A peculiar thing about New Jersey governor Chris Christie's marathon bridge-scandal press conference yesterday was that the longer his performance sprawled on, the smaller it got. The governor apologized and said he took the blame for the fact that his underlings had—without his knowledge—intentionally clogged traffic in Fort Lee. But he put his greatest effort into litigating the minutiae of the case.
So Christie made sure the press was aware that David Wildstein, the Port Authority official who made the traffic stoppage happen, was not "my childhood friend... David and I were not friends in high school... I was the class president and athlete, I don't know what David was doin' during that period of time." He repeatedly held out the possibility that the traffic study that was the excuse for the closure may have been, on some level, genuinely studying traffic—"I don't know what makes a legitimate traffic study. It's not my area of expertise." He made a careful inventory of his emotional reaction to the scandal: "heartbroken" and "disappointed," but "I don't think I've gotten to the angry stage yet"—except at the tone of his staffers' emails plotting the conspiracy, when he'd read them in the Bergen Record. "That's the one bit of anger I felt."
There was something Anthony Weiner-ish about it, the defiant pushback over fractions of inches of irrelevant ground, the desire to score points in what was supposed to be a performance of contrition. He couldn't make himself lay off his enemies, even when he was trying to declare that he had no enmity for them. The Fort Lee mayor, Mark Sokolich—whom the traffic mess was supposed to have been meant to punish—was too insignificant to have troubled the governor. "Mayor Sokolich was never on my radar screen," Christie said. He said: "Until I saw his picture last night on television, I wouldn't have been able to pick him out of a lineup." (Cf.: "I probably wouldn't know a traffic study if I tripped over it.")
"I never saw this as political retribution because I didn't think he did anything to us," Christie said, momentarily adopting the first-person plural, a lapse from his self-portrait as a big-picture executive floating above the schemes of his untrustworthy staff.
Was Christie telling the truth? Last night, Rachel Maddow floated the theory that he had been, or at least that he had been telling a micro-truth. The bridge episode, Maddow noted, had coincided not with any known friction between Christie and the mayor, but with a blowup between Christie and the state senate's Democrats, whose leader, Loretta Weinberg, represents Fort Lee. (Christie had previously told the media to "take the bat to" Weinberg.)
Opinions differ sharply about whether Maddow's theory of motive makes more sense or less than the original theory that Christie had been retaliating for Sokolich's refusal to endorse him. But the debate itself reflects the condition in which Christie left the story, as a tangle of loose ends to be tugged at. Beyond his central do-or-die claim of personal and official ignorance, how many of the facts that the governor insisted on could be true, without changing the contours of the scandal?
"I had no knowledge or involvement in this issue, in its planning or its execution," Christie said, "and I am stunned by the abject stupidity that was shown here." The latter half of the sentence rang true, no matter how skeptically you looked at the first part. Whether Christie's traffic saboteurs were carrying out his wishes or only presuming to do so, the comically villainous email chain they created was genuinely stunning: "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee." "Got it."
You can believe Christie is guilty or innocent, enraged or tranquil, old friends or not old friends with his Port Authority guy. What's hard to believe—but indisputably true—is that any version of Christie hired such schmucks.
[Image by Jim Cooke, photos via Getty]