There are times when a marathon crisis-management press conference can be a real plus for the politician in crisis. Geraldine Ferraro, in 1984, held a two-hour news conference to answer questions about allegedly shady financial dealings involving herself and her husband. The press conference was tough, as was Ferraro. She ended up looking stronger, able to withstand the presidential campaign onslaught which until that point had been directed largely at men. As the first female major-party vice presidential nominee, Ferraro held her own.
Hillary Clinton did the same a decade later, with questions about whether she had gotten favorable treatment on financial investments when she and her husband were in Arkansas. It was a stunning display for a first lady, a role that until then had been restricted to – well, as Clinton herself once described it, having teas and baking cookies. It helped make the '96 campaign a bit easier, and helped establish the former first lady as a formidable political figure in her own right.
Chris Christie's marathon press conference on the suspect closing of lanes on the George Washington Bridge in September could have been such a defining positive moment for the New Jersey governor as he contemplates a presidential run. It was not.
Christie did apologize for the fact that his aides had apparently conspired to shut the lanes down to punish Fort Lee, N.J., in some way. The emails aren't specific, but the supposition is that the traffic snafu was intended to punish the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee for failing to endorse the Republican Christie in his re-election campaign. The pettiness of this behavior is beyond comprehension, especially since Christie predictably won by a landslide and didn't need another endorsement.
But it was the self-centered undertone of Christie's comments that gives pause. He kept talking about how "sad he was, how "humiliated he was at his aides' behavior (and he fired them, rightly). We heard less of an apology to the people who were hurt (including an elderly woman who died of heart failure while she awaited emergency medical technicians to arrive, although there are questions about whether their response time was a factor). He acknowledged – rightly – that he needed to understand what kind of environment he had created that would make his staffers think it was OK to lie to him.
Fair question, but the bigger and more important question is this: What kind of environment did Christie create that would make his staffers think it was OK to punish a mayor – not to mention thousands and thousands of commuters on the busiest bridge in the world – over something so utterly petty and inconsequential? And that's only if you believe Christie really knew nothing at all about it (and if you have no suspicions whatsoever, I do have a bridge in New Jersey to sell you).
Christie also didn't help himself by uttering the words, "I am not a bully." It was Nixon-esque, ("I am not a crook," the former president said) which is not a good thing in this context. And it recalls Nixon's troubles in another way, as well. It wasn't even the Watergate break-in that hurt Nixon. It was the cover-up, and the enemies-naming response to it all.
Christie has been an often refreshing voice in politics – straight-shooting, unafraid of blowback from various elements of his own party. But if he wants to be a viable presidential candidate (and however bad this looks right now, it's still early and he has plenty of time to recover), he needs to understand what a presidential campaign is about. It's about the American people. It's not about him.