[I apologize for publishing the following essay on one of our nation’s most sacred days: the one dedicated to the memory of the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. But contrasts are as legitimate as praise. It’s impossible to imagine Dr. King or any of his staff shutting down traffic from Fort Lee, let alone shutting down our government or threatening a national default.
As we honor Dr. King’s memory today, it’s appropriate to consider how far we and our pols have fallen from his ideals, and what we can do to regain them. Neither vengeance nor extortion was ever in Dr. King’s heart, and the best way to remember him is to emulate him.
The GOP Persona
Coda: let’s have no more governors, please!
Last September, Chris Christie’s staff shut down Fort Lee’s access to the George Washington Bridge in an act of political retribution. Now the hubbub about the bullying is starting to die down.
But the story has legs. Its legs are as long and as strong as Christie’s presidential ambitions. They’re resting now. But like the Terminator, they’ll be back.
They’ll be back not just because keeping the story alive is good politics for Dems and will work poetic justice. They’ll be back because the whole sordid tale exemplifies what’s wrong with American politics today.
There are three good reasons why Christie may be toast, so far as concerns his presidential ambitions. The first is his own political persona.
Wasn’t he supposed to be Mr. Nice Guy? Wasn’t he the guy who hugged the President of the United States for getting aid to battered New Jersey quickly after Hurricane Sandy? Didn’t he do so at a time when just being seen in a photograph with the President was grounds for being “primaried”?
Back then, no one knew that the Tea Party was just a Southern invention
, a hail-Mary pass to refight the Civil War in the twenty-first century. Most Republicans, and many others, thought the Tea Party was the GOP’s future. Yet Christie seemed to take the extremists on.
So he got points for being brave and being human. People of both parties began to think that we Yanks might have a future, and that he might be part of it.
Then came the traffic-stall vendetta. Fort Lee’s democratic mayor, Mark Sokolich, refused to endorse Christie’s 2013 re-election campaign. So thousands of Fort Lee’s people had to spend an hour or more of gridlock getting into Manhattan, in an act of pure political vengeance.
You can bet that Christie’s minion’s e-mail words
, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” will follow him wherever he goes, especially in national politics.
It doesn’t matter that he claims he didn’t know. Only morons ignore the strategy of plausible deniability. Christie’s Academy-Award-winning apology doesn’t matter either, because what his team did was so starkly different from what he claimed to be. No one who thinks about it for a moment will be able to reconcile his two public personas, Jekyll and Hyde.
So the bloom is off the rose. Christie kissed the President’s ring because the President could help him and his state at a time of dire need. Then his team tried to crush Fort Lee’s Mayor, who is much less powerful, just because it could.
Isn’t that what Mafia do: kiss the capo’s ring and rough up unruly minions? And isn’t that precisely how most outsiders think of New Jersey?
The political ad makers will have a field day. They’ll portray Christie as a Mafia hit man. And they’ll do it at a gut level, beyond and below reason.
There will be poetic justice in that. The GOP’s propagandists invented the technique. Remember Willie Horton and the blonde saying “Call me, Harold” to defeat Congressman Harold E. Ford, Jr., as a candidate for senator from Tennessee?
But there’s a much more important reason why Christie should, and probably will, be toast. It’s the notion of total political war.
Who got hurt by the retribution? It wasn’t the mayor of Fort Lee. He emerged an innocent bystander, a minor and accidental hero. The actual victims were thousands of Fort Lee commuters to Manhattan, who struggled with godawful traffic for several days.
Last time I looked, Fort Lee was in New Jersey. So Christie’s office retaliated against his own constituents for having the effrontery to elect a mayor from another party and not forcing that mayor to endorse Christie’s campaign. His team’s vengeance made innocent citizens suffer, not pols.
The notion of “total war” appears to have been a German invention. Just this week, the PBS program “Nova” explained its birth
. During the First
World War, one Fregattenkapitän Peter Strasser turned Zeppelins into terror weapons, ordering them to bomb civilian targets in London.
His “logic” was simple. The British were the enemy. Some of the dead or injured civilians might have been working in munitions factories or otherwise supporting the British war effort. And anyway, terrorizing innocent civilians would hurt Britain’s morale and maybe bring the awful war to an earlier end.
Strasser’s airborne terror prefigured the Second World War. From Nazi V-2 raids on London (infinitely more destructive than the Zeppelins’), to our own fire bombing of Dresden and Tokyo and nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the idea of total war gained converts. Innocent civilians became targets, big time.
The high water mark came in October 1962. We Yanks and the Soviet Union got within hours, maybe minutes, of extinguishing large portions of our civilian populations—and maybe our entire species—in nuclear fire. The “logical” conclusion of total war was species self-extinction.
Fortunately for our species, we are in the process of abandoning that absurd and horrendous idea. Drones and ninjas may be ugly. They may create unnecessary “collateral damage” and kill people without due process. But they are a whole lot better than extinguishing huge swaths of our civilian population
, let alone or our entire species, just to make a military/political point.
Like Fregattenkapitän Strasser, Christie’s minion Kelly wreaked retribution on innocent civilians. She waged total political war. And just like the Kaiser, who may or may not have fully approved of Strasser’s terror attacks, Christie will get the blame for not intervening in time.
As Harry Truman said, the buck stops at the top. Few will believe that something so ugly did not have at least tacit approval, or at least “cultural” validity, within Christie’s office. And whoever is actually at fault, no one will believe that what happened is consistent with his “Mr. Nice Guy” image.
The GOP Persona
As well all know from watching “West Wing,” retribution is part of our Yankee political culture. We live in the twenty-first century, but our pols still follow the Code of Hammurabi.
That anachronism does have a rationale. In a democratic society as populous and diverse as ours, politics must involve compromise. There is simply no other way. And sometimes compromise requires arm twisting.
Half a century ago, Lyndon Johnson knew how to twist arms. He had been Senate minority whip, minority leader, and majority leader for a total of nine years before becoming vice president and (on JFK’s murder) president. He had something on every member of Congress.
So as president, Johnson was able to work a political miracle. He got the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed
with the votes of Southern Democrats, nearly all of whom were racists, at least politically. Less than two years earlier, Alabama’s Democratic Governor George Wallace had declared “segregation today, segregation tomorrow . . . segregation forever.”
Johnson was a big, crude and vulgar man. He used to boast that he had legislators’ “peckers in mah pocket.” (Senators were all men in those days.) He used carrots, and he used sticks. He threatened to reveal the secrets he knew. He offered favors and threatened retaliation. When he had to, he followed through.
But even Lyndon Johnson never said anything about ordinary citizens
’ peckers. Whatever member he twisted, he kept the twisting within Congress. He didn’t wreak vengeance against innocent civilians. He didn’t make total war.
The GOP has, repeatedly, and not just in New Jersey. It has twice shut down our government, and it has repeatedly threatened default or near default. That would destroy our nation’s single most important asset: our sky-high national credit rating that has allowed us to extricate ourselves from the Crash that our own bankers caused with the lowest interest rates in modern history.
Ted Cruz may think he’s a smart guy. He may think he catapulted himself into national prominence, making an end run around the Senate’s stodgy rules of seniority. But what he really did was become a GOP symbol of total war on our innocent population. Don’t Republicans use national parks, too? Don’t they take loans?
Now Chris Christie, too, has become a symbol of total political war. He’s not as bad as Ted Cruz. He doesn’t have an evil smirk that recalls Demagogue Joe McCarthy to anyone old enough to remember. And he’s certainly not as extreme.
But Christie let his senior staff wage total war on civilians at time when our people are sick and tired of inaction, recalcitrance and getting even. And you can bet that, fair or not, political ads will liken Christie to Cruz, if not to Fregattenkapitän Strasser. In both parties, we Yanks are fed up to the teeth with the politics of spite.
We live in a complex world. Health insurance alone involves a uniquely intricate mix of insurance lore, economics and politics
. No one, including our brilliant President, appears to have mastered it fully.
If the supposed experts lack complete understanding and therefore can’t agree, what hope is there for the average voter, let along the “independents” or “undecided”? Aren’t these words just euphemisms for tuned-out, turned off, ignorant and uninformed people, who make up their minds by starting to pay attention to TV ads (and maybe even news) a few days before each election?
For some pols, it’s tempting to treat these people like cattle, forcing them to move with prods, or to stay put with barbed wire. But that’s not democracy, let alone the American way.
For some decades now, our GOP propagandists have tried to cut this Gordian knot of demagoguery with “hot-button” issues like abortion and gay marriage. That strategy enjoyed some political success. But its time, like the era of total war, is coming to an end.
Slowly but surely, people without jobs and homes and hope for the future are beginning to understand that abortions and gays’ marital happiness are not central to their lives. And some of them are even beginning to understand that these issues, too, are hardly black and white.
So what’s left? How can the ad makers—financed by the abomination of Citizens United
—sway ordinary, uninformed and disinterested people who can’t begin to understand the real issues and won’t take the time to do so?
Persona matters. John McCain lost because he came across as an angry, erratic and economically clueless bully who ran one of the ugliest and most racist campaigns in American history. Mitt Romney lost because he came across as an arrogant know-it-all, who grossly inflated his relevant experience, and who didn’t give a damn about 47% of us.
Barack Obama was elected President, twice. Why? Because he seemed calm, patient, hopeful, thoughtful, modest, moderate, empathetic and kind. He left nobody out. Next to those big differences, which any human can understand, his skin color didn’t matter much. People still like him, by huge margins, even as they ding his performance in office. For those of us from dysfunctional families (who are a lot of us) he was the kind, patient, thoughtful father we all wish we had had.
It’s character, stupid.
In the final analysis, what about Christie might make him president? His biography
reveals absolutely zero experience in military or foreign affairs. He knows nothing about economics or banking; New Jersey is hardly a banking center.
The 2016 campaign is only two years away. Can he make up a lifelong lack of relevant experience in just two years? Not hardly.
So what’s he got? Just a reputation for character.
Whether the Fort Lee incident has tarnished it irrevocably remains to be seen. Two years are an eternity in politics. But if you want a New Jersey pol with real
character, keep your eye on Cory Booker.
As far was we know, Booker’s
minions never wreaked pain or havoc on innocent people in an act of political vengeance. But he did run into a burning building to save a woman. And he’s now in the US Senate, where presumably he’ll learn something about military and foreign affairs, and maybe even macroeconomics. Think a president might need some of that?
Coda: let’s have no more governors, please!
The conventional wisdom that state governors are ready to become president is greatly exaggerated. A state governor is clueless in Washington for at least two or three years. After that, little time remains before the president leaves office or (if re-elected) becomes a lame duck.
Working with a state bureaucracy or state legislature is absolutely nothing like working with the federal bureaucracy or with Congress, let alone the Joint Chiefs. Few, if any, single states have anything like the wildly different geographies and cultures of, say, California, Florida, New York, and Texas, let alone the diversity, scope and self-obsession of our whole nation. To my knowledge, no state legislature has filibusters or senate holds. And not a single state has five enormous uniformed services, all bickering over priorities, prestige and budgets.
For a state governor, foreign and military policy are whole new worlds, literally. Even international trade turns out to have more to it than pandering to multinational corporations to create jobs in one’s state.
If you want to know just how much federal experience matters, compare the two Bushes’ records. The Senior Bush had a year of experience running the CIA, plus eight years as vice president. During his last few years as vice, his president (Reagan) was in his mid seventies and falling asleep in Cabinet meetings. So the Senior Bush had to pay attention.
He did. As president, he managed our shortest and most successful major war: Gulf I. And he was smart enough to heed Colin Powell’s advice to stay out of Baghdad.
In contrast, his Prodigal Son was the least experienced president
in our history. Dubya got his scant knowledge of foreign policy in a crash course from Saudi Prince Bandar during his presidential campaign. The results of his greenness lie in shambles all around the globe: in Afghanistan, Iraq, North Korea and Syria.
Even Bill Clinton, for all his surpluses and job creation, had little success abroad. He got away with being green by basking in the reflected glory of our supposed “win” in the Cold War, the Soviet Union’s dissolution, and Francis Fukuyama’s laughable “end of history.”
But all these things had been wrought by wiser, much more experienced men than he, hewing consistently to smart policy for decades before. Bill Clinton accomplished nothing
in the Middle East. Like Dubya, he missed a chance to kill bin Laden, for fear of “collateral damage.” He also helped set the precedent of appeasing the Kims, rather than managing them with China’s expert advice and immense leverage. If he
had had just a year at the helm of the CIA, he might have done better.
Speaking of China, recall that its top leaders all serve at least a five-year “apprenticeship” on the national ruling committee
before taking the reins. If we’re going to compete with leaders like that
, we’re going to have to give our presidents some experience in the wider world.
That’s why we Dems need to nurture our “comers”—Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren—with real, solid federal posts, not just political platforms. As a senior senator, Republican Dick Lugar was kind enough to nurture President Obama, while in the Senate, with a seat on the Foreign Affairs Committee and multiple trips to Russia. We as a people need to maintain and strengthen that brief tradition, big time.
I hope we never see another person leap straight from a governor’s mansion to the White House, let alone with Dubya’s mere six years of total political experience. Except for our general-presidents (including Grant and Eisenhower), Dubya and (with eight years as governor) Ronald Reagan were the least experienced presidents in our history. And generals don’t need instruction in how to handle the military.
We Yanks have got to stop treating the most important job on Earth like an episode of American Idol. Chinese leaders take decades climbing their agonizing ways up a huge 80-million-strong party apparatus. Then
they serve at least a five-year apprenticeship. If we don’t do something similar, they’ll make short work of us.
We need to groom our presidents for office, deliberately and systematically, like the Chinese. And we need to start now.
A governorship is a political beginning. By itself, it’s no training for the top job. If Christie wants to be president, he should spend some serious time working with the world outside New Jersey, preferably with more than vengeance on his mind.
The table below, adapted from an earlier version published in 2007
, shows just how light our presidents’ experience has been. Note how scant the national and international experience has been since Kennedy.
Pre-Presidential Experience of Selected Presidents: Total Years in State Legislature or Higher Elected Office Prior to Assuming Presidency
|President||StateLegislature||Governorship||U.S. House||U.S. Senate||Inaugural Age||Inaugural Year|
|John F. Kennedy||0||0||6||8||43||1961|
|George W. Bush||0||6||0||0||54||2001|
Yitzhak Rabin was the best hope for peace between Israel and Palestine in 66 years. He was assassinated by a Jewish
extremist in 1995, on Bill Clinton’s watch.
That certainly wasn’t President Clinton’s fault. But might a president with more experience and interest in foreign affairs, who might have been more engaged in them earlier in his tenure—before L’affaire Lewinski
neutered him domestically—have made a difference? We’ll never know.
History is not an experiment: you don’t get to rerun it under better conditions. That’s why we really do need presidents who, as Hillary said in 2008 (a bit prematurely
) are “ready on day one.” Only one of our last five (the Senior Bush) has been, although Senator Lugar’s mentoring of our current President helped. You, gentle reader, can judge the results of Prince Bandar’s tutoring Dubya for yourself.