are in the middle of a media firestorm, that’s not such a bad thing. I doubt anyone will be able to point to it and say it was the beginning of the end.
The bottom line is that Christie had to do something and make some effort to get a grip on the situation. He’s done that for now, which is the kind of minor victory you need in the midst of a mess like this.