In many ways, it was a relief to hear New Jersey Governor Chris Christie declare he was apologetic, humiliated, embarrassed and sad after an odd tale of bridge and tunnel retribution exploded on his watch this week.
“I had no knowledge or involvement in this issue, in its planning or its execution,” Christie said of the George Washington Bridge lane closures allegedly carried out by his staff last fall. “And I am stunned by the abject stupidity that was shown here, regardless of what the facts ultimately uncover. This was handled in a callous and indifferent way.”
So often, apologies come couched in arm’s-length formulation. Public figures apologize if they offended someone, implying that the offense itself is not the problem. They often suggest that they were not really responsible for their actions and disappear briefly into rehab. And sometimes, they never apologize at all.
Not Christie. With his national reputation as a straight-talking potential president on the line, he conducted a tour de force press conference in Trenton, holding forth for nearly two hours until reporters began repeating the same questions over and over again.
Tom Kean, a former New Jersey Republican governor, was among those who suggested that Christie lay everything on the table. “If he doesn’t,” he told the Washington Post, “it’s going to be like water torture.”
But while Christie declared himself mortified by what he considered a betrayal by his staff, he had to be prodded to express similar concern for the actual actions they took — basically ordering up a traffic jam to punish New Jerseyans who did not support the governor.
“It was an awful, callous indifferent thing to do,” he said — only when he was asked — of the political vendetta carried out by his close aides. He spent far more time holding forth on what their lies had done to him.
Authentic apology is a tricky thing to pull off in politics, which is why it so seldom occurs. Plausible deniability must be preserved. True contrition has to be displayed. Traitors to the cause must be immediately be jettisoned. Most of all, the goal is to stop the bleeding.
I watched Hillary Clinton do this in the White House East Room years ago as she sought to tamp down a brewing scandal involving her old Little Rock law firm. It was later tagged the “pretty in pink” press conference because of the color she chose to wear. It went on, I recall, for a long time.
Anthony Weiner apologized too, more than once. David Vitter and Eliot Spitzer did too. President Obama admitted his administration “screwed up” the rollout of his signature health care plan. Trey Radel, the Florida congressman who got caught purchasing cocaine, expressed tearful regret to members of his party caucus when he returned to Washington from rehab this week.
The ritual is always fascinating to watch, and three cable networks hung with Christie’s mea culpa for the entire time.
I was reminded of what authentic apologies can look like when Melissa Harris-Perry, an MSNBC host, took to her own airwaves to apologize for a discussion on a year-end panel on her program with comedians that briefly mocked a photograph of Mitt Romney holding one of his grandchildren, who is African American. It was tasteless.
She did not blame her staff, although she could have. She did not blame the comedians who made the unfunny joke. She just said, flat out, that it was an insensitive thing to say, that she was in charge, and that the Romneys had the right to be offended.
Romney accepted the apology right away.
This sort of honest exchange seldom occurs with anyone searching for an elevated life in elective office. Christie, who enjoys enthusiastically batting down speculation about his presidential ambitions, made sure he was most offended by being lied to by staff he trusted.
“I was being led to believe by folks around me that there was no basis to this,” he said. “I was wrong.”
This is where plausibility deniability comes in. Christie fired his deputy chief of staff and directed another top political adviser to step aside. But he apparently never spoke to them directly.
“The political nature of this would lead to charges of interference,” he said. “I’m just trying to be a safe and careful steward of the public trust.”
Trust is, of course, at the heart of every authentic apology. In politics and in life, the trust only holds if the water torture ends.