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Christie's Problem

Chris Christie with his arm around David Wildstein last June. Since then, the governor has described his appointee as “tumultuous.”
Chris Christie with his arm around David Wildstein last June. Since then, the governor has described his appointee as “tumultuous.”blogs,wsj.com

You know the governor of New Jersey is in trouble when his best defense is to argue he’s a bad manager.

Chris Christie has maintained for months he knew nothing about the decision to close lanes on the George Washington Bridge. On January 9, in a press conference called after emails revealed a top aide had ordered the traffic jam, he said, “I had no knowledge of this -- of the planning, the execution or anything about it -- and that I first found out about it after it was over.”

This week, Christie said, "Let's make one thing clear. The most important issue is, did I know anything about the plan to close these lanes, did I authorize it, did I know about it, did I approve it, did I have any knowledge of it beforehand. And the answer is still the same. It's unequivocally, no."

There is some discrepancy between those two statements. In the first, Christie says he did not find out about the lane closings until after the lanes reopened; in the second comment, a month later, he says he had no knowledge “beforehand.” Christie also said this week that before the email release in early January, "This was not an issue. There’s traffic every day. ... I hear those reports on the radio; we all hear about them. That's not something that rises to the gubernatorial level.”

The conflicts in Christie statements may reflect imprecision and confusion, or they may be a carefully calibrated walking back of what he knew and when he knew it in response to The New York Times story that the lawyer for David Wildstein, the Port Authority official who oversaw the lane closings, claims “evidence exists” the governor knew about the lane closings as they occurred.

No doubt more will surface in the coming weeks and months about when the governor first learned of the lane closings. If he knew beforehand, then Christie is culpable. If he learned of the lane closings while they were happening, then he’s a bad manager since, by his own admission, he took no action even though traffic, leaving New Jersey for New York City, was snarled for hours.

And if Christie only learned about the lane closings after “it was over,” as he claimed on January 9, then he’s not only a bad manager, he’s clueless. Does a politician who has been positioning himself for a White House run really want to be perceived, at best, as a bad manager, or, at worst, as clueless?

Christie further indicted his management style when his staff released a message responding to the the newspaper story about evidence existing that the governor knew about the lane closings while they were closed. The message viciously attacks Wildstein, claiming “people and newspaper accounts have described him as ‘tumultuous’ and someone who ‘made moves that were not productive.’” It dissects Wildstein’s past, claiming that as a 16-year-old, he sued over a local school board election, that his high school social studies teacher accused him of deceptive behavior, that he was an anonymous blogger knowns as “Wally Edge,” and that he had the “strange habit of registering web addresses for other people’s names without telling them.”

Wildstein sure sounds like an odd dude. If Christie thought so, why did he bring Wildstein into his administration, making him director of interstate capital projects at the Port Authority (to do what nobody apparently knows in a position subsequently eliminated)? It gets worse. Remember that January 9 press conference, the one in which Christie says this about Wildstein: "You know, I was the class president and athlete. I don't know what David was doing during that period of time?” In other words, Christie saw fit to trash Wildstein a month before publication of the Times story about evidence existing that he knew of the lane closings as they took place. Again, why did he appoint Wildstein director of anything?

Which may be why Wildstein now claims he knows about that evidence. Could it be that Wildstein felt obligated to exhibit the same amount of loyalty to the governor, his former high school classmate, as the governor showed him?

All of which means Christie is not only not a good manager, perhaps even a clueless one, but not a very smart politician, either.