In the 1970s, a special state prosecutor was appointed to investigate "ongoing, widespread and systematic corruption" at every level of the police department in Philadelphia. Despite allegations that police engaged in bribes to permit gambling, prostitution and other illegal activities, the investigation came to known simply as the "Hamburger Report" because it revealed that some cops had accepted free hamburgers from a restaurant.
The serious charges were overlooked by the media and public as the hamburger issue took center stage, ultimately discrediting much of the hard work put forth by the investigators. It was irrelevant that the hamburger allegation, in the grand scheme of the report, was extremely minor. The circus surrounding the burgers ruled the headlines, and the more important issues suffered.
That same type of situation is now engulfing New Jersey Republican Governor Chris Christie, as he continues to navigate the political minefield that has come to be known as "CopterGate."
It is an issue that, in reality, is irrelevant to governing the state, but is quickly turning into an agenda-threatening quagmire from which the Governor has yet to extricate himself.
As my grandfather always said, "Arrogance isn’t arrogance if you can back it up."
Given the national attention generated from Christie’s substantial achievements — accomplished despite sizable Democratic legislative majorities — that quote has been most applicable to the Governor.
Critics and political foes winced in despair as they saw that Christie was an immovable object when it came to reining in out-of-control public sector unions, putting the brakes on state spending and making teachers more accountable, all while not raising taxes. He was a man on a mission, barnstorming the state to sell his ideas and explain why painful cuts were necessary. Chris Christie, unlike some other Republican governors from critical swing states, understood what the bully pulpit was and redefined how to use it to maximum effect.
He is a leader who rarely reads a speech or uses a teleprompter, and he actively courts the media rather than avoiding them. His blunt, down-to-earth and sometimes in-your-face style resonates not just throughout the state, but the nation. The fact that he is a politician who actually speaks his mind, and does so off-the-cuff, has made him — although not all his policies — extremely popular.
But there is a danger in Christie having such an aggressive, and some say, abrasive personality, given that he is involved in so many controversial issues and holds himself to a higher standard.
While that style can score the Governor huge political points, it can also be an Achilles heel when an unexpected negative comes along. Such a personality is one that seems to throw fuel on the fire.
Christie is just learning that concept.
The Governor recently took a state police helicopter to his son’s high school baseball game, landing in full view of the spectators and riding in a black car with tinted windows the 200 feet to the bleachers. Several innings into the game, he took off and flew to the Governor’s mansion — to meet with presidential fundraisers from Iowa.
Christie was caught offguard by the ensuing firestorm, and, as a result, voluntarily reimbursed the state police for the first leg of the trip, and had the state GOP organization reimburse the trip to the mansion.
At a press conference, he did not apologize or admit wrongdoing, and he stated that, while his trips were legal (which they were) and appropriate, he made the reimbursement so as not to "allow" the media and political "hacks" to turn the CopterGate issue into a circus.
He also said that he would not "permit" the issue to divert attention from the serious problems facing New Jersey.
That all sounds good, but reality is something entirely different. As the Governor should know, those things are not within his power to control. The story not only isn’t going away, but it’s a certainty the Democrats are already producing television ads attacking Christie for what they will undoubtedly label as a hypocritical and elitist action.
Like the Hamburger Report, it’s irrelevant whether the Governor thinks the issue is a trivial one that should just go away. Perception is reality, and Christie’s adversaries will make sure that the public and media perceive the issue to be more important than it really is. Some legislators are even calling for hearings investigating his use of helicopters and whether anyone was denied medical transport because of the Governor’s baseball game trip.
It’s classic Politics 101. When you can’t beat your opponent on the real issues, find something juicy (but unimportant), and run with it. Getting a powerhouse like Chris Christie off-track is just as good as defeating his agenda.
Christie is too strong to be down for long, and he will weather this storm. And assuming he doesn’t hand his political foes another golden opportunity, his reputation will recover. But there are certain truisms, fair or not, that he would be wise to understand, especially if, as many expect, he runs for President in the future.
1) You are a Republican, and there is a double standard. Deal with it. The media, overall, is a facilitator of that, and it’s not changing anytime soon. The quicker GOP leaders understand that, the more effective they are.
2) You are, most definitely, not an MIA, Do-Nothing Governor. The fact that you are tackling the toughest issues— in heavily unionized, traditionally Democratic New Jersey, no less — and winning, is remarkable. But that makes you a target, and your adversaries, who have been unsuccessfully looking for a way to dent your armor, for once hit a bulls-eye. Don’t give them another opportunity, since they cannot win on the issues.
3) Rationalizations for un-shrewd political moves only make the situation worse. Stating that your predecessors used helicopters much more than you have, the pilots need the airtime anyway, and even reimbursing the state police is meaningless, as the damage is already done. (Truth is, Christie has used helicopters very sparingly, flying only 33 times in 17 months, versus, in some cases, over 1,000 trips by former governors). The issue is not a Governor using a state helicopter, but using it for personal and political trips.)
4) No one disputes that you are a dedicated father who cherishes watching your son’s game, but 99 percent of other parents feel the same way, and a majority of them often cannot make those games due to work constraints. Your use of state resources, whether or not they are cost-neutral, makes you look like anything but a man of the people.
5) The only way not to "permit" serious issues from being sidetracked, and not "allowing" the media and the "hacks" to turn these types of issues into a "circus," is to not give them the material to do so.
In a little over a year, Governor Christie has done the impossible. He has made New Jersey relevant and competitive, and, more important, brought a palpable sense of pride back to residents of the Garden State. In doing so, though, he has also made many self-interested enemies who have been breathlessly waiting to pounce on the Governor for his first mistake.
While he opened the door for them in a way that was wholly preventable, he has the force of personality to slam it shut by not repeating that kind of mistake. For the sake of New Jersey, let’s hope he does, so that his remarkable successes do not get overshadowed by Jersey’s own Hamburger Report.
Chris Freind is an independent columnist, television commentator, and investigative reporter who operates his own news bureau, www.FreindlyFireZone.com. Readers of his column, "Freindly Fire," hail from six continents, thirty countries and all fifty states. His work has been referenced in numerous publications includingThe Wall Street Journal, National Review Online, foreign newspapers, and in Dick Morris’ recent bestseller "Catastrophe." Freind, whose column appears regularly in Philadelphia Magazine and nationally in Newsmax, also serves as a frequent guest commentator on talk radio and state/national television, most notably on FOX Philadelphia. He can be reached at [email protected].