The Only Chance for Politicians to Be Tough Is in Office Memos

Here's a secret about the world of politics: the sort of over-the-top, tough-guy bluster that's about to get Chris Christie in a whole lot of trouble is par for the course.

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Here's a secret about the world of politics: the sort of over-the-top, tough-guy bluster that's about to get New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in a whole lot of trouble is par for the course. People who go into a field that prizes the Mafia-like qualities of power and loyalty, it turns out, like to pretend that the attitude comes with it.

I worked in politics in California, and it happened there, too. In the wake of the Christie revelations, I reached out to colleagues with whom I'd worked, telling them that I planned to write about how politicians love to oversell their toughness. And the responses I got were telling. "That bullshit drives me nuts," one said. Another: "Oh my god. So much to say about this." Everyone's been part of the threat-making, the scolding dismissiveness of opponents and their supporters, the kind of brash team fanaticism that plays out on a national scale in Internet comments.

So: "It's time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee," Christie's deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly typed, likely while twirling her Snidely Whiplash mustache. This is the email of the day, the message that links Christie to a traffic change in the town of Fort Lee that allegedly was intended to punish its Democratic mayor. But Kelly's message is followed closely in machismo by the text message sent from another Christie loyalist, declaring the children who couldn't get to school because of the traffic jams unimportant — "They are the children of Buono voters," Buono being Christie's Democratic opponent. This bluster — insensitive, damning, nasty — has been compared to The Sopranos or a sitcom character.

Which is how they were intended. The "traffic problems" line, which received a curt "Got it" in response, has the tenor of a wicked plot grinding into action, because — for a subordinate in the Jersey governor's mansion giving instructions to a subordinate at a transit agency to block commuter access to a bridge — that's as wicked a plot as you'll get. Not to mention as exciting: when people sign up for a life in the glamorous world of politics — in Trenton, Washington, or at City Hall — you picture House of Cards or The Wire (TV edition) or some sort of skulduggery-laced life of whispered conversations in shadowy hallways. You don't imagine brightly-lit community meetings night after night in which local residents moan about the designation of a public right-of-way for three hours. You find excitement where you can.

Then, on top of that, sprinkle the nature of politics. As we learned in 2012, there's still a deep reliance on superstition in politics, the sort of unwashed-socks-got-me-a-hit mentality used by ballplayers. Candidates don't run for office often, so when they do, they trust what got them there. And they trust the people that came with them for the ride, trust the people who knew them before they had power. David Wildstein, the loyalist who dismissed the Buono kids — cackling and sneering — knew Chris Christie in high school and followed the governor's career until Wildstein landed the number two spot at the New Jersey side of the Port Authority. Either New Jersey's Livingston High School is a hotbed for people who will excel in public positions, or Wildstein got the gig in part thanks to that relationship. Loyalty is often as important a quality for politicians looking to fill positions as is skill. Which, in turn, reinforces an us-against-the-world mentality, a mob family feel even outside of New Jersey.

"The best example," one of my former colleagues wrote to me, "is the number of rooms I've been in when someone says: 'Are you kidding me, he did what?  They'll never get another dime from us' — and then about a week later these same people are all having lunch and no one says anything. I would say about 90% of the trash talk is just that, used mostly to impress people in your own office or circle."

If you've worked in politics, you're nodding. If you haven't, it's easy to fall into the assumption that this is some stereotypical pattern where a high school student council enthusiast, given power to wield, lets it become a bludgeon. But it's really simpler and less Freudian than that. It's the tendency of everyone in every position to make themselves into a big fish in a small pond by constantly redefining the size of the world's important ponds downward. It's the sort of bravado that coworkers of all stripes offer, but heightened by insularity, political tension, and power.

The point is this: That Kelly launched Operation F*ck Fort Lee with a snarly, tough-guy message isn't unusual. That she may have been involved in getting the Port Authority to change traffic patterns to punish an opponent is. Don't get distracted by the Bada Bing language, the dumb nonsense that political types (like, once upon a time, me) have used to chuff themselves up since, well, Caesar. What you want to look at isn't Tony Soprano. Pay attention to what he's doing.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.