Back in the day, staffs of elected and cabinet officials — particularly those in the governor’s office — frequently passed their downtime by exchanging bits of gallows humor.
One went: “What are the seven most dreaded words in the English language?”
“Mike Wallace is waiting in your office.”
If true, it was certain nothing good would come of his visit. Wallace didn’t do puff pieces; he identified a target and shredded it.
That was at the time, of course, when Wallace and “60 Minutes” dominated television news, often breaking stories quickly picked up by the national news media, exponentially compounding the problem faced by his subject.
Wallace died a few months ago and “60 Minutes” has been pretty much supplanted by the more ideologically driven cable news and talk shows.
As frightening as the prospect of Wallace waiting in someone’s office was back then, the technology of instant communication has created millions of Wallaces who, invisible and anonymous, use a cellphone camera to capture virtually anyone in an unflattering or embarrassing light.
Case in point: Gov. Chris Christie’s recent confrontation with a critic on the boardwalk in Seaside Heights. A visibly angry governor was recorded challenging an individual who had, according to published reports, expressed displeasure with Christie’s policies on public education.
The video quickly made its way to the entertainment-themed television program TMZ and, from there, to news websites. Just as in Wallace’s time, the story went national, driven by the image of the state’s highest elected official daring a critic to stand his ground and back up his comments.
Christie is heard on the video calling the man a “big shot” and deriding him for “walking away.”
The blogosphere erupted into a frenzy, questioning Christie’s temperament and offering unprofessional and usually insulting psychoanalysis. Sources who purported to be familiar with what occurred said the man had directed a curse word or words toward Christie and the governor responded in a way most people would.
Whether the heckler flung a curse word in Christie’s direction or not, the overnor’s reaction played into what has emerged as his public persona — a blunt, often sarcastic, rhetorical steamroller.
His vocabulary is littered with descriptions of his opponents as “stupid,” “idiot,” “jerk,” “liar,” “S.O.B.” and “numbnuts.” His staff sifts through the more colorful ones and posts them on YouTube, spreading them throughout the land and further reinforcing the perception of Christie as someone who takes guff from no one and retaliates in kind.
Despite claims that much of Christie’s rhetoric is scripted rather than spontaneous — designed for the YouTube audience — he is quick to anger and does not suffer gladly those he considers fools.
He can be utterly charming as well, as evidenced by his demeanor at his town hall meetings, where he’s often respectful toward questioners, attempts to put them at ease, and treats children in an easy and non-condescending manner.
At those same town hall sessions, though, he can and has torn into his political opponents with gusto, seeming to enjoy every syllable. Often, within a few days, his mellow side emerges and he touts the value of bipartisan cooperation and compromise to accomplish goals in the state’s best interests.
Whether the boardwalk incident mushrooms into something greater or is chalked up to just another Christie outburst over a perceived insult and quickly forgotten remains to be seen. His critics argue he should hold his temper in tighter check, understanding that criticism — even if ill-informed or unwarranted — goes with being governor and it’s best to simply grit one’s teeth and ignore it.
His supporters, while acknowledging the high-profile nature of his position, contend that when he’s out in public in an unofficial and personal capacity, he deserves privacy. For anyone whose every move or comment is closely watched — be they by politician, athlete, film or television celebrity, musician — achieving the balance between private life and public scrutiny has always been elusive.
The Seaside Heights incident, though, sends yet another warning to public officials at any level that in public they’re surrounded by reporters without credentials or experience, but armed with today’s ubiquitous investigative and invasive device of choice — the cellphone.
Keeping that in mind — as well as understanding the eagerness of television shows or websites to pay handsomely for the recorded result — should become as much as part of a pubic person’s life as making certain the tie, shirt and suit complement each other.
As one of those staff persons who engaged in the dark humor that floated around offices, I’m tempted to think about what Christie’s response would be to the news that Mike Wallace was waiting in his office.
He’d probably reply: “Tell him to go to hell.”