In an extraordinary news conference, the most pugnacious politician in America tried Thursday morning to take control of a narrative that could end his nascent presidential aspirations for good.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie previously had mocked inquiries from the media and furious Democratic pols in his state about a four-day traffic jam on the George Washington Bridge that turned Fort Lee, N.J., into a parking lot in September.
Until Wednesday, Mr. Christie denied allegations that he or anyone in his inner circle hindered traffic on the nation's busiest bridge to punish Fort Lee's Democratic mayor for refusing to endorse his re-election bid. Alas, reality caught up with the two-term governor and Republican presidential frontrunner when the press got its hands on incriminating emails from a trusted aide and a political ally high-fiving each other for creating the chaos.
It wasn't long before heads were rolling and Mr. Christie was making mea culpas for sticking to his rapidly unraveling talking points as long as he did, despite overwhelming evidence of his administration's duplicity. Because his aides lied to him when he asked them directly if the allegations were true, Mr. Christie then misled the citizens of New Jersey. His mockery, he insists, was based on ignorance, not malice or mendacity. He was being stupid and self-deceptive -- not evil.
Mr. Christie would also have us believe that he never imagined that political operatives working in his office would act in a petty and self-serving way. Why would an incumbent governor sitting on a double-digit lead over his hapless Democratic opponent engage in such a pointless act of political retribution?
Good question, but it isn't like such stupidity and short-sightedness is without precedent. One could easily ask why President Richard Nixon's aides authorized the break-in at the Watergate to discredit the anti-war movement preceding a landslide win over George McGovern in 1972. Nixon's crew was a loosely organized gang of criminals who, after winning the White House in '68, had an unshakable conviction they could get away with anything.
The New Jersey governor's former political aides proved that they were just as contemptuous of the public as Watergate-era knuckle-draggers E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy. Unlike the White House plumbers, however, they left a digital trail of damning email diagraming their actions.
And as tempting as it would be to make the comparison, Mr. Christie is no Richard Nixon. He's a bad manager who inexplicably got a reputation as a good manager based on his ability to bully the national press into believing fairy tales about what a tight ship he kept. Now it turns out he's just a typical politician who didn't know what his aides were doing in his name.
Still, it would be intellectually dishonest not to give Mr. Christie credit for the masterful way he accepted responsibility for what his aides did. I can't imagine any of his Republican or Democratic brethren or even Barack Obama taking questions for 90 minutes about the details of a potentially consuming scandal.
Without owning up to a culture in which overly ambitious aides assumed he would be pleased by their actions, Mr. Christie said mostly the right things about the moral responsibility of captains to be accountable for whatever happens on their ships.
That sense of responsibility gets diffused the higher up the federal ladder one ascends. That's why it's possible for presidents to initiate pointless wars, authorize torture, increase drone strikes and monitor the private communication of millions of Americans without losing too much sleep. Some general or bureaucrat somewhere will take the fall.
The press will make a mad dash to poke holes in the governor's claim that he was out of the loop. Expect an exhaustive re-examination of every Christie mini-scandal that the state's local media failed to fan into national stories over the years. Because of Mr. Christie's bellicosity, he's an irresistible target for the media, for Democrats and even for conservatives within the Republican Party who can't stand his blue state populism.
Democrats are obviously afraid that Mr. Christie's tough-talking persona could appeal to presumptive presidential nominee Hillary Rodham Clinton's natural constituents in blue states like Ohio and Pennsylvania. They want Mrs. Clinton to face a far less formidable candidate than Mr. Christie in 2016 and are prepared to milk this political scandal for everything it is worth.
Unlike the discredited Benghazi scandal, even the most inattentive American understands what it means to be stuck in traffic for three hours.
Tony Norman: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1631 or on Twitter @TonyNormanPG.