Taking Responsibility But Dodging Blame, Christie Takes His Time
By Alan Greenblatt
What New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said Thursday may have mattered less than how long he took to say it.
With his presidential ambitions and, potentially, his governorship put at risk by a scandal over lane closures on the George Washington Bridge, the Republican Christie fielded dozens of questions from reporters during a midday news conference that lasted nearly two hours.
"Giving a press conference like this is a first step that can reinstate his believability and standing," says Marcus Messner, a professor of communication at Virginia Commonwealth University. "For him to go before reporters that long gives the image that he's willing to answer any questions about this, and he's in charge and he will clean up this mess."
It's crisis management 101. When confronted with a scandal, take your lumps quickly by getting out as much information as you can.
"He did everything you need to do to isolate something like this and reduce it as best you can and then move on," says Tom Fiedler, dean of the communication school at Boston University.
After denying for weeks that traffic snarl-ups caused by bridge lane closures were politically motivated, Christie announced he was firing Bridget Kelly, his deputy chief of staff, and removing Bill Stepien, his former campaign manager, from his political operation.
His main purpose, though, was to express contrition. He apologized repeatedly to the citizens of his state.
"It's showing that he was embarrassed and shows remorse," says Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha, a University of North Texas political scientist who has studied press conferences. "It's trying to counter what is seen as political corruption by trying to reinforce that he's a person of integrity and wouldn't do something like this."
Responsible But Blameless
Christie stated repeatedly that he had no knowledge of the decision to choke off traffic from Fort Lee, N.J., onto the George Washington Bridge.
He said that his aides had lied to him about their machinations, which were revealed as political payback by emails and text messages that were published on Wednesday.
While saying he had been "blindsided" by the revelations, Christie also said that the buck stopped with him, as governor.
Christie seemed to be trying to walk a fine line between dodging blame and accepting responsibility. That's just about what he had to do with this appearance, says Messner, the VCU professor.
"The goal was for him to show he's in command, that he has nothing to hide and that he was stunned and he had no knowledge about any of this," Messner says.
Taking All Comers
Other politicians have tried the same tack, showing themselves willing to answer any and all questions reporters might have about a scandal.
"The standard operating procedure in something like this is to own the mistake, apologize for the mistake and do whatever it's possible to be done to rectify the mistake," says Fiedler, the BU dean. "He can't unsnarl the traffic, but the action he took in firing the aides is a good substitute for that."
Geraldine Ferraro, the Democratic candidate for vice president back in 1984, might have pioneered this technique. When questions arose about her husband's financial dealings, she also held a marathon news conference that lasted nearly two hours.
"Any time you take a politician who's on the hot seat and allows reporters to take pot shots at him for two hours, you've got to give him credit," says Steven Fink, a consultant and author of books on crisis management and communication.
Eshbaugh-Soha compares Christie's performance to the ritual humiliation recent presidents have had to endure with day-after news conferences, following big losses by their parties in midterm elections.
"It's like, 'This was on me,' and trying to figure out, in front of the media, what went wrong," he says. "There's a symbolism behind this. It's consistent with what Christie has always said, that he's going to be open and transparent, which is a very important expectation that people have."
Indeed, Christie at times seemed almost to be offering a meta-analysis about his own public image, as someone who is "direct," as he said, but "not a bully." His dominant emotion, he said, was not anger but sadness.
How It Was Received
It was clear that the news conference is not going to be the end of Christie's problems. Shortly before it began, Paul Fishman, the U.S. attorney for New Jersey, announced he was opening a criminal probe into the matter.
As Christie spoke, a legislative hearing was getting underway at which his Port Authority appointee David Wildstein, who was implicated by the emails, refused to testify for fear of incriminating himself.
Christie's news conference lasted so long that reporters were able to ask Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich about plans the governor announced to visit his city later in the day, and then ask Christie for reaction to what Sokolich had said (which was, in so many words, please don't come).
For the most part, Christie received good marks. Some Democrats questioned his veracity, including Barbara Buono, who ran against Christie last year. She said Thursday on MSNBC that people in the governor's office don't sneeze or go to the bathroom without his permission.
But most commentators felt Christie had acquitted himself well — assuming he didn't say anything false or inaccurate that would trip him up later.
"Just as important as the words he's saying is Christie's tone in presser right now — notably calm, somber," tweeted ABC News producer Elizabeth Hartfield.
Others felt he overstayed his welcome, with jokes comparing his epic news conference to speeches by foreign leaders such as Fidel Castro and Vladimir Putin.
"The longer Christie talked, the less he sounded angry and resolute and the more he sounded as if he were making excuses," wrote Bloomberg Businessweek Correspondent Joshua Green.
Early conservative reaction, though, gave Christie high marks for accountability, both for being willing to fire people and for standing up to meet the press at such length.
"People saying Christie going on too long," John Podhoretz, the editor of Commentary, tweeted. "And if he'd walked off, they would have said he ran away from tough questioning."