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Opinion: Christie Gets Badly Burned by Clueless Moment of Sun and Fun

Once the photo of the governor lounging in his beach chair went viral, he couldn’t bully or bluff his way out of what the world saw — hubris on a grand scale

carl golden
Carl Golden

While the media busies itself with declaring winners and losers in breaking the state budget impasse and ending the three-day partial shutdown of government, the clear winner is not the governor, not a member of the Legislature, but the news photographer who caught the governor lounging on the beach with family and friends, surrounded by miles of empty sand.  

The photo rocketed around the world, producing a tidal wave of ridicule and convincing Gov. Christie that his position had become untenable.

His public relations effort to pin the blame for the shutdown on Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson) was entirely ineffective, and his relentless and shrill assault on the integrity of officers of Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield teetered on hysteria.  

The governor’s day at the beach produced dozens of hilarious Photoshopped variations that flooded social media. He was pictured kicking back in his lounge chair in the Oval Office surrounded by President Donald Trump and his aides. He was seen relaxing next to the torrid on-the-beach love scene in “From Here to Eternity.” He popped up in his beach chair at the entrance to the George Washington Bridge, presumably stopping traffic.  

Gov. Nero

He was compared to Nero, history’s most famous fiddle player aside from Charlie Daniels. His day at the beach was juxtaposed next to news stories that a Cub Scout pack had been booted out of a state park and their weekend camping trip canceled.          

It was a tsunami of derision that even Christie couldn’t withstand.    

His initial defense issued by his spokesman — “He didn’t get any sun; he was wearing a baseball cap” — only ratcheted up the laughter.  

It was time to stop the bleeding.  

He agreed to sign the budget approved by the Democratic Legislature and caved in on his demand that Horizon turn over $300 million from its reserves to his administration to support opioid addiction-treatment programs.  

The final product provided very little face saving for Christie while handing Democrats a budget victory by including some $150 million in additional aid to local school districts.  

Belittling and berating

For Christie, who cut a swath through New Jersey politics for more than seven years by belittling and berating those who questioned or disagreed with him, the denouement must have been a humbling experience.       

His public approval has fallen to 15 percent, and he’s become the most disliked chief executive in state history.  There are even those who suggest that he’ll leave office next January with an approval standing in the single digits.

He was done in by the same mindset that has doomed other high-ranking personalities in politics or out — a belief that his position of prominence insulated him from the damning consequences that would befall other lesser individuals guilty of similar missteps.  

Why, for instance, would he believe that, having ordered state parks — including Island Beach State Park — closed to the public, his presence along with family and friends enjoying the sun and surf would not come to public attention and ignite outrage?  

While “optics” has become the trendy term to describe behavior that the public may find either complimentary or condescending, commonsense is often lost in the process, victimized by an “I can do whatever I want and justify whatever I do” belief.    

Miscalculations occur and, once admitted to and apologized for, fade rather quickly.  Hubris, though, has a long shelf life.  

Hubris squared

Christie’s caustic remark to the media defending his weekend at the beach house — “It’s the governor’s house and you can run for governor if you want a residence there” — was hubris squared.  

Attempting to salvage something from the entire episode, Christie declared victory when he signed the budget, although finding any sign of it was reserved for the most optimistic of his supporters.      

One news account described Christie as having settled for “table scraps.”  

So, while Prieto and Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) jockey for the winner’s circle, the first-place trophy belongs to a news photographer hanging out of an airplane 1,000 feet above the governor’s beach and capturing what will surely become an enduring image of Christie’s administration.  

Journalism may be in dire financial straits and desperately hanging on to solvency with its fingernails.

But with one photo on a Fourth of July holiday weekend in 2017, it proved its inestimable value.

Carl Golden served as press secretary to Govs. Tom Kean and Christie Whitman.  The views expressed in this column are solely his.

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