Editorial: What Christie hasn’t learned from Nixon
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks at the Faith and Freedom Coalition's Road to Majority event in Washington, Friday, June 20, 2014. Christie joined the parade of ambitious Republicans courting religious conservatives as the early jockeying for the next presidential contest intensifies. (AP Photo/Molly Riley)
FILE - In this March 15, 1973, file photo President Nixon tells a White House news conference that he will not allow his legal counsel, John Dean, to testify on Capitol Hill in the Watergate investigation and challenged the Senate to test him in the Supreme Court. A feisty Nixon defended his shredded legacy and Watergate-era actions in grand jury testimony that he thought would never come out. On Thursday, Nov. 10, 2011, it did. (AP Photo/Charles Tasnadi, File)
In many ways, Chris Christie is the anti-Richard Nixon.
Nixon rose to the presidency despite acute social awkwardness, while Christie owes much of his political success to his ability to connect with voters. Nixon was never able to shed his “Tricky Dick” reputation, while Christie is lauded as a decisive straight-shooter.
But in other ways, Christie and Nixon are kindred political spirits – particularly in the way they handled the misdeeds of the people who served in their administrations.
In April 1973, Nixon took to the airwaves to talk about the Watergate scandal, which by springtime had ceased to be a “third-rate burglary.” Before announcing the “resignations” of chief of staff Bob Haldeman and adviser John Erlichman, Nixon said: “I was appalled at this senseless, illegal action, and I was shocked to learn that employees of the Re-Election Committee were apparently among those guilty.”
In May, Christie sat down for a Q&A with Bob Schieffer of CBS during the Peter G. Peterson Foundation annual fiscal summit. When Schieffer asked Christie about the bridge lane closures in Fort Lee, N.J. – an instance of alleged political retribution dubbed Bridgegate – Christie offered this perspective: “I’m not the first chief executive who had someone on their staff do something they didn’t know something about that they disapproved of and later had to fire them. I don’t think that that hurt anybody’s career, and it’s not going to hurt mine.”
Forty years ago, that line would have brought down the house, but Christie wasn’t going for laughs. One can only assume he was trying to create an air of confidence, but unfortunately for him the words left his lips as a stunning lack of historical perspective.
Christie should know that what ultimately doomed Nixon was that Americans came to realize that their president had created an atmosphere in his administration that amounted to tacit approval for the break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters. As more details were revealed, it became harder and harder to believe that John Dean, Dwight Chapin, Haldeman, Erlichman and the rest of the president’s men were acting of their own accord, that they had gone rogue. For that reason, Nixon’s denials of personal involvement in the break-in became irrelevant.
That lesson should not be lost on Christie. What he did and didn’t know about Bridgegate isn’t important. What is important, however, is what the scandal tells us about the atmosphere he created within his administration.
In two weeks, Christie will be in New Hampshire to join Sen. Kelly Ayotte and other prominent Republicans to raise money for the party, but there are likely other reasons for the visit. According to a recent WMUR poll, Christie leads the field of possible candidates for the Republican nomination for president. The New Jersey governor will no doubt have his mastery of retail politics on full display during his visit, but voters should also keep in mind a few more of Nixon’s words from that same April 1973 speech: “In any organization, the man at the top must bear the responsibility.”