A Tale of Two Bullies: Why Chris Christie Is No Lyndon Johnson

Americans may admire a politician who can play hardball, but it matters whether his victim is a political opponent or an innocent citizen.

"That man will twist your arm off at the shoulder and beat your head in with it," Senator Richard Russell, right, said of President Johnson. (Yoichi Okamoto/National Archives)

I am a born-and-raised New Jerseyan, and while I didn't vote for Chris Christie, I remember liking him during his first term as governor. I remember him talking about why he campaigned in poor, overwhelmingly Democratic cities such as Paterson: "I know I'm not going to win there," he would explain, "but I'm going to win, and when I do I want all those folks to know that I'm their governor, too, and I cared enough about them to ask them for their vote even if their answer was ‘no.'"

With David Wildstein, the dismissed Port Authority official who administered the now-infamous Fort Lee lane closures, now claiming there is evidence the governor knew about the closures when they happened, that early-days Christie feels as sad and distant a memory as my family's house at Point Pleasant Beach—lost, as the Springsteen song goes, in the flood.

Ezra Klein recently mulled Christie's rise in the context of modern American nostalgia for Lyndon Johnson's strong-arming style. In part because of our weak-executive system of government, Klein argued, "The public admires bullying leaders who get things done while loathing the tactics that make their achievements possible." Christie's problem, according to Klein, is that those tactics came to light: "As long as the methods were hidden and only the results public, he was applauded for it," Klein wrote. This argument is essentially an elaboration on Bob Dylan: "In Jersey anything's legal, as long as you don't get caught."

Leaving aside the false premise that Christie's hardnosed style was ever particularly hidden, Klein fails to draw a key distinction between Christie and LBJ. What he misses—and what makes Christie's behavior worse—is the difference between ruthlessness toward other political figures undertaken to benefit the people (which may be wrong, but may be excused), and ruthlessness toward the people undertaken to benefit a political figure (which is worse, and inexcusable). Bullying is never right, that is to say, but in assessing degrees of wrong in politics, voters tend to look at who gets hurt—a political colleague or an everyday citizen—and who benefits: you or your constituents.

Take, with regard to the question of who gets hurt, some of Christie's earlier acts of alleged "retribution" that Klein quotes from Kate Zernike's December New York Times article:

a former governor who was stripped of police security at public events; a Rutgers professor who lost state financing for cherished programs; a state senator whose candidate for a judgeship suddenly stalled; another senator who was disinvited from an event with the governor in his own district.

As petty and vengeful as these stories sound, each of them concerns a person who had entered the political arena. (The Rutgers professor, Alan Rosenthal, was an active public figure, served on a legislative redistricting commission, and was ranked first on a New Jersey political blog's 2011 list of "the 100 most influential [non-elected] personalities in New Jersey politics"; he was also an eminent scholar of state legislatures, respected on both sides of the aisle, who passed away last July.) These facts don't make Christie's alleged behavior praiseworthy; no citizen's ideal political leader would be petty or vengeful. But it matters that the recipients were people who sought out politics.

Politics is often called a contact sport, and in this sense it is like actual contact sports. You waive your right not to get tackled when you choose to join a football game; you don't when you choose to walk to the grocery store. It beggars belief that anyone would enter politics—especially New Jersey politics—and not expect to take some hits. Though nothing to be proud of, politics in this country has always been a field in which someone might stall your judgeship, cut off your project's funding, or exclude you from an event to score a political point. Christie takes personal hits, too—his weight has certainly been mocked in public by his political opponents more than any private citizen would ever tolerate.

Many politicians accept the slings and arrows of the game because they accept the basic Machiavellian premise: "not only that politicians must do evil in the name of the public good," as philosopher-turned-politician Michael Ignatieff has argued, "but also that they shouldn't worry about it." It's the recognition that the political space is one of conflict, and one where morality is limited in some ways.

Even so, morality is not—and never should be—absent from the equation: The key stipulation, which Machiavelli took seriously, is "in the name of the public good." In other words: You may have to do ruthless things to your political opponents, but you do those things because they help your constituents. It matters, in politics, who benefits.

Such is the case with LBJ's strong-arm tactics. Yes, he deceived, threatened, and browbeat colleagues—"That man will twist your arm off at the shoulder and beat your head in with it," Dixiecrat Senator Richard Russell, a staunch opponent of civil rights, famously observed. But we are, rightly, most tempted to forgive LBJ these trespasses when he undertook them on behalf of his constituents, especially disenfranchised black people in the South and poor people across America—when he was bullying, you might say, for a cause. It may still have fallen below the mark of what the American people should expect from their leaders, but it's also more excusable than bullying without a cause (which Johnson dabbled in, too, and which no one praises). Good ends, in politics, may not justify all means—but you don't have to be a ruthless Machiavellian to accept that, with the right intentions, they can mitigate some means.

Christie's recent scandals, meanwhile, appear to turn that logic on its head. Quadrupling working people's commutes in Fort Lee and withholding Hurricane Sandy relief from Hoboken, as Christie's administration is alleged to have done, isn't holding up your colleague's judgeship because you want to get a reform bill passed—it's wreaking havoc on the daily lives of many of your own constituents to settle a personal score. The victims are real people, and the beneficiary is one politician. There's no offsetting public gain.

To bring back the sports analogy, it's the difference between delivering a bone-crushing hit on the opposing team's quarterback and delivering a bone-crushing hit on some of the opposing team's fans. It's one thing when you feel your governor is fighting hard for you; it's another when you feel he's just fighting.

Klein, in his piece, gestures at Christie's riff at the 2012 Republican National Convention in which he downplayed the importance of being loved. "The unstated corollary, of course, is that Christie, unlike Obama, knows how to be feared," Klein writes.

But there is no "unstated corollary," because Christie stated the corollary in the speech—he was telling a story about advice his mother gave him (a story he used to tell on the stump back in Jersey):

And the greatest lesson that mom ever taught me though was this one. She told me there would be times in your life when you have to choose between being loved and being respected. Now she said to always pick being respected. She told me that love without respect was always fleeting, but that respect could grow into real and lasting love.

It's no big deal that Klein forgot that the dichotomy was love versus respect, not love versus fear. It's a Sandy-level tragedy for my home state that our governor may have.