Don't Be Suspicious of Chris Christie's Hurricane Sandy Motives

We shouldn't punish public officials for simply doing the right thing.

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President Barack Obama and FEMA administrator Craig Fugate watch as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie meets with local residents at Brigantine Beach Community Center, Oct. 31, 2012, in Brigantine, N.J.
President Barack Obama and FEMA administrator Craig Fugate watch as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie meets with local residents at Brigantine Beach Community Center, Oct. 31, 2012, in Brigantine, N.J.

I very much enjoy a show on Animal Planet called My Cat From Hell. And I particularly like it as we all watch a nasty presidential campaign wind down during the aftermath of a devastating storm.

In the TV show (more of a makeover show than a reality show, since in reality shows, people aren't being themselves—we hope), cat owners whose pet is behaving badly call for help in the form of a man named Jackson, a musician who works as a sort of cat whisperer by day. At the beginning of the show, the cat is doing something like diving at people, sinking claws through jeans into legs, or hissing scarily from the top of the microwave. By the end of the show, with gentle Jackson's help, the cat is generally purring contentedly on the couch.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the 2012 campaign.]

I love this little feline drama, and it's not because I like looking at the kitties (though I do). It's because it is a reminder that just when you think a relationship is unworkable or beyond repair, you realize it can be fixed with a little mutual understanding and deliberate suppression of aggressive reactions. And it helps us realize that we don't need to write some people (or animals) off as impossible to deal with. Many a "bad kitty" turns into a nice little pussycat after some small changes. It's also a reminder that pets—and people—tend to live up, or down, to our expectations.

People behave abominably on Capitol Hill, and many of us share some responsibility for that—including those who claim to want to go there to clean it up. First-time candidates often run for Congress by bashing the institution as a corrupt cesspool of incompetents. Then, they win, go back to the district, and seem genuinely baffled that people hate them. What did they expect? And what did the constituents expect of the members? When you create a narrative that people who go into public service are by default self-serving and craven, they tend to behave that way. The respect for the institution as a whole suffers, and with it, commitment and respect for democracy. So why would someone who is well intentioned want to be part of it?

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

Then, when public servants do behave responsibly and compassionately, there is suspicion. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who himself has done a stellar job responding to the terrible tragedy in his state, has also praised President Barack Obama for his attention to the crisis. This display brought out the worst in the TV pundit and radio talk show hosts, who speculated that Christie was cozying up to Obama to get more disaster aid for his state, or that he was trying to look bipartisan to help him win re-election in a majority Democratic state. Is there really not another explanation, that both Christie and Obama are concerned about the victims of a destructive storm? Has the new normal become a world where there's something automatically suspicious about just doing the right thing?

We used to punish people, both in verbal criticism and at the polls, for behaving badly. Now, public officials get punished for not fitting some cynic's idea of what a public servant is. People, like pets, often behave as people expect them to. How refreshing that Christie and Obama are not choosing to drop to those low expectations.

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