The media's hastily-crafted image of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie as a “different” type of politician is cracking amidst reports of an act of political retribution, a foreseeable consequence of prematurely characterizing potential national candidates so far out from an election.
Amidst speculation that Christie may seek the Republican nomination for president in 2016, media have been quick to paint him as a new, “fresh,” straight-shooting politician.
In the last month alone, TIME magazine has declared that Christie governed with “kind of bipartisan dealmaking that no one seems to do anymore.” MSNBC's Morning Joe called the governor “different,” “fresh,” and “sort of a change from public people that you see coming out of Washington.” In a GQ profile, Christie was deemed “that most unlikely of pols: a happy warrior,” while National Journal described him as “the Republican governor with a can-do attitude” who “made it through 2013 largely unscathed. No scandals, no embarrassments or gaffes.” ABC's Barbara Walters crowned Christie as one of her 10 Most Fascinating People, casting him as a “passionate and compassionate” politician who cannot lie.
But the problem with writing Christie's character in platitudes so far in advance of 2016 has also become apparent this month.
Christie is increasingly implicated in a growing scandal involving the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and the closure of access lanes onto the George Washington Bridge, the most-traveled bridge in the country. In September, David Wildstein, an ex-blogger and high school friend of Christie's whom the governor appointed to a director's position within the Port Authority, unexpectedly ordered the closure of two of three local access lanes from Fort Lee, NJ onto the bridge. He gave no reason for the lane closures that lasted four days, handicapping commuters, school commutes, and even emergency workers who could not respond timely to crisis calls.
Speculation is swirling that the closures were an act of political retribution -- payback for the refusal of Fort Lee's mayor to endorse Christie in his re-election to the governorship. Lending credit to the theory is the fact that neither Christie appointees nor Christie himself have provided a valid explanation for the closures. Another Christie appointee to the Port Authority, Bill Baroni, claimed the lanes were closed as part of a traffic safety study, but that excuse was shot down by Port Authority Executive Director Patrick Foye, an appointee of Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York, who testified that he was unaware of any such traffic safety study.
As a result of the growing controversy, the Port Authority's inspector general has launched an investigation, as has the New Jersey legislature, issuing subpoenas to Christie officials. Wildstein and Baroni resigned from the Port Authority just this week and subsequently hired attorneys, and now U.S. Senator Jay Rockefeller has asked the federal transportation agency to launch its own investigation.
Christie has dismissed the speculation of political retaliation, and even joked about it. But he still has not provided an explanation for the event. And as the controversy unfolds, media are left to grapple with reconciling the caricature they've built of the governor with the reality of his governance.