Saturday, January 18, 2014

Christie and Clinton: Leading by Example

Two stories have captured my eye in the last couple of weeks concerning the two large parties’ likely presidential frontrunners for 2016.  One is a scandal and the other an illustration of a more chronic flaw.
The first, of course, is the news that apparently New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s aides and cronies conspired to punish the recalcitrant mayor of Fort Lee, NJ and commuters in the region—recalcitrant in that he declined to endorse Christie’s re-election campaign—by engineering a traffic logjam on the George Washington Bridge.  E-mails describe Christie’s cronies gleefully setting out to take punitive measures against the very citizens who the New Jersey Governor is supposed to represent.
It has long been known that Christie is a blowhard and a bully.  He is known for “telling it like it is”, which really means “telling it like his plutocratic backers want it to be”.  He is famous for savaging teachers and other public servants in civic forums, glorying in his efforts to wreck their livelihoods.  Christie is also renowned for his overweening ego, and when he campaigned for Mitt Romney, he demanded “private jets, lavish spreads of food, [and] space for a massive entourage”, at the same time withholding documents which concerned “garish controversites lurking in the shadows of his record”.  
The other story was that in the aftermath of her failed 2008 presidential bid, members of Hillary Clinton’s inner circle compiled a ranking system—which you could either describe as juvenile, obsessed, or twisted—to evaluate the loyalty and treachery of top Democrats to the Clintons.  Those who received “sevens”—the rank indicating the greatest level of betrayal—included the likes of John Kerry, Patrick Leahy, Claire McCaskill, Ted Kennedy, and John Lewis. 
The Hill reported how “almost six years later most Clinton aides can still rattle off the names of traitors and the favors that had been done for them, then provide details of just how each of the guilty had gone on to betray the Clintons”.  It went on to describe how “Clinton aides exulted in schadenfreude when their enemies faltered.  Years later they would joke about the fates of folks who they felt had betrayed them.  ‘Bill Richardson: investigated; John Edwards: disgraced by scandal; Chris Dodd: stepped down’, one said to another.  ‘Ted Kennedy’, the aide continued, lowering his voice to a whisper for the punch line, ‘dead’”. 
Supporters of both politicians will be quick to point out that so far it does not appear that Christie had a direct hand in the bridge scandal, nor did Clinton compile the hate list. 
But I think that the respective stories nonetheless serve as an indictment of both Christie and Clinton.  Every politician or executive is in effect a team leader.  They create a culture, foster a mindset and hire like-minded people who they believe will act in their interests. 
Christie might not have ordered the closure of the George Washington Bridge in a bid to punish New Jersey citizens.  But he created a culture in his office that suggested to his aides that engineering such a closure would be what the Governor wanted.  He created a culture such that taking punitive measures towards voters—simply because their mayor didn't endorse Christie—was seen as something which would be in keeping with the Governor’s mien. 
The same is true of Clinton, who along with her husband is notorious for fostering a culture of paranoia, backstabbing, vengefulness, and cronyism, in which people are either abjectly loyal, or find themselves cut off from “Clintonworld”.  I cannot imagine the Obama campaign, or that of California’s governor, Jerry Brown, for example, wasting their time creating a petty metric for evaluating the obsequiousness of fellow Democrats. 
But that is precisely the type of bizarre, insecure behaviour I could imagine coming from Chris Christie, who seems to share the Clintons’ penchant for drama, celebrity, intrigue, and witch-hunts, and who like them makes sure to punish those who cross him politically. 
Clinton and Christie are qualified for high office.  But even leaving aside their right-wing policies, their egotistical and vindictive characters make them extraordinarily unsuited to leading our country.  More unsuited than ever at a moment when we need political leaders who can challenge the economic inequality which is defining our country, or when we need to re-orient our foreign policy away from terroristic wars and towards ethical international behaviour.  A four-year term of drama, infighting, and intrigue, punctuated by brief moments of incremental change—likely to be in the wrong direction altogether!—is not what we need.

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