What a bizarre spectacle. Assuming he did not lie during his marathon news conference last week, the feeding frenzy surrounding New Jersey governor Chris Christie will be remembered as one of those incredibly odd moments of elite journalistic hysteria that are difficult to explain to people who weren’t there or didn’t get it.
I’m not referring to the scandal itself; that’s easy enough to understand. What Christie’s team did was outrageous and deserves as much foofaraw and brouhaha as the New Jersey media can muster.
What’s harder to grok is the hysteria at the national level.
For starters, there have been countless greater outrages at the state level that have received far less national coverage. (Indeed, there have been national scandals under President Obama that have received less intense national coverage.) Since 1961, four Illinois governors have ended up in jail, and with the exception of Rod Blagojevich, few have received comparable media attention.
Meet the Press dedicated 33 minutes to the New Jersey scandal, including a grilling of Reince Priebus, head of the Republican National Committee, as if Christie were Nixon during Watergate (a comparison ostensibly serious people have made).
Many conservatives see liberal media bias in all this. But that diagnosis misses the fact that this was the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, giving producers ample opportunity to advance a liberal agenda. Moreover, Christie is actually quite popular in establishment media circles — the sort of politician Sunday-show liberals insist America needs more of. He’s also quite unpopular in many quarters of the Right.
If there is a secret left-wing cabal interested solely in advancing the liberal cause through the media, the Christie auto-da-fé was a missed opportunity.
A more plausible partial explanation is partisan bias, which can be hard to distinguish from liberal bias in many outlets since it tends to favor Democrats. The key difference is that partisan bias focuses more on the political interests of specific politicians or a party generally.
Feeding-frenzy defenders insist the closure of lanes on the George Washington Bridge is special because innocent constituents were deliberately inconvenienced for partisan purposes. That’s surely what makes this scandalous, but it hardly makes it unique. The Obama administration employed similar tactics during the sequester and the government shutdown. Closing the open-air World War II Memorial, furloughing air-traffic controllers, and other efforts were deliberate attempts to maximize the pain of innocents for political benefit. The tactic worked, but that’s not a justification for it, is it?
The allegation that the Obama administration used the IRS to target political opponents is far more explosive (similar tactics were at the core of the Nixon impeachment effort). And, unlike Christie’s claims of what he knew and when, similar White House denials haven’t held up.
And in the same week the media succumbed to St. Vitus’s dance over Christie’s alleged “cover-up,” it was revealed that the Department of Justice had appointed an Obama donor from the civil-rights division, instead of the public-integrity division, to investigate the IRS scandal. The department now says it would be unlawful to remove her from the assignment because of her political views. That’s untrue. No hysteria there.
Christie is widely seen as a threat to whomever the Democratic nominee will be. Unlike some recent GOP nominees, who struggled to be merely lifelike, Christie has an authenticity and charisma most national Republicans lack. As ABC’s Jonathan Karl put it on This Week, Christie is “the most intriguing and colorful person” in American politics.
That probably explains the overkill as much as anything. Christie is new, exciting, and interesting in ways Obama once was. The difference is that when Obama was new and exciting, the media were biased in every regard and heroically skeptical of any Obama wrongdoing. “We thought he was going to be . . . the next messiah,” Barbara Walters recently said. The cult of personality has diminished but the partisan skepticism remains.
Christie, like most Republicans, never benefited from such skepticism, and never will.
— Jonah Goldberg is the author of The Tyranny of Clichés, now on sale in paperback. You can write to him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or via Twitter @JonahNRO. © 2014 Tribune Media Services, Inc.