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Chris Christie and Thomas Jefferson: Liar, liar, pants on fire

Governor Chris Christie
Governor Chris Christie
Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

Political revenge is simply a misuse of power, and it is not new in American politics. Not telling the truth, has unfortunately, been accepted as part of the political process. The phrase, “liar, liar, pants on fire,” has been around schoolyards for generations. These days the phrase seems appropriate when considering political bullying. In addition to shading the truth, other traits of a political bully might be having a bad temper, or experiencing fits of rage when things don’t go as planned, and finally, revenge.

It has been suggested by some that Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey is a political bully. The hot-tempered Christie, had been, until now, regarded as a potential Presidential candidate in 2016. The George Washington Bridge connects New York City and New Jersey and carries tens of thousands of commuters to their jobs each day. The press has reported that when Christie ran for his recent re-election as governor, the mayor on the New Jersey side of the bridge refused to support him. An angry Christie retaliated by having some of the bridge lanes shut down, which of course, caused severe traffic issues and thousands of commuters were late for work. Christie, of course, denied knowing anything about it.

Once it became clear that the accusers had the goods on him, he indignantly pointed his finger at Bridget Ann Kelly, his own chief aide. Despite her years of loyalty, Ms. Kelly quickly went under the bus. She was fired and he called her a liar. Christie then forced his boyhood friend, David Wildstein to quit his year job with the bridge port authority. If this wasn’t enough heat on Christie’s pants, the mayor of Hoboken, Dawn Zimmer, decided it was time for her to tattle on the governor, too. She had not supported Christie’s redevelopment plan and she claimed that the Governor sought revenge by holding back promised disaster funds for Hoboken. Christie, of course, said that was a lie, too. You can’t believe her, he had said, because she was constantly changing her story. The governor seems to be embroiled in scandals, but, he claims it is never his fault. Denying and running for cover is another side of a political bully.

It may be hard to believe, but some of our founding fathers had the same challenges. Washington was said to have a rather nasty disposition when crossed. Little John Adams' anger erupted publicly and on a regular basis. Both Presidents sacked subordinates when necessary, denied complaints when they were sometimes accurate, certainly shaded the truth on occasion, and ran for cover when their pants got too hot. They didn’t, however, seek revenge, and that is why they are not political bullies.

Quiet, some say even timid, Thomas Jefferson lacked the noticeable spark of anger of his predecessors. He, like Christie, used revenge as one of his political tools. Jefferson’s target was Aaron Burr, the Vice President of the United States. They were initially friendly, both socially, as well as politically. Burr was a rising New York politician, well connected and he and Jefferson shared a similar vision. He convinced Jefferson that they should both be on the 1800 Presidential ticket. The understanding was that Burr would bring in Northern votes for the better-known Virginian; Jefferson would win and Burr would come in second, making him, by the law, Vice President. That is what happened, but unexpectedly there was a tie in the electoral vote. The Senate would decide. Burr became greedy with the idea of the Presidency, and he waged a behind- the- scenes campaign to get the votes needed to steal the prize away from Jefferson. Jefferson won, of course, but he never trusted Burr again. That should have been the end of the story.

Understandably, Jefferson refused to allow Burr to be a member of his cabinet, or even participate in discussions about federal policy. Burr’s only responsibility was to preside over the Senate. He was Vice President in name only. The only notable thing that Burr did while Vice President was to kill Alexander Hamilton in a duel. The pair had been political enemies, but frankly, they just didn’t like each other. The duel was a fair one, but many felt that Burr had murdered Hamilton. Jefferson never said a word in the defense of his Vice President. In the next election, Jefferson dropped him off the ticket and Burr was without a job, and soon into more trouble.

It is not clear what happened, but it was said that Burr was conspiring against the United States to build a western army and create a separate colony. Relying on rumor, not evidence, Thomas Jefferson, the champion of the people, decided that Aaron Burr, whom he now despised, was a citizen who did not deserve rights, and demanded his arrest for treason. Supreme Court Justice John Marshall and former President Adams both loudly complained of Jefferson’s obvious misuse of power. Jefferson was eager to literally finish off Burr. In the end, Burr endured several treason trials, all pushed forward by Jefferson, and he was acquitted each time. Although not guilty of treason, Jefferson still got his revenge because Burr was finished, both politically and financially.

When it comes to being honest with the public, our first two Presidents appear to have had clean hands. Their administrations did lack the drama and deceit of others, and by modern standards, they were a bit dull. Jefferson, however, turned his adminstration into a drama, by letting his hatred of Burr, cloud his judgment.

Let’s face it, Chris Christie’s hands are not clean either, but really, who cares? The public has come to expect this type of shenanigans from our elected officials. Should we blame Christie, and other politicians who might be less than truthful, or should we look closely at the real problem – ourselves? Our society needs to change its list of priorities. Understanding Washington and Adams might be a good start.

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