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Controlling The Stage: A Politicians’ Primer

Politics is not an ego-free business. And why should it be?

I got a taste of that this week as New Jersey’s Chris Christie and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin took themselves out of presidential consideration.

I saw the other piece of that formula when I interviewed Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt at the Washington Ideas Forum.

It took Christie 51 minutes of free-wheeling question and answer to reconfirm what so many refused to believe.

To his credit, he has only been governor of the Garden State for 20 months, and has spent a lot of that time saying no. But nervous Republicans and reporters, anxious for a new storyline, never stopped calling.

At his Trenton news conference, one reporter asked Christie why the drumbeat for him to get into the presidential race just kept getting louder.

“I just don’t know,” Christie replied. “You’d have to ask the people who were beating the drums.” And the politician who always left the door ajar to listen to the beat.

On the other end of the nation, the drumbeats for Palin had been growing noticeably more muted in recent weeks. By the time she finally pulled the plug on her presidential speculation, it caused much less of a ruckus, in part by design.

She released a statement late Wednesday, following it up with a single radio and a single television interview.

“To tell you the truth, I made my announcement today in the format that I did because that was his (Christie’s) seven millionth no, and I didn’t want to go through all of that,” she told Greta Van Susteren of Fox News. “I wanted to, you know, just kind of put the marker down and say, No, I’m not running, not have a big press conference about it, not make a big darn deal about it because this isn’t about me. And it’s not about Chris Christie.”

That’s kind of true. But personality is a huge factor in politics, as in life. Christie’s tour de force press conference showed him to be funny, biting, blunt and even a little emotional. Those words are seldom, if ever, used to describe, say, a Mitt Romney.

Palin, on the other hand, had grown increasingly elusive — in part, she said, because she was no longer willing to be “shackled” by the bounds of conventional politics. Her highest praise in the Tuesday night Fox News interview went to the surging CEO Herman Cain.

“Herman Cain is not a politician,” she said, by way of explaining his newly exalted poll standing.

Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with political ego. How could someone even imagine themselves as president without one? Certainly President Obama puts his on display whenever he approaches his bully pulpit.

It takes some brio to push for a jobs bill that even Democrats seem to be clearing their throats over. At a White House news conference Thursday, the president was asked whether he feared the American public had simply stopped listening to him. In response, he flipped the script, saying he would keep pushing the bill piece by piece through a reluctant Congress.

“There may be some skepticism that I personally can persuade Republicans to take actions in the interest of the American people,” he said. “But that’s exactly why I need the American people to try to put some pressure on them.”

Them. The Republicans. The Democrats. The Press. It’s always handier to blame someone else than to admit weakness or indecision or incompetence.

Consider the words of Eric Schmidt of Google who told me two surprising things during our conversation at the Washington Ideas Forum this week.

After resisting pressure to testify about Google’s allegedly noncompetitive practices for months, he agreed to appear before a Senate subcommittee earlier this month. But it was not, he asserted, because Google had done anything wrong.

“Washington is the government and, therefore, they can screw us up,” he said. “So, that’s the simple starting point.”

And like the tech mogul he is, is also simply swept aside the notion that our growing addiction to texting and living through our handheld devices is anything but good.

“I want to push back very hard on sort of the critics of this and say, look, you were worried about where your teenager is,” he said. “Now we know where they are. They’re in their room online. It’s a much safer place than a lot of other places your teenager can be.”

Why, I’m glad we settled that.

Sometimes these little flashes of ego – the self-confident certainty found in the powerful — can be refreshing. Christie was heading toward the second hour of his non-announcement announcement when he was asked whether he would consider being someone’s Vice President.

And he was direct. “The fact is, I don’t think there’s anybody in America who would necessarily think my personality is best-suited to being number two.”

Well, I’m glad we settled that too.

*Gwen’s Take is cross-posted with the website of Washington Week, which airs Friday night on many PBS stations. Check your local listings.

Top photo: Chris Christie speaks at a town hall meeting on March 29, 2011. Photo by AFP/Getty.*

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