Can we admit that there are some type of bully-ish people that we secretly root for?
Clearly, the term bully is so loaded today that anyone -- whether a politician, business executive or self-important school mom -- will now instinctively steer away from being branded that label. It explains why during New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's mea culpa press conference over allegations his staff creating epic traffic jams for political revenge, he defensively declared: "I am not a bully."
The issue about bullying in a political context is simple: To what end? President Johnson had to strong arm Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act -- but the end justified the means. But using bridge delays to bully a political rival for payback? That's not just petty, it's a stupid act of hubris.
Political culture, like office culture, is determined at the top.
Perhaps it is time to examine bullying at its granular level and admit that there are certain types that are more palpable and forgivable than others.
We didn't mind Steve Jobs being a bully. He was legendary in his verbal violence, lobbed at any employee who didn't measure up to his intellectual firepower. He belittled. He condescended. He rarely showed appreciation or compassion. He was what I call a Yell-ow Bull. Unless you were thick-skinned and confident in your abilities, working for him would be a form of daily torture.
But the Apple entrepreneur was given a pass -- at least by the public -- because he helped create the iPhone, iTunes, iPad. He kept demanding better from his staff. So now he's not as much a bully as someone who was difficult to work for but admired for his technological innovations.
Then there was Teddy Roosevelt, who in my book, The Need to Say No, I refer to as the Teddy Bear Bull. He cared deeply about fairness, justice, women's rights, and the average guy getting a "square deal." He was determined to combat corporate cronyism.
President Roosevelt outsmarted powerful bulls of big business by using intellect, a bully pulpit to corral innovative ideas and sheer force of personality to defeat opposition. We love this type of leader -- one who can bully their way to social reform we support.
This behavior was applauded -- until drunk with his self-importance after decades of good works -- he decided to create the Bull Moose Party to unseat William Taft, who he felt wasn't following his political policies. That later chapter of his life has been airbrushed. But it reveals how even heroes have episodes of good and bad bullying. However, bullies like Syrian President Bashar Al Assad never get a pass. Using force to abuse and intimidate anyone who challenges him and unapologetically gassing and maiming opponents with brute force is the classic evil bully. That guy is branded a killer and threat to all civilized people. That's the fifty-first shade of grey that is never debated. Which brings us back to Chris Christie. The exhaust gas omitted from holding up a four-lane highway in Fort Lee may have felt toxic but wasn't universally life-threatening -- except, of course, for Christie's political career. For a long time, many didn't mind Gov. Christie's forceful personality and the way he threw his considerable weight around New Jersey. It was always packaged as a speak-from-the-gut ethos. At press conferences, he fired back rebuttals that weren't polite but pulverizing, as a Mother Jones reporter revealed in a compilation of clips. Christie even called a former Navy SEAL an idiot for criticizing his education policies. The problem with the bully debate over Gov. Christie is that his bullying was compared to Republican politics and not the generally accepted standard of fair behavior. I have often thought that Christie was the Lou Costello of the Republican party, bullied and dismissed by the more polished debonair Abbott, but somehow emerging to show he was the star of the act. Like Costello, the immensely popular comedian of the '40s and '50s, he was roly-poly relatable and secretly smarter than he appeared. Christie separated from the Republican pack by his willingness to cross party lines to get things done. We didn't think of him as a fearful bully because compared to the Tea Party terrors like Ted Cruz, who was willing to shut down the government and not just a local bridge, Christie seemed a saner alternative. As someone who studies adult bullies, I know that most bullies deep down create bravado out of that curious combination of insecurity and narcissism. Or some are just sociopaths. When cheered for their approach, it feeds the beast. My research has also shown that lieutenants of the bullies often become more vicious than the bullies themselves. These henchmen or women are so grateful to be part of the team that they project what they think their boss really wants, while delighting in the reflected glory of their bully boss. It's hard to believe that Bridget Ann Kelly would have asked her boss his opinion on this hare-brained scheme to close traffic on the first day of school, which would impact not only opponents but many Christie constituents, as well. Still, it says something about Christie that those in his close circle of trust even considered such a scheme. As Maureen Dowd wrote in The New York Times:
If you're going to wage a vendetta, at least make it a well-thought out one. If you want to be malicious, it would be so easy to put a project close to the mayor's heart on hold for a few months or redirect 60 state snowplows the night before a storm.
Now the storm has blown into Christie's face. Those emails are not only damning but disturbing. We can applaud any politician who speaks his or her mind, sans PR-sanctioned sound bites. We can forgive rough, brash personalities -- from either party -- if they fight the good fight. But cover-ups? Firing fall guys (or girls)? Punishing political rivals at the public's expense? That's another story.
If Christie really wants to issue a genuine apology, he could start by admitting, in time-honored 12-step fashion, the obvious: My name is Chris Christie and I am a bully.