I have always been a fan of blunt talk, a little brashness, and the unvarnished truth.
When Seattle Seahawk defender Richard Sherman went on his post-game rant after making the play to give his team a shot at the Super Bowl, I was initially appalled — until I figured out what he was saying: That he was the best cornerback in the league. Reminds me of Joe Namath when he guaranteed that his underdog New York Jets were going to defeat the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III. I liked Namath then on the field and off, as represented by his autobiography, “I Can’t Wait Until Tomorrow . . . ’Cause I Get Better Looking Every Day.” And I like Sherman now — and just hope that he can turn his self-promotional skills on a dime if his team loses at Super Bowl XLVIII.
Nearly a decade ago, when a Princeton professor wrote a book with a two-word title that was so controversial that the New York Times couldn’t print it in its review, I jumped at the chance to write a column about it in U.S. 1 (February 23, 2005): “Harry G. Frankfurt’s book, the Times noted [in a review titled ‘Between Truth and Lies, An Unprintable Ubiquity,’] is the first in the ‘distinguished history’ of the Princeton University Press ‘to carry a title most newspapers, including this one, would find unfit to print.’”
I could not join the Times and “most newspapers” in this parade of propriety. So I just printed the title, “On Bullshit.” As I wrote then, “to my way of thinking, dodging the word even as we contemplate the subject just adds to the bullshit.”
And, as I have said before in this space, when I die please don’t say I “passed on.” With most of my contemporaries now experiencing some sort of hearing impairment, the common response to a report of my “passing” would be “What did you say? Passed out? Just give him some coffee.”
So, back when the blunt and brash Governor Chris Christie moved to town, I had to admit: I admired the breath of fresh air that replaced Jon Corzine’s Goldman Sachs-style posturing. When the governor was urging residents to evacuate the New Jersey shore communities in advance of Hurricane Irene, I had to admire his choice of words that presumably had to resonate with a crowd that would include Snookie, the Situation, and other members of the Jersey Shore demographic: “Get the hell off the beach.”
And later, when the governor joined President Obama in a show of bipartisan support for the victims of Sandy, I was amazed — Chris Christie was actually defying the extreme right wing of his own party, risking his own political future in the process of serving his constituents. Then a few months later Christie went out on a limb again and criticized the House of Representatives for failing to vote on a Hurricane Sandy aid package before the end of the Congressional session. “Last night the House of Representatives failed that most basic test of public service, and they did so with callous indifference to the suffering of the people of my state,” Christie said. “There is only one group to blame for the continued suffering of these innocent victims: the House majority and their Speaker, John Boehner.”
But blunt talk doesn’t have to be bully talk. I began to think a little differently about the governor when I saw him in action with a woman calling in to a televised talk show. The question was why Christie chose to send his own children to private schools instead of public schools. The governor’s response was classic Christie. First he directed the television producers to determine the woman’s name. Then he blasted her: “Gail, first of all, it’s none of your damn business. I don’t ask you where you send your kids.”
I could see the emotional appeal of the governor’s no-nonsense straight talk, and I would guess that this interchange was quickly posted on the governor’s “highlight” reel of tough talk with his critics. But on any objective scale, the answer was insufficient. In fact it is our business if the governor chooses not to send his own children to the public system that he directs. Imagine the CEO of GM driving to the stockholders’ meeting in a Ford truck. He better have an explanation.
In the Christie case, that same question has been asked hundreds of times, especially of liberal Democrats living in Washington, D.C., and sending their kids to expensive private schools. Christie’s answer might have been “Thanks for the question, Gail. As you know our tradition combines freely available public education with private options that have to meet state standards. I have confidence in our public school system and believe it can be even better if [sounding presidential here] people on the other side of the aisle will work with me on common sense reforms. Meanwhile based on the unique circumstances of my family, private schools have been a better fit. [Then he could have added a touch of that Jersey tough guy talk.] You have a problem with that, Gail?”
In fact, Christie in that exchange did at least acknowledge that he was responsible for all the state’s public schools, but he couldn’t resist one more swipe at Gail at the very end — “it’s none of your business,” he repeated.
Now reporters are scurrying around chronicling other examples of Christie and his allies shutting down people with whom they disagree. One of those reporters is our own Dan Aubrey, editor of U.S. 1’s Preview section, who documented his run-in with Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno in our January 15 issue.
At this point, with lots of stories unfolding — or coming back into light — in the media, it’s easy for some to argue that the media is “piling on” to the governor. But look closely at the Aubrey story. The war against Aubrey, an independent consultant at the time working for various state agencies, and others at the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, was exposed by the Star-Ledger, one of the few papers still attempting state-wide coverage of New Jersey.
But after that story ran Aubrey, despite the toll of the false accusations, just wanted to move on and take care of his personal and professional business. A year or so later, Aubrey applied to be Preview editor of U.S. 1. Everyone in the Princeton arts community said “great choice.” I did a Google search and the first thing that hit me was a reference to fraud and misuse of state funds. Fortunately I actually read the story below the headline.
Aubrey wasn’t clamoring to relive his Kafka-esque ordeal with Guadagno in the pages of U.S. 1. And I saw no present-day relevance to the story until the E-mails were released in the George Washington Bridge incident. As Aubrey wrote in his article, he felt queasy during the state’s “investigation,” and he felt “queasy” writing about it. His experience makes Hoboken mayor Dawn Zimmer, who claims she was shaken down by the lieutenant governor over support for a development deal, totally believable when she says she remained supportive of Christie because she was sure no one would believe her.
Then Aubrey and I both realized that his story might not connect the dots between Christie and Guadagno, but it would provide another dot that might help paint the full picture of this administration.
As Christie’s national flame grew brighter, people around him — possibly including some reporters — were drawn closer. Who wouldn’t want to be on the good side of a crowd that’s working today at the State House in Trenton but in a few years might be at the White House in Washington?
How fast these worms all turn. Up until a few weeks ago, people in downtown Princeton were noting that Chris Christie had appeared to already have a favorite table — at the Witherspoon Grill. Would a President Christie eventually dine there? Not likely now, but the Christie/Guadagno saga keeps evolving. And, if you will permit me to use a little varnish in my conclusion, these two do not get better looking every day.