I am not the first to note the striking similarities between the Watergate scandal and the Bridgegate fiasco Governor Chris Christie is facing but as someone who knew many involved directly in Watergate and many in Christie’s inner circle I can say the similarities are more telling than they appear.
Christie was leading his opponent by 25 points when his operatives launched their dirty trick, Nixon was up by 29 when a crew broke into the Watergate.
Both would win by landslides. Neither the Watergate break-in or the George Washington Bridge closing were about winning votes. The motives of the Watergate burglars and those who directed them are still not clear. No one is sure why Christie’s henchman closed the George Washington Bridge, either.
Christie invited this comparison when he said “I am not a bully,” evocative of Nixon’s famous “I am not crook.” We know how that worked out.
When Christie’s Port Autority hatchetman David Wildstein said he would plead the Fifth Amendment rather than say what the Governor knew and when he knew it, I recalled Nixon’s instructions to Haldeman for his White House Staff: “Tell them to cover-up, plead the Fifth, anything to save the plan.”
Just as it was impossible in the early days of Watergate to determine the true extent of the damage to Nixon (it took 17 months before Watergate eroded Nixon’s public standing and thus his ability to govern) it is far too early to determine how Bridgegate will ultimately impact Christie and his governorship. Those like the National Review‘s Rich Lowry who think Christie can transcend Bridgegate misjudge how deep the Governor’s hand is into the tar-baby. The governor’s claim that he knew nothing can be disproved by so many people. Two people can keep a secret — if one is dead. Coordinating testimony in the Watergate cover-up only held until one — James McCord broke ranks. Christie laughed off the bridge lane closing for three days just as Nixon has his press man Ron Ziegler call Watergate a “second-rate burglary.” Those three days will become the most examined in the governor’s life.
Watergate started out as a scandal about a break-in in the Democratic National Commitee. It expanded to include a host of dirty-tricks and illegal activities, the weight of which brought Nixon down. So it is with Bridgegate , which began over a bone-headed effort to close traffic on the GW Bridge and now encompasses potential extortion by administration officials over the use of state funds for a development in Hoboken. Add to that a new claim by Olympic Gold Medal winner Carl Lewis that Christie operatives threatened to kill funding for a physical eduction program he was involved in if he ran for the State Senate as a Democrat. What’s next?
Just as Nixon fired his top Aides H.R Haldeman and John Ehrlichman while insisting he know nothing of the Watergate break-in or cover-up, Christie fired hatchetman David Wildstein and aide Bridget Ann Kelley, laying the blame on them. While Wildstein (who I have know since 1979 when he was Harold Stassen’s presidential campaign manager) initially pled the Fifth amendment he is now prepared, according to his lawyer, to testify fully in return for full immunity. Is Wildstein the G. Gordon Liddy of this drama … or is he John Dean? Then again maybe Kelley will beat Wildstein to the prosecutors. Maybe she’s John Dean.
As Donald Trump put it, “Christie is one e-mail from disaster.”
Port Authority Chairman and former Attorney General David Samson is a gentleman of caution, sober judgement, and integrity. His role is unclear. Like Attorney General John Mitchell with Nixon, Samson has been a calming influence on Christie and his henchmen, one of the few “grey hairs” Christie listens to. Port Authority official and ex State Senator Bill Baroni reminds me of Jeb Magruder: handsome, articulate, but ineffective. John Drewniak plays the role of Nixon flack Ron Ziegler. GOP Chairman Bill Stepian is the scheming Chuck Colson. Before it’s over we will hear from all of them.
Until the klieg lights are turned on for the New Jersey Assembly hearings and each of these characters testify in public the full impact of Bridgegate will not be known.
The perils of trying to launch a Presidential campaign under these circumstances were clear last week end when Christie came to Florida to raise money for Governor Scott but the locations of the fundraisers, which were not open to the press, were not announced and Scott declined to do a press availability with the New Jersey Governor. How will Christie face the New Hampshire press when a shoe could drop back home?
While I was a cheerleader for Christie in his first election for Governor I never thought his in-your-face style would work outside New Jersey and parts of New York. He is too hot, too angry and, apparently, too vindictive. Americans want to believe our presidents are balanced, serene, confident, magnanimous, and slow to anger. At a minimum Christie has bred the kind of atmosphere where aides check their moral compass at the door and government is used to punish political opponents. I have seen this before. It is this mentality that brought my mentor Richard Nixon down. The American people won’t elect a man they suspect is a nasty, mean-spirited bully, particularly one who it may be proven to have played political retribution with public dollars. Americans want a president with the personal discipline to curb his anger and partisanship. Christie, with his bombast and appetite, shows no discipline.
Nixon’s presidency collapsed when voters learned he wasn’t the relaxed and mature elder statesman they elected in 1968 and 1972, when the White House tapes revealed a cursing, brooding, angry, partisan who would use his governmental power against his foes.
A presidential campaign cannot be launched on defense. Christie, as the establishment candidate, already had an uphill climb to be nominated. His embrace of Obama in the stretch of the 2012 race still burns the nostrils of ‘regular’ republicans as well as the Tea Party Types. But perhaps this is all moot. He is, after all, one e-mail from being removed as governor.