Chris Christie has been a good governor and may be innocent of any involvement in this episode, whose shabbiness is mitigated only by its absurdity, but it is a little hard to sympathize with a prosecutor who was so belligerent, so ruthlessly insouciant about the impact of his actions, so merciless in demanding that every suspect be convicted and over-sentenced. At least there is no suggestion of a crime (other than the sort of pseudo-crime that partisan prosecutors can confect out of self-righteous claptrap and a spurious interpretation of catchall criminal statutes). Christie will not be relying on the benignity of friends to avoid prosecution, as that monstrous and nastily mellifluent hypocrite Eliot Spitzer did. And there is nothing hypocritical about the Christie administration’s conduct in this matter: He is a hardball governor, and that was quite possibly what was required after Jon Corzine showed the dangers of throwing borrowed money at every category of claimant, with the profligate generosity of someone who came from modest, distant, rural circumstances to surf the wave of the velocity of Goldman Sachs’s deal-making. Easy come, easy go; a hardcore problem to be addressed by a tough guy.
At this point, there is no threat to Christie’s incumbency, but it is going to be very difficult for him to resuscitate himself as a front-running or adequately sympathetic presidential candidate. Tough guys are politically good, if they’re nice guys, like John Wayne or Clint Eastwood, or, best of all, equally tough and nice, like Ronald Reagan and even Dwight D. Eisenhower (the politician in a uniform, the five-star general in a golfing cap). If Christie can steer completely clear of this, he remains a viable candidate, but he is a beached whale before his enemies, who have only to intimidate or suborn one of the designated culprits with a mighty arsenal of sticks and carrots to turn on the governor to finish him as a presidential candidate, at least for 2016.
I object violently to guilt by association and insinuation, and it is a favorite practice of the American prosecution service. American prosecutors have an absolute immunity, after the infamous Thompson case — in which a man held 14 years on death row for a murder the prosecutors knew he did not commit (they withheld exculpatory evidence) was denied any legal recourse against his prosecutors. Lord Acton famously said that power corrupts and that absolute power corrupts absolutely. American prosecutors are as vulnerable as anyone to this phenomenon: Assisted by the immense proportion of trial judges who are ex-prosecutors and loyal alumni, psychologically, they operate a system that is profoundly corrupt, intellectually and professionally, if not financially (though there is inevitably some of that also). There is reason to doubt the fitness of any holder of the position of U.S. attorney for national office. The last presidential candidate with that background was Thomas E. Dewey, who made his name prosecuting organized-crime figures, and was a man of unquestionable integrity and judgment (and lost twice anyway).
Governor Christie does deserve the benefit of the doubt, but no one should underestimate the extent of the doubt generated by his previous occupation and his exercise of it. He got where he is precisely by the sort of conduct that shut the access of the people of Fort Lee to Manhattan. We are a long way from Tocqueville’s democracy, and some of Christie’s prominent backers for the White House in 2012 should have recognized the vagaries of the governor’s personality before the people of Fort Lee were forced by Christie’s entourage to accept that the contemporary Hudson River was as impassable as Bismarck’s Rhine.
— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, A Matter of Principle, and the recently published Flight of the Eagle: The Grand Strategies That Brought America from Colonial Dependence to World Leadership. He can be reached at [email protected].