"A fish," an old Italian proverb tells us, "rots from its head."
I saw University of Virginia professor Larry Sabato on Fox Business News today. Clearly he saw a different Chris Christie press conference than I did. Whether Christie's governorship survives this scandal is beside the point; Christie's presidential campaign is done.
Despite his two-hour long press conference, Christie left a number of troubling questions -- questions that will surely dog him through the early stages of a presidential campaign. Why did he not call his boyhood friend, David Wildstein, whom he appointed to the Port Authority staff, to ask him what was going on in Fort Lee after the story broke? Why didn't he call former Senator Baroni at the Port Authority to ask him what was going on? Why did he fire his deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly without speaking with her? The idea that Christie only learned with the release of staff emails that the closing of the bridge may have been "political" and that he only learned that this past Tuesday is just not credible.
The idea that Bridget Anne Kelly suddenly decided to "cause traffic problems" on her own is also not believable. Who gave the order? Until Baroni, Wildstein and Bridget Anne Kelly, all testify fully under oath in a public proceeding we will never know they truth. Now comes word that the aforementioned Wildstein is pleading the 5th Amendment to avoid being questioned about what Governor Christie knew and when he knew it. This certainly looks like a cover-up to me.
At a minimum, a case can be made that Christie has fostered, perhaps encouraged, a "culture of retribution." No trusted aide acts with such impunity in making a decision unless she is confident it is consistent with the culture within which all have operated for some time.
Beyond questions about his veracity, "Bridgegate" suggests that Chris Christie has some qualities I don't think voters want in their president. Christie looks like a petty, mean-spirited, vindictive bully. Officials in both parties say he exacts revenge for even mild criticism. Christie's appetite for retribution and revenge is legendary in New Jersey political circles.
Americans seek a sense of decency, balance, equilibrium and stability in their presidents. This was Ronald Reagan's great strength. He was affable, balanced, slow to anger and never regarded his political opponents with hate. John F. Kennedy was also famously magnanimous to his political opponents, slow to anger and unfailingly easy going. In a sense, Obama also displays this cool presidential persona. The American people do not want an angry, emotional hot head as their president. Neither do they want a prick.
In response to this claim, some have pointed to the election of my mentor, Richard Nixon. In fact, that Nixon persona was temporarily erased in 1968 when he re-packaged himself as the "New Nixon." Gone, we are told, was the partisan slasher of the '50s. Nixon convinced the American people that he was more introspective, relaxed and measured and that he had had time to reflect on the great issues facing America. He was no longer the "angry young man" he had been as Vice President. Nixon skillfully used TV to look calmer, less up-tight and more confident.
Nixon was successful in continuing to portray this image for the first three years of his presidency. It was not until the Watergate tapes revealed Nixon's partisan, spiteful, vindictive side that he lost his governing majority. While I am on record as admiring Nixon's drive, intellect, resilience and big picture thinking, it was this rancor, this need for retribution that destroyed his presidency "The American people will not elect a man they think is angry." Nixon would tell me long after his own fall in Watergate.
This is the lesson of Watergate. It's a lesson that as a member of Nixon 1972 re-election staff, I learned the hard way.
Even before "Bridgegate" I was among those who questioned whether Christie's "in- your- face" persona could work outside New Jersey. If I were working for one of his 2016 opponents, I would take the footage of a hulking Christie holding a dripping ice cream cone on the Atlantic City boardwalk and yelling at a constituent who had the temerity to ask his governor a question and make it into a 30 sec TV spot. Is this the man you want with finger on the nuclear button?
Bridgegate has raised questions about Christie's temperament and veracity. The questions will not go away. His presidential candidacy has a fatal flaw.