Chris Christie And The Quest For Truth

Perhaps it’s because he always seems so full of himself, or maybe it’s that he has never displayed even an iota of self-doubt, or that he always seems to take such delight in belittling questioners and critics … It may well be for one of these reasons or quite a few others, but I have to admit to more than a little schadenfreude as I watch New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s carefully constructed persona slowly come apart before our eyes.

I hate to admit it to myself, but in that respect, I guess I am an accurate reflection of the culture in which we live. Here in America, we like to create heroes out of ordinary people and then take pleasure in watching them fail to live up to our artificially grandiose expectations.

Sports and politics are two arenas in which this less-than-wonderful cultural “habit” plays out most often.

Phenomenally talented young men (yes, it’s mostly men who get this attention) are almost literally plucked from high school, college, and/or the street and given contracts worth millions of dollars to help produce a champion in any one of a variety of sports. Before they know what hit them, sneaker endorsements, TV appearances and lucrative advertising deals follow, and they are, invariably, unable to deal with the sudden fame that accompanies them. It is uncomfortably easy to name athletes that fall into this category. One example– no one was quite as promising as Dwight Gooden, but now he makes personal appearances at bar mitzvahs instead of at the Baseball Hall of Fame.

There is a long and worthwhile discussion to be had on whether or not it’s fair for athletes to be expected to be role models. I personally think it comes with the turf whether you want it or not. Once young children begin to look up to you, and associate your athletic prowess with your over-all character, you have to be pretty shallow to ignore that dimension of your fame. But in fairness to young athletes, that inevitable scrutiny is not what they signed up for. They signed up to play ball. The other kind of adulation is essentially an accident of their talent. They never marketed themselves as role models, even though they are

Politicians, however, are in an entirely different category.

If one runs for office and represents oneself as being a servant of the people, then it is fair to expect that said politician would conduct him/herself in a way that, at the very least, brings no embarrassment to the constituency being served. That is the lowest possible, marginally acceptable setting of the bar. I think it fair to say that elected officials might see it as their obligation to voluntarily set that bar even higher, and behave in a way that their constituents would actually be proud of. It is a sad statement on our time that that last sentence sounds more aspirational than practical. We haven’t found all that many politicians to be proud of, even taking into account a healthy and aggressive press corps that sees invading every nook and cranny of their private lives as a God-given right.

Of the countless observations offered on Governor Christie’s epic, two-hour-long press conference, the one that seemed to me to be the closest to the truth (and made me laugh out loud) was offered by comedian Albert Brooks, who tweeted “I did not have sexual relations with that bridge.” The governor’s extraordinary efforts to distance himself from what has come to be known as “bridgegate” sounded almost as tortured as former President Clinton’s efforts to maintain his innocence in the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Another listener suggested similarly that, in light of that press conference, there are only two possibilities. Either the governor had nothing to do with the closing of those bridge lanes and didn’t know that his aides were responsible for it, or he’s a “Clinton-class liar.” Neither is particularly wonderful.

Truth to tell, it’s hard to tell exactly what kind of political animal Chris Christie is. He has certainly tried hard, and successfully, to craft an image of himself as a tough, plainspoken truth teller. In this current political climate, where it’s so hard to find a politician to trust, that persona has gained a considerable amount of traction both in New Jersey and nationally. Many people disagree with any one of a number of his policies, but have found him to be someone to trust. At least you know where he stands…

Ah, but trust is such a fragile thing, isn’t it? Once it’s compromised, trying to regain it is notoriously difficult. And therein lies Governor Christie’s dilemma. Even if he had nothing to do with what was done by his aides, which seems to me highly unlikely, it still looks, feels and smells like he did, because everything about it reminds one of the persona that he tried so hard to create. Chris Christie’s problem is that I have absolutely no problem imagining that he is complicit in all this. That’s what a man like him would do. He has an extraordinarily low threshold for opposition. If you’re not with him, he’s against you.

So even if he’s innocent of actually ordering the closing of those bridge lanes, and didn’t know what his sophomoric aides were doing (troubling in its own right and awfully hard to imagine), the fact that so many can believe that he actually was involved speaks to the type of man that he is.

Is that whom you would want for President of the United States?

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.