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I was there in Tampa in August, 2012, for Governor Chris Christie’s keynote address at the Republican National Convention, and from the first line I knew this guy was trouble: “Well! This stage and this moment are very improbable for me.” For twenty-four overwrought minutes, Christie spoke, proudly, glowingly, about the subject that really gets him fired up, which is himself—how he always faces the hard truths; how he wants to be respected more than loved; how, of his two parents, he’s much more like his tough, brutally honest Sicilian mother (“I am her son!”) than like his good-hearted, lovable Irish father. It was later observed that the Governor almost forgot to mention the Party’s Presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, whose nomination Christie was in Tampa to kick off; less widely remarked was that he also practically disowned his sole surviving parent, who was in the audience listening, and presumably didn’t mind.

The trouble with Christie has to do with more than ordinary narcissism, which, after all, is practically an entry requirement for a political career. When Barack Obama used to tell crowds during the 2008 campaign, “This is not about me. It’s about you,” I always interpreted the words to mean that it actually was about him. But Obama, whose ego is so securely under control that his self-sufficiency has become a point of criticism among Washington pundits, would never devote more than a paragraph to his own personality (as opposed to his biography)—which was the subject not just of Christie’s convention keynote speech but of his entire political career. What struck me in Tampa even more than his self-infatuated lyrics was the score they were set to—the particular combination of bluster, self-pity, sentimentality, and inextinguishable hostility wrapped in appeals to higher things. (After declaring that Democrats “believe the American people are content to live the lie with them,” Christie waved the flag of bipartisanship, saying, “We lose when we play along with their game of scaring and dividing.”) Those are dangerously combustible elements in a political personality. Americans older than fifty are all too familiar with them.

The engineered traffic nightmare in Fort Lee, New Jersey, is, of course, being called Bridgegate. The suffix has been used, overused, and misused for almost every political scandal since a “third-rate burglary” at the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters on the night of June 16, 1972. In the case of Bridgegate, there are several key limiting factors. It’s a state scandal, not a national one. A potential Presidency might be at stake, but not an actual one. No evidence ties the Governor directly to the havoc visited on one of New Jersey’s five hundred and sixty-six municipalities—not yet, anyway. On the scale of Teapot Dome and Iran-Contra and even Monica, the four-day closing of two approach lanes to the George Washington Bridge is very minor league.

So why do I keep having flashbacks to 1972? Some of the parallels are weirdly exact. Whether or not he ordered the Watergate bugging, Richard Nixon ran a campaign of dirty tricks for two reasons: he wanted to run up the score going into his second term, and he was a supremely mean-spirited man. Nixon’s reëlection campaign reached out to as many Democrats as possible (not just elected officials but rank-and-file blue-collar workers and Catholics). Nixon ran not as the Republican Party’s leader but, in the words of his bumper sticker, as just “President Nixon.” His landslide win over George McGovern translated into no Republican advantage in congressional races—the Democrats more than held their own. The Washington Posts David Broder later called it “an extraordinarily selfish victory.”

Christie’s 2013 reëlection tracks closely with this story: an all-out effort to court Democrats in order to maximize his personal power, and a landslide victory in November, with all the benefit going to the Governor, not to his fellow-Republicans in the state legislature. On Christmas, the Times published a piece about Christie’s long record of bullying and retribution. In it, the Fort Lee traffic jam was mentioned as just one of many cases (and, I have to admit, not the one that stayed with me) of vengefulness so petty that it inescapably called to mind the American President who incarnated that quality, and was brought down by it.

In the e-mails that went public last week when the scandal broke, the tone of Christie’s aides and appointees displays the thuggery and overweening arrogance that were characteristic of Nixon’s men when the President was at the height of his popularity—utter contempt for opponents, not the slightest anxiety about getting caught. In both cases, whether or not the boss sanctioned these actions, the tone came from the top. It’s the way officials talk when they feel they have nothing to fear, when there’s a kind of competition to sound toughest, because that’s what the boss wants and rewards. Once all hell broke loose, Christie insisted, in a compelling and self-indulgent press conference that, like his keynote speech, was all about himself, that he was the scandal’s biggest victim. “I am not a bully,” he said, in an echo of one of Nixon’s most famous remarks.

Character is destiny, and politicians usually get the scandals they deserve, with a sense of inevitability about them. Warren G. Harding surrounded himself with corrupt pols and businessmen, then checked out, leading to the most sensational case of bribery in American history. Ronald Reagan combined zealotry and fantasy, and Oliver North acted them out. Bill Clinton was libidinous and truth-parsing but also cautious, while George W. Bush was an incurious crusader who believed himself chosen by God and drove almost the entire national-security establishment into lawlessness without thinking twice. Christie, more than any of these, is reminiscent of the President whose petty hatefulness destroyed him—which is why, as NBC’s newscaster said when signing off on an early report on that long-ago burglary, I don’t think we’ve heard the last of this.

Photograph by Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty.


IBW21 (The Institute of the Black World 21st Century) is committed to enhancing the capacity of Black communities in the U.S. and globally to achieve cultural, social, economic and political equality and an enhanced quality of life for all marginalized people.