Politics & Law

The ever-fascinating Christie

Robin Lakoff

The most interesting thing about Chris Christie’s apology is that it was no apology.

An apology is a speech act – an utterance that is in some way world-changing. Apologies change the world by reversing the power of speaker and addressee: the speaker puts himself intentionally in a one-down position as a result of actions for which he explicitly takes responsibility, and indicates that he needs something from the addressee in order to resume his bona fides. To achieve these ends, an appropriate apology must contain all of the following:

Chris Christie

Gov. Chris Christie at a 2011 townhall (Bob Jagendorf via Wikimedia Commons)

1.     Some form of wrongdoing occurred.
2.     I am the person responsible for that wrongdoing.
3.     You are the one that has been wronged.
4.     I undertake never to do it again.
5.     I will atone for my actions in an appropriate way.
6.     I need your forgiveness.

The governor’s utterances — long and repetitious as they have been — have not included any of those five requirements and cannot function as true apologies. (Curiously, the media have been calling them by that name, and the experts are mostly saying that people will hear them and forgive.)

For one thing: apologies are not plays for sympathy. A properly made one distances the speaker from the person who behaved badly by showing the latter in a bad light, expressing disapproval of him and not indulging in excuses. But Christie does something altogether different. He is, according to reports, frequently “near tears”; he describes himself as “humiliated,” embarrassed,” and “sad” — adjectives designed to represent himself as a sympathetic person, one for whom his audience should feel sorry — rather than the wronged persons.

Even more strikingly Christie evades the second condition above — he refuses to take responsibility, even at the syntactic level. His “apologies” are lush with agentless passive constructions:

“I am stunned by the abject stupidity of what was shown here….This was handled in a callous and indifferent way.” And in his later statement, “…This completely inappropriate and unsanctioned conduct was made without my knowledge….and people will be held responsible for their actions.”

What was shown here by whom? Handled by whom? And so on.

Christie — in the past, a man unafraid to point, and in fact jab, a finger at presumptive malefactors — is curiously unwilling to point a grammatical finger in the right direction. The whole situation of having to not-apologize makes him so edgy that he forgets his English grammar. “Conduct” is not “made,” it is “engaged in.” Agentless passive constructions like these, particularly when repeated, constitute virtual admissions of guilt. They certainly cannot be used by way of apology, since the user seeks to evade rather than accept responsibility by using them.

Also interesting is the fact that, in his reported confessions, the latter of which went on for a couple of hours, not once did he mention explicitly exactly what behavior he is apologizing for (condition #1), nor does he allude to the people to whom he needs to apologize, those inconvenienced or worse by what was done (#3). He does not ask for forgiveness (#6). He gives no indication that he will make it up to anyone (#5). So: no apology has been made, and he is off the hook.

The next most interesting thing about Christie’s utterances is that, even if he is telling the absolute truth when he declares that he knew nothing, he has to come off badly. There are really only two possibilities here: he knew of the plans to shut down the bridge (whether he actively proposed them, merely assented to them, or was merely tacitly aware of them is immaterial) or he did not. If the former, not only is he a repeated liar, but certainly his behavior violated the law in a serious way. I assume that the State of New Jersey has some constitutionally mandated procedure for the removal of felonious officials; in this case, that procedure should be started at once.

If Christie’s  staff and political associates planned and carried out this exercise in misbehavior without his knowledge, that isn’t all that much better. He is probably beyond impeachment, but voters (whether at the state or national level) must certainly come to realize that this is a man who cannot govern because he cannot control his subordinates. If the second possibility is true, Christie’s staff has gone rogue, and he is either unaware of it or unable to do anything about it. That is (as we now see) bad enough in a small state, but project it out to a national level and we are in deep doodoo.

Further, even if somehow his staff played this game without his knowledge, the fact that it seemed to them a good idea suggests that a culture of vengefulness was afoot in the Christie statehouse. Even if Christie himself was uninvolved in this particular act of petty vengeance, there is ample evidence that he set his staff many examples of how people who crossed him politically were to be treated. Subordinates pick up the office culture from the boss, and even if in one case the boss seems to be out of the loop, he bears responsibility for creating an atmosphere in which petty vengefulness is appreciated and (undoubtedly) rewarded.

I tend not to believe Christie’s excuse anyway because it contradicts the impression of his governing style that he had fostered throughout his first term, as a micro-manager and hands-on boss. Either that is a total fabrication or his staff suddenly went rogue on him despite four years of training and indoctrination to the contrary. That seems patently unlikely: staffs don’t work like that. You might imagine one rogue aide, but others would refuse to act without the Boss’s say-so, especially if the Boss was known to be as vindictive and punitive as this one.

Finally, the contretemps of the last few days in Trenton bear an uneasy resemblance to a series of events of which we will shortly be celebrating the denouement, Watergate. Of course there are differences, but fewer than you might think. And there are some intriguing similarities:

1.     “I am not a bully,” says Christie. “I am not a crook,” said Nixon, in closely parallel circumstances.

2.     Both involve chief executives who need to prove something to themselves and others about the kind of people they are. In Nixon’s case, he knew he was unloved, but needed to deny it, so he strategized the Watergate break-in in order to achieve a huge plurality in the 1972 election. All the signs were that he would win comfortably, at least, but that wasn’t enough, because only an overwhelming victory would prove to him (and the world) that he was beloved after all. In Christie’s case, it seems as if he needed to prove that he was omnipotent; that crossing him was tantamount to political death. Nixon’s attempt failed miserably, as we all know; time will tell about Christie’s.

But there are differences. The most important is this:

The Watergate burglary only hurt its perpetrators. The GW Bridge shutdown hurt thousands of innocent people. Which was worse? Is Christie worse than Nixon, or just a mini-Dick?

But even the resemblances between Christie’s and Nixon’s behaviors are not the latter’s worst future problem. I think that, whatever turns out to be the true story of Bridgegate, the governor has destroyed his hopes for a greater political future by the way he has acted and spoken in the last few days.

I said in an earlier snort that while I admired very little of Christie’s politics and general cussedness, I did find the appearance of authenticity appealing: his tell-it-like-it-is, in-your-face, I yam what I yam self-presentation. But his non-apology apologies, his attempts to slither away from responsibility, and his evasiveness belie any such claims, and I think that his abandonment of all pretenses of authenticity – along with his very obvious failings – will doom his political future.

That means that the Republicans, short of a miracle, will not find even a remotely attractive candidate for the presidency in 2016. It should be fun.

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