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 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 9:02 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:28 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT