Chris Christie’s Apology PR: A Bridge Too Far?

Who could have thought a traffic snarl – no matter how bad – could escalate into a PR crisis that would threaten a presidential candidacy?

Of course, that’s speculative, but it reflects the hyperbolic, always-on nature of the coverage of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s possible involvement in “Bridgegate.” Pundits and adversaries have spent days dropping ominous questions like, “What did the governor know, and when did he know it?”

So how has Christie responded to the scandal? Did he succeed in calming the waters? Building bridges to political enemies? (insert metaphor of choice here.)

Those troubled waters really started swirling when emails came to light that show Christie’s now-ex deputy chief of staff ordered allies at the Port Authority to close traffic lanes leading to the GW bridge to punish the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee because he declined to endorse Christie for reelection.

In a nearly two-hour press conference, Christie started strong, showing his trademark bluntness and making it clear he would answer every single media question, sparing no detail in recounting how he learned about the scandal. He apologized repeatedly to the people of New Jersey, while vehemently denying any prior knowledge of the traffic mess.

The Governor deserves points for taking 80 questions, and for showing patience and stamina. He also managed to channel his anger into the expression of regret rather than being defensive or dismissive. There were no mealy-mouthed platitudes here. He used words like “heartbroken” and “sick”, while reporting that he had fired those culpable without so much as a conversation. While maintaining he knew nothing of his aides’ actions, he accepted responsibility – in general, Trumanesque terms – for the traffic mess.

But Christie’s mea culpa fell short in other ways. First, he was very self-referential – spending too much time on his own embarrassment, anger, and damaged reputation. He also broke the infamous Richard Nixon (“I am not a crook!”) rule by denying a negative when proclaiming, “I am not a bully.” That, of course, suggests that he might be a bully, or reminds us that some people think so.

Most importantly, he avoided any responsibility or explanation for a culture where political power was used for retaliation by those closest to him, in a way that evidence suggests was almost routine. A good chief executive will close the loop by explaining what went wrong, taking the blame for a systemic failure, and showing how it might be fixed. The governor clearly hopes that the Fort Lee scandal will be seen as a freak occurrence, rather than a natural outgrowth of a petty, hyperpartisan, and, yes,  bullying, culture.

The investigation will no doubt show what the Governor knew, if anything. But given his history, and the seniority of those involved in creating the fake traffic study, the apology may not be enough. For a larger-than-life guy like Chris Christie, true humility and transparency may simply be “a bridge too far.”

A Weighty Issue: Is Being Heavy Bad PR?

One of the tweets after the earthquake in August was about a certain hefty New Jersey governor and object of Republican presidential fantasies:

“I think Chris Christie just jumped into the race.”

Bada-bum. Christie’s size has been the butt of jokes, with puns always intended, since his own campaign against Jon Corzine. His bulk is the gift that keeps on giving for late-night comics. And though it never feels right to mock someone’s physical appearance, this is politics.

It’s also PR. Optics matter here. Pundits claim the turning point in the 1960 presidential race between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon was the first televised debate. JFK was cool, suave and handsome, while Nixon, who rejected makeup, looked shifty and nervous as he sweated through his five o’clock shadow. A little face powder might have changed the course of history.

Of course, obesity carries the added baggage of health implications. It’s an easy metaphor for self-control, which has been a huge topic of interest among journalists and bloggers. The irony that Christie, a fiscal conservative, made his reputation on cutting consumption, is red meat for the media.

Recently, Michael Kinsley weighed in with a harsh post stating Christie is unfit to be president, which invited an op/ed feeding frenzy about his size. Many pundits were less strident, and still others have leaped to Christie’s defense, but the fact is, the governor’s girth is a central issue in his non-campaign. Talk about piling on.

Here’s my take: the press has overblown the issue. If I were advising the Governor, I’d probably tell him to kick up his exercise regimen in private, wear his suit jacket in public, and to be photographed showing vigor and vibrant good health. But I wouldn’t lose sleep over the Governor’s gains.

Part of his appeal is that he looks and speaks like a regular guy, and his size hearkens back to a simpler time, when girth suggested strength and authority, not heart disease. And if mediagenic looks were the most important criteria for political charisma, Mitt Romney would be cruising to an easy nomination instead of looking over his shoulder.

One thing’s certain; if Christie does choose to jump into the race, after all the public speculation, he’s sure to make a big splash. One way or another, the guy’s gonna be huge.