A masterful performance, but hold the applause

FILE - In this Dec. 1, 2013 file aerial photo, the tollbooth lanes, lower left, lead to the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee, N.J. Many people have known little about Fort Lee until a political scandal centering on New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie enveloped the borough. Now for residents of the New York City bedroom community defined by both a feisty pride and frustration over the mixed blessings of proximity to the George Washington Bridge, the scandal is the reminder they did not need of how the bridge dictates the rhythm of everyday life. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File)
FILE - In this Dec. 1, 2013 file aerial photo, the tollbooth lanes, lower left, lead to the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee, N.J. Many people have known little about Fort Lee until a political scandal centering on New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie enveloped the borough. Now for residents of the New York City bedroom community defined by both a feisty pride and frustration over the mixed blessings of proximity to the George Washington Bridge, the scandal is the reminder they did not need of how the bridge dictates the rhythm of everyday life. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File)
Posted: January 11, 2014

Gov. Christie needed to reassure those who find themselves wondering if the man they thought they knew is for real, or really too much.

"I am sorry," he told a skeptical press corps (and, polls suggest, a doubtful public) at a packed Statehouse question-and-answer session Thursday.

He said he was sorry not once, or in one form, but several ways, repeatedly. And then, once more, with feeling: "The person that needs to apologize is me."

Held just 24 hours after a scandal eruption far too hot for a single performance to extinguish, the Republican governor's marathon news conference nevertheless effectively delivered his message:

I'm the same Chris Christie I've always been - the Jersey guy you know and love, or love to hate.

I'm tough, but I'm not a bully.

And I'm certainly not vengeful, reckless, or stupid enough to play a dirty trick like the one you're hearing about.

These and other reassurances became necessary after a jaw-dropping cache of e-mails and texts made headlines Wednesday.

The digital missives were the work of Christie staffers, operatives, and allies who appeared to either know of, or be involved in, the orchestration of traffic jams on the Fort Lee side of the George Washington Bridge in September.

The messages also suggested that the goal was to punish the borough's Democratic mayor, Mark Sokolich, supposedly for refusing to endorse the governor for reelection.

Worse, authors of the messages seemed to take puerile and partisan pleasure in the gridlock that resulted from the machinations.

"I was disturbed by the tone and the attitude of callous indifference displayed," said Christie, whose news conference offered a contrasting blend of candor, charisma, and contrition.

"I need to apologize . . . for my failure, as the governor of this state, to understand the true nature of this problem sooner than I did," Christie said, deftly holding himself accountable while distancing himself, too.

"Everything he could have done well, he did well," said Eric Dezenhall, a Cherry Hill native who runs a crisis management firm in the Washington area. "It was pretty flawless. Of course, there's a lot we don't know."

Such as how or why a deputy staffer in the governor's office, Bridget Kelly (whom he fired Thursday), became such a central player. Or how she came to collaborate with the governor's Port Authority appointee, David Wildstein, who resigned last month and is busy taking the Fifth.

Or in what way Christie's trusted adviser Bill Stepien (sent packing by the governor late Wednesday) was involved besides offering e-mail observations.

"I have no evidence that it [the jamming] went beyond this one incident," said the governor, who would have us believe that a freelance rogue operation arose spontaneously and was executed so surreptitiously that no one (except drivers marooned in toll lanes) realized something was amiss until publication of the e-mails.

Christie did a more credible job of deflating suspicions that he directly ordered the jams. And he deftly cast doubt on the notion that he has set such a belligerent tone for his administration that excesses of this sort are to be expected.

While Dezenhall admired the governor's "impressive" display of damage-control dexterity, he noted that scandals do not exist in a vacuum.

"The problem is that it's one of these scandals that validates core suspicions - [that Christie is] hotheaded, vindictive, thuggish, thin-skinned, etc.," he said.

On Thursday, Christie was none of those things. He was reasonable and resolute; agreeable, bipartisan, down-to-earth.

"I take him [at] his word," Sokolich, the Fort Lee mayor, said after accepting Christie's apology late in the day.

Facing the music and making amends Thursday, the governor was good. Whether he and his words will be good enough going forward is another question.


kriordan@phillynews.com

856-779-3845 @inqkriordan

www.inquirer.com/blinq

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