Politics and Profanity

Each year, there is a “roast” of the governor of New Jersey attending by politicians, journalists, and lobbyists. This year’s roast was held at the Hamilton banquet hall and was attended by about 350 people.

When it was Chris Christie’s turn to speak, here is a sampling of what he had to say:

About Bridgegate, Christie said to the journalists, “”We don’t give a shit about this or any of you.”

Later, he directed his attention to one journalist in particular, advising that the journalist should “open your eyes” and “clean the shit out of your ears.”

And he said, pointing to another journalist, “This is a guy who says he doesn’t know what I’m doing every day. Then just get the fuck away from me if you don’t know what I’m doing.”

Of course, the progressive media and bloggers have had a field day with these comments, asking rhetorically if someone who is a serious candidate for the presidency can indulge in such profanity in a public setting.

I came of age, as they say, during the Watergate era, and I remember the paperback edition of the transcripts of the Nixon tapes was a “must have” not because anyone was actually going to read it (it was about an inch and a half thick) but because in each instance in which someone had used a profanity, the word was omitted and the phrase “expletive deleted,” set off in brackets, was substituted. On some pages, that phrase seemed to take up the majority of the space.

Don’t get me wrong. I was not shocked then, and I am recalling that experience now to explain why I am not shocked by anything that Christie said at the roast. In fact, if the ability to use profanity with a flourish were the major criterion for being in Nixon’s inner circle, I might have had a shot at a cabinet position—and, by extension, I might now be governor of New Jersey.

In fact, if one takes into account the context—that Christie was at a roast—the comments become almost completely inconsequential, especially since Christie already has a well-established persona as someone who is not afraid to engage in bare-knuckled politics.

So, his use of profanity does not in itself seem to me to be a substantive issue.

But here is what I think is the issue for him.

If you have followed Christie’s response to the Bridgegate scandal and the other issues swirling around his administration—all of which he keeps trying very prematurely to declare dead—his main defense has been to abandon his usual confrontational style and to assume, instead, an almost opposite persona. Recall his first press conference after he had fired Bridget Kelly, in which he rather quietly enunciated his complete shock and profound disappointment that someone in such a critical position on his personal staff would take it upon herself to behave in such a manner. Politically, the persona was more important than anything he said—though commentators quickly rushed to point out that, legally, the exact opposite might turn out to be the case. Christie was a very subdued version of himself, not chastened but reflective. In effect, he acted as if he was dropping the bluster and bravado—his usual bullying persona—and offering, instead, sincerity and a sort of intimate honesty. In effect, he was asking viewers and voters how he could be accused of being involved in such stupidly vindictive political acts when he was so willing to speak straight from the heart to them about those incidents.

And to a great extent, the strategy worked. The adoption of a persona so completely opposite from that which everyone had come to expect from him, especially on contentious political issues, took everyone off guard and bought him some time.

The problem for Christie is that every time that he resorts to that persona now, the more it seems like a gimmick.

This past week, a poll was released that showed that about two out of three voters in New Jersey would not vote for Christie for president. When he was interviewed on Megan Kelly’s show on the FOX News channel and he was asked about the implications of those poll numbers, Christie assumed his “sincere” persona and explained very patiently that the numbers were not what they seemed—that many, if not most, of those who responded no simply do not wish for him to leave the governorship of New Jersey for the presidency. So, just to be clear, his explanation was the numbers did not reflect a rejection of his administration’s policies but, instead, a resounding approval of his performance as governor.

Like just about everyone else who has seen the clip of the interview, I was more impressed by the balls it took to employ such a strategy than by the political merits of that strategy.

Christie has now very firmly defined himself as one of those people—and they do exist outside of politics—who has convinced himself that if he says something with conviction, then everyone will believe it. And he has two very different ways of conveying his conviction—confrontational bluster and self-effacing sincerity.

The problem is that most other people have all sorts of layers of personality in between those two extremes, and so the persona that initially made him a very marketable political commodity because it was so easy for voters to latch onto has now become a political cage. That public personas and its expedient obverse no longer have much shock-value in themselves—which explains why the progressive outrage over his profanity fell very flat. Rather, the transparency of his manipulation of those personas and their ever more limited political usefulness is what is becoming shocking.

It is one thing to convey to voters that you will say whatever truly needs to be said—and then some.

It is quite another thing to convey to voters that you are willing to say just about anything.

Or, to express this point as Christie himself might have done so at that roast at the Hamilton banquet hall, it is quite another thing to convey to voters that you are willing to pull your convictions out of your ass.


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