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Christie's choice: Be seen as a crook or a schnook?

By Paul Begala, CNN Political Commentator
January 10, 2014 -- Updated 1616 GMT (0016 HKT)
Aides and appointees of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie have been accused of closing lanes on the George Washington Bridge to punish Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, pictured, for not endorsing Christie for re-election. If true, this wouldn't be the first time an American politician was targeted with dirty tricks -- the practice goes back as far as running for office. Click through to see other examples of less-than-ethical campaign tactics. Aides and appointees of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie have been accused of closing lanes on the George Washington Bridge to punish Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, pictured, for not endorsing Christie for re-election. If true, this wouldn't be the first time an American politician was targeted with dirty tricks -- the practice goes back as far as running for office. Click through to see other examples of less-than-ethical campaign tactics.
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Paul Begala: Chris Christie faces difficult choice between being seen as a crook or a schnook
  • He says Christie is not convincing playing the victim of his own staff
  • Begala says the scandal is likely to haunt Christie because it fits perceptions of him as a bully
  • The investigative and legal process will grind on, to Christie's detriment, Begala says

Editor's note: Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist and CNN political contributor, was a political consultant for Bill Clinton's presidential campaign in 1992 and was counselor to Clinton in the White House.

(CNN) -- Somewhere, Dick Nixon wants a royalty check.

When New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie channeled his inner Tricky Dick and declared, "I am not a bully," he did himself no favors.

To be fair, Christie faced a dilemma: Either admit to creating a climate of bullying, intimidation and political payback that led to the George Washington Bridge scandal, or claim that his staff and appointees disrupted traffic on the world's busiest bridge as political punishment without his knowledge. In the business we call it a choice between being a crook or a schnook.

Ladies and gentlemen, meet Gov. Schnook.

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A schnook, for those who don't speak Yiddish, is a dupe. A fool. A patsy. A schnook is a victim, and Chris Christie is not convincing playing the victim. He wants us to believe that Gov. Straight-Talk, Mister No-B.S., credulously believed a pack of lies from his close aides.

He wants us to believe that, as a former federal prosecutor, he thought his one-hour "investigation" of this operation, which yielded no confessions, was all that he could have done to unearth the truth. The governor clearly hopes that his press conference, his apology and his firing of one whole person will put this issue to rest.

It won't.

There's a great old saying that battle-scarred scandal managers love: "The dogs bark but the carnival moves on." It's the crisis manager's equivalent of "Take two aspirin and call me in the morning," meant to reassure the scandal-plagued public figure that the media and the public have short attention spans, and that the next twerking episode will distract folks.

But not with the Chris Christie bridge-closing scandal: This one's gonna stick.

How do I know? Three reasons:

1. It feeds a pre-existing narrative. This is the most important factor in determining whether a miscue becomes a scandal and whether a scandal becomes a permanent taint. Any issue that advances a narrative that people already have is given greater credence and is more memorable.

Every public figure has a master narrative. In fact they have two: one positive, one negative. In the case of Christie, his larger-than-life persona has been drawn both with bold strokes and in vivid color. The positive narrative is compelling -- and true: the straight-talking, forceful, blunt leader; the no-nonsense take-charge guy who blasted as "stupid and selfish" his own constituents who did not evacuate a beach community before a hurricane.

Christie's negative narrative is just as powerful, and just as true: bully. He burst on the national scene in YouTube clips of town hall meetings where he berated critics. As The New York Times reported, as governor, Christie has a remarkable pattern of bullying: stripping former Gov. Richard Codey of his security detail after Codey called Christie "combative and difficult;" cutting funding to a Rutgers University program run by a professor who sided with Democrats on a redistricting panel, and more.

If, as it appears, Christie's appointees and staff forced New Jerseyans to suffer through a four-hour traffic jam because their mayor -- a Democrat -- had the temerity to back the Democratic candidate opposing Christie's re-election, it doesn't just feed the image of a bully; it cements it.

2. There are ongoing legal and political processes. The Democratic majority leader of the State Senate, Loretta Weinberg, described herself as shocked by the scandal. More important -- and more ominous, for Christie -- she declared, "I am waiting -- and hopefully with the support of Assemblyman (and Deputy Speaker John) Wisniewski -- that the subpoena power will continue." Continuing subpoenas mean continuing revelations. "Sooner rather than later," Weinberg said, "we're going to hear the whole story of who knew what when."

There are almost certainly going to be lawsuits from aggrieved commuters, which will put folks under oath. And, most ominously, the U.S. attorney has said he is looking into the matter. If this becomes a federal case, the stakes rise immeasurably.

3. It happened at the media epicenter. It's not fair, but it's true: The news media is based largely on the East Coast and principally in New York. If the governor of South Dakota closed the Chief Standing Bear Bridge, which connects South Dakota to Nebraska, most of the national media would not know or care. But this is the George Washington Bridge. Journalists can cover this story, literally, on their commute. Christie's proximity to the media center has helped fuel his celebrity; now it may fuel his downfall.

The truth is there is not much Christie can do about these three dynamics. He tried apologizing, but kept returning to the plea that he is truly the victim here: that he's just a poor schnook who was lied to.

It seems to me that is small comfort to the thousands of people who endured four-hour traffic jams, or schoolchildren trapped on endless bus rides, or the family of the elderly woman who died after emergency services were slow in getting to her. He tried blaming others, as if acting in a Sopranoesque fashion is totally antithetical to his political style. Soon he will return to attacking the press and Democrats. None of it will work.

If you believe Bullygate is going away anytime soon, there's a bridge in Fort Lee I'd like to sell you.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Paul Begala.

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