WASHINGTON – As far as political apologies go, this one was an epic, running the emotional gamut of a Hollywood blockbuster and the feature-length screen time of one hour, 48 minutes.
Left unresolved is a cliffhanger: whether New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the star of a memorable news conference Thursday, will manage to save his 2016 presidential prospects.
Christie has, until now, seemed an obvious contender. He’s a two-term governor who cruised to re-election by 22 percentage points, a Republican winner in a mostly Democratic state who billed himself as a unifier able to reach out and earn centrist votes.
But now his staff are accused of doing the unthinkable on the road to electoral success — shutting down bridge lanes into New York City in an act of political revenge last year, to punish a Democratic mayor because he wouldn’t endorse Christie, causing monster traffic jams for days in a left-leaning pocket of the state.
Emergency vehicles were slowed down. A 91-year-old woman died during an extended trip to the hospital. Parents struggled to get kids to school. And according to emails newly leaked to the media, Christie’s aides joked about causing it.
The governor announced Thursday that he would freeze out his No. 1 campaign official and had already fired his No. 2 office staffer, in a news conference where he exhausted an arsenal of adjectives to distance himself from the scandal.
“I am stunned by the abject stupidity that was shown here,” Christie said. “It was an awful, callous, indifferent thing to do.”
Thursday’s event in Trenton, N.J., might have seemed otherworldly to Canadians accustomed to less volubility from politicians mired in controversy.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has gone a full year without holding a news conference in Ottawa to specifically address the ongoing scandal in the Senate over disallowed housing and travel expenses.
The NDP calculates that Harper spent a total of 50 minutes answering questions about it in the House of Commons — less than half as much as Christie did at a news conference in one single morning. Harper has, however, discussed the topic on different occasions when asked about it in media interviews, at unrelated news conferences, as well as the House of Commons.
The prime minister’s most prolific parliamentary inquisitor said the Senate scandal might not have played out the way it did if Harper had offered a little New Jersey-style contrition.
“I think it would have made a difference,” NDP Leader Tom Mulcair said in response to a reporter’s question. “Stephen Harper has not answered the questions or, when he has, he’s often contradicted the previous version.”
He said the prime minister has failed to accept responsibility for appointing the senators in question in the first place and for cancelling his 2006 promise to delegate patronage appointments to an independent body. Harper did say in year-end media interviews last year, seven months into the scandal, that he’d gone through the full range of emotions in the affair.
Christie, meanwhile, went through every single one of them in public Thursday. He plowed through the thesaurus to convey his humiliation, sadness, disappointment, mystification, and even his sleep-deprivation.
One of the numerous media questions he answered was about how he felt the previous night, as he lay in bed, after the scandal had blown open. The governor replied: “What was I thinking about last night when I couldn’t go to sleep? How did this happen?”
There was grief. “I am a very sad person today,” he said. “A person close to me betrayed me.”
Befuddlement, too. Why, on their way to a landslide victory, would anyone seek to punish a small-town mayor whose name Christie said he didn’t even remember? “(If asked about the mayor) I would have said… ‘Who’s he and what did he do? I didn’t even know this guy.’… That’s why it’s such a mystery to me.”
He expressed shame: “I feel humiliated by this. I’m a person who cares deeply about doing my job well… I am humiliated by the fact that I didn’t know this and that I was deceived. And that is an awful way to feel”
There was even comic relief. “I’m out of the traffic study business,” Christie said, advocating a shift to arm’s-length, apolitical handling of road work. “I don’t want a traffic study in front of my house.”
One thing Christie insisted he did not feel, at least not yet, was anger.
He pushed back against his reputation as a hothead and said the last time he screamed in his office was four weeks ago, when he gathered his staff and demanded to know whether anyone was involved in the affair.
He said he was lied to.
By the end of the day Thursday, Fox News, which holds considerable influence in Republican primaries, had featured different talk panels in which lawyers speculated about the list of criminal charges that could be laid in the case.
One Fox show also began with the newscaster declaring: “His presidential dreams may be up in smoke.”
The scandal now cuts to the core of Christie’s central message — that he’s a unifying figure who values pragmatism and working with others above the partisanship of today’s Washington.
It was the central theme of his election-night victory speech last year, in which he appeared to scold other elements of the Republican party for their take-no-prisoners approach to opponents.
“Maybe the folks in Washington, D.C., should tune in their TVs right now to see how it’s done,” he told the jubilant crowd.
“We just don’t show up in the places that vote for us a lot, we show up in the places that vote for us a little. We don’t just show up in the places where we’re comfortable, we show up in the places where we’re uncomfortable.
“Because when you lead, you need to be there.”
Although he’s taken a conservative stand on numerous issues, like resisting same-sex marriage and pulling his state out of a climate-change program, he’s built a reputation for non-partisanship by appearing next to Barack Obama during hurricane-relief efforts in the dying days of the 2012 presidential campaign.
That will be hard to square with the vindictiveness suggested in the emails. While they did not directly implicate Christie in the bridge-closings, his top aides were very explicit about their intentions.
“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Christie deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly wrote in August in a message to David Wildstein, a top Christie appointee on the port authority in charge of the George Washington Bridge.
“Got it,” Wildstein replied. A few weeks later, Wildstein closed two of three lanes connecting Fort Lee to the bridge.
In a hint of the possible legal ramifications, Wildstein was testifying at a legislative hearing Thursday where he declined to answer questions under the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which allows people to avoid discussing potential criminal matters if no charges have been laid.
Christie’s potential 2016 rival, Hillary Clinton, didn’t comment on the controversy. But other Democrats joked about the hit to his prospects.
Obama’s longtime speechwriter, Jon Favreau, tweeted that “Christie’s real crisis is all the bipartisan cliches he can never use in speeches now: bridge-builder…bridging our differences… Tragic.”