Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Christie's choice: Be seen as a crook or a schnook?

By Paul Begala, CNN Political Commentator
updated 11:16 AM EST, Fri January 10, 2014
Aides and appointees of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie have been accused of closing lanes on the George Washington Bridge to punish Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, pictured, for not endorsing Christie for re-election. If true, this wouldn't be the first time an American politician was targeted with dirty tricks -- the practice goes back as far as running for office. Click through to see other examples of less-than-ethical campaign tactics. Aides and appointees of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie have been accused of closing lanes on the George Washington Bridge to punish Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, pictured, for not endorsing Christie for re-election. If true, this wouldn't be the first time an American politician was targeted with dirty tricks -- the practice goes back as far as running for office. Click through to see other examples of less-than-ethical campaign tactics.
HIDE CAPTION
Political dirty tricks
Political dirty tricks
Political dirty tricks
Political dirty tricks
Political dirty tricks
Political dirty tricks
Political dirty tricks
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Paul Begala: Chris Christie faces difficult choice between being seen as a crook or a schnook
  • He says Christie is not convincing playing the victim of his own staff
  • Begala says the scandal is likely to haunt Christie because it fits perceptions of him as a bully
  • The investigative and legal process will grind on, to Christie's detriment, Begala says

Editor's note: Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist and CNN political contributor, was a political consultant for Bill Clinton's presidential campaign in 1992 and was counselor to Clinton in the White House.

(CNN) -- Somewhere, Dick Nixon wants a royalty check.

When New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie channeled his inner Tricky Dick and declared, "I am not a bully," he did himself no favors.

To be fair, Christie faced a dilemma: Either admit to creating a climate of bullying, intimidation and political payback that led to the George Washington Bridge scandal, or claim that his staff and appointees disrupted traffic on the world's busiest bridge as political punishment without his knowledge. In the business we call it a choice between being a crook or a schnook.

Ladies and gentlemen, meet Gov. Schnook.

I take the fifth, ex-Christie aide says
DNC Chair: Christie not straight shooter
Christie faces the music: The highlights
Christie: Mayor wasn't on my radar

A schnook, for those who don't speak Yiddish, is a dupe. A fool. A patsy. A schnook is a victim, and Chris Christie is not convincing playing the victim. He wants us to believe that Gov. Straight-Talk, Mister No-B.S., credulously believed a pack of lies from his close aides.

He wants us to believe that, as a former federal prosecutor, he thought his one-hour "investigation" of this operation, which yielded no confessions, was all that he could have done to unearth the truth. The governor clearly hopes that his press conference, his apology and his firing of one whole person will put this issue to rest.

It won't.

There's a great old saying that battle-scarred scandal managers love: "The dogs bark but the carnival moves on." It's the crisis manager's equivalent of "Take two aspirin and call me in the morning," meant to reassure the scandal-plagued public figure that the media and the public have short attention spans, and that the next twerking episode will distract folks.

But not with the Chris Christie bridge-closing scandal: This one's gonna stick.

How do I know? Three reasons:

1. It feeds a pre-existing narrative. This is the most important factor in determining whether a miscue becomes a scandal and whether a scandal becomes a permanent taint. Any issue that advances a narrative that people already have is given greater credence and is more memorable.

Every public figure has a master narrative. In fact they have two: one positive, one negative. In the case of Christie, his larger-than-life persona has been drawn both with bold strokes and in vivid color. The positive narrative is compelling -- and true: the straight-talking, forceful, blunt leader; the no-nonsense take-charge guy who blasted as "stupid and selfish" his own constituents who did not evacuate a beach community before a hurricane.

Christie's negative narrative is just as powerful, and just as true: bully. He burst on the national scene in YouTube clips of town hall meetings where he berated critics. As The New York Times reported, as governor, Christie has a remarkable pattern of bullying: stripping former Gov. Richard Codey of his security detail after Codey called Christie "combative and difficult;" cutting funding to a Rutgers University program run by a professor who sided with Democrats on a redistricting panel, and more.

If, as it appears, Christie's appointees and staff forced New Jerseyans to suffer through a four-hour traffic jam because their mayor -- a Democrat -- had the temerity to back the Democratic candidate opposing Christie's re-election, it doesn't just feed the image of a bully; it cements it.

2. There are ongoing legal and political processes. The Democratic majority leader of the State Senate, Loretta Weinberg, described herself as shocked by the scandal. More important -- and more ominous, for Christie -- she declared, "I am waiting -- and hopefully with the support of Assemblyman (and Deputy Speaker John) Wisniewski -- that the subpoena power will continue." Continuing subpoenas mean continuing revelations. "Sooner rather than later," Weinberg said, "we're going to hear the whole story of who knew what when."

There are almost certainly going to be lawsuits from aggrieved commuters, which will put folks under oath. And, most ominously, the U.S. attorney has said he is looking into the matter. If this becomes a federal case, the stakes rise immeasurably.

3. It happened at the media epicenter. It's not fair, but it's true: The news media is based largely on the East Coast and principally in New York. If the governor of South Dakota closed the Chief Standing Bear Bridge, which connects South Dakota to Nebraska, most of the national media would not know or care. But this is the George Washington Bridge. Journalists can cover this story, literally, on their commute. Christie's proximity to the media center has helped fuel his celebrity; now it may fuel his downfall.

The truth is there is not much Christie can do about these three dynamics. He tried apologizing, but kept returning to the plea that he is truly the victim here: that he's just a poor schnook who was lied to.

It seems to me that is small comfort to the thousands of people who endured four-hour traffic jams, or schoolchildren trapped on endless bus rides, or the family of the elderly woman who died after emergency services were slow in getting to her. He tried blaming others, as if acting in a Sopranoesque fashion is totally antithetical to his political style. Soon he will return to attacking the press and Democrats. None of it will work.

If you believe Bullygate is going away anytime soon, there's a bridge in Fort Lee I'd like to sell you.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Paul Begala.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 11:16 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 4:48 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 9:40 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 7:05 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT