Imagine this: A few days after burglars break into the Watergate hotel and office complex, President Richard Nixon calls an urgent press conference and unveils some startling news. This was no ordinary break-in, Nixon says. The target had been the Democratic National Committee, and the five men arrested by police were no mere thieves. Rather, they were working at the behest of Nixon’s reelection committee.
There’s more, Nixon says. He had launched his own investigation and discovered that three top White House officials had been involved in planning the operation. His voice shaking with anger, Nixon says he feels “embarrassed and humiliated” by the men’s actions. Pronouncing himself “betrayed” by those he trusted most, he calls the break-in “completely unacceptable” and makes clear it had occurred without his knowledge or approval.
The press conference doesn’t end there. For over two hours Nixon stands before reporters, taking question after question. He vows to cooperate fully with authorities and says he’ll continue his own investigation. “If there is additional information that needs to be disclosed, I will do so. If there are additional actions that need to be taken with my senior staff, I will do so,” he says. Finally, with every question asked and answered, he leaves the podium.
What Nixon failed to do, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie did.
For four days in September, a series of closures of lanes leading to the George Washington Bridge created a traffic nightmare in the community of Fort Lee. Port Authority officials said the closures were part of a traffic study, but for months rumors swirled that there was a political motivation behind them. Christie thought the rumors ludicrous. But a week ago a local newspaper, the Bergen County Record, obtained e-mails that flatly contradicted the governor’s assessment, including this devastating one from staffer Bridget Kelly to a senior member of the Port Authority: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”
When those e-mails came to light Christie launched his own investigation, one that concluded with an extraordinary and soul-baring press conference last Thursday. If Nixon had done the same thing, would he have served out his second term as president? Almost certainly.
Although some disagree, it appears that Nixon was unaware beforehand of the plans for the Watergate burglaries. His mistake was covering them up, and it proved his downfall. He’s hardly alone on that score. It’s almost a standard script: Someone does or learns of something wrong, but rather than admit it and face the consequences, tries instead to hide it — with an even worse result. Thus, Bill Clinton’s dalliance with Monica Lewinsky may have been embarrassing, but it was his lies afterwards that got him impeached and nearly convicted. One-time vice presidential nominee John Edwards was indicted for covering up his affair and out-of-wedlock child with Rielle Hunter, a campaign worker. The Catholic Church’s efforts to hide the actions of abusive priests lost it enormous credibility as well as millions of dollars.
Christie chose a different path and — contrary to those now writing his political obituary — it may prove his salvation.
“The cover-up is worse than the crime,” goes a mantra of public relations professionals. The basic rule for politicians, would-be politicians, or indeed any person or company in the public eye, is to get out bad news as quickly and completely as possible. Don’t try to hide it or whitewash it. Answer any and every question. Move quickly and decisively. Accept the blame and be willing to take the inevitable hits.
It’s good but rarely taken advice; Christie was an exception and followed it perfectly. Of course, let-it-all-hang-out sessions such as his press conference depend upon veracity. If anything he said in that long session proves a lie — if, for example, he had told staffers to exact some revenge — then he probably won’t even serve out his term. Indeed, he might face jail time for obstruction of justice.
But assuming Christie spoke the truth, this scandal and his management of it may work to his favor, enhancing voters’ sense that he is a rare and different breed of politician. A willingness to confront rather than hide wrongdoing might seem just the kind of thing the White House now needs.
Tom Keane can be reached at tomkeane@ tomkeane.com.