New Jersey's famously blunt-spoken governor, Chris Christie, made a great first impression when he strode to the microphone Thursday to apologize to his constituents and the press for an embarrassing incident. For months, Christie's office had been rumored to have ordered the partial closure of the George Washington Bridge in September. The closure wreaked havoc with traffic to and from Fort Lee, New Jersey, raising speculation that Christie's staff was retaliating for the Fort Lee mayor 's endorsement of Christie's Democratic gubernatorial opponent. Christie loudly pooh-poohed the rumors ... until leaked e-mails from his office, released on Wednesday, proved them true.
An apology was clearly in order, and Christie didn't hesitate. He did a lot of things right, at first. He apologized clearly, eschewing the wishy-washy, conditional language that politicians so often and unfortunately favor. He took unqualified responsibility for his staff's misconduct, and explained exactly what he would do to make amends and prevent future recurrences. (The head of Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Anne Kelly has already rolled, and more may follow.) He even promised to visit Fort Lee and apologize to the mayor in person.
It was all downhill from there.
Within minutes, Christie shifted the focus to himself and his pain at having been misled by his closest advisors and friends. He said he fired Kelly, but not because she had subjected the people of Fort Lee to stress and potential injury (critically ill or injured people can die in traffic jams). His stated reason for firing her was that she had lied to him. He went on at length about his own sense of betrayal and hurt. By the time he got around to acknowledging that his staffers' disregard for the wellbeing of citizens caught in a massive, manufactured traffic jam was "unacceptable," his message was clear. Governor Christie was sorry to have been misled and publicly embarrassed. The citizens of Fort Lee were simply collateral damage.
Christie's apology still might have succeeded had he listened more sensitively to questions from the floor. Several reporters suggested that the governor should consider what he might have done to give his staff the impression that such mean-spirited political games would be welcome. The governor quickly refused to do any soul-searching on that score, certain he'd done nothing to inspire his underlings' ugly antics. Christie admits to being tough and outspoken, but insists he's no bully. Perhaps his staff couldn't see or didn't appreciate the distinction. The sheer pettiness of closing the bridge, combined with the nastiness of the incriminating e-mails, suggests that the culture of the Christie Administration is far from kindly. Tone is set from the top.
For an apology to succeed, it has to focus on the hurt feelings of the people receiving it, not on the embarrassment of the person who delivers it. Governor Christie may not have meant to suggest that the people of Fort Lee matter less than he does, but he certainly left that impression.
If Chris Christie aspires to the White House, he needs to give some serious thought to how he really feels about the people he represents. The governor needn't transform himself into one of the "blow-dried politicians" he so detests. Even if he could, he'd lose the refreshing directness and authenticity that are among his chief virtues. What he does need to do, however, is take a long, hard look at his values. Voters want strong leadership, but that strength needs to be balanced with enough compassion to put the people's needs ahead of the leader's ego.
Lauren M. Bloom is the author of ART OF THE APOLOGY: How, When and Why to Give and Accept Apologies.