So Chris Christie is shocked-shocked that his top aides were punishing his enemies behind his back, shutting down Fort Lee traffic for four days.
In Christie’s extremely long press conference last Thursday, we witnessed a very different person than the in-your-face governor we have become accustomed to seeing. This Christie was, to paraphrase A. A. Milne in House at Pooh Corner, “a Humble Christie, a Sad Christie, a Melancholy Christie, a Small and Sorry Christie” (“Tigger Is Unbounced”).
As I watched, I found myself wondering if Christie’s presidential aspirations were taking a plunge similar to that of the madman falling from another New York bridge. Here’s a stanza from Hart Crane’s “Brooklyn Bridge”:
Out of some subway scuttle, cell or loft
A bedlamite speeds to thy parapets,
Tilting there momently, shrill shirt ballooning,
A jest falls from the speechless caravan.
“Speechless caravan” works as an apt description of the gridlocked cars on the George Washington Bridge, and Christie has certainly become a jest of late night comedians.
The subpoenaed e-mail exchange that yielded such gems as “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” makes it clear that some kind of political retribution was being exacted, although we don’t yet know who was being targeted or for what. Nor do we know for sure if this was Christie’s staff going rogue (Christie’s contention) or acting under his direction. Shakespeare alerts us that we may never know for sure.
That’s because leaders can send signals that allow them to remain technically innocent. The most famous historical instance of this—which may be apocryphal but Shakespeare alludes to it in Richard II—is Henry II saying of Thomas a Becket, “Who will rid me of this turbulent priest.” Underlings took the hint, Becket was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral, and then Henry disavowed any responsibility.
A similar scenario plays out in Richard II after Henry Bolingbroke (the future Henry IV) has overthrown and imprisoned Richard. In this instance we get the conversation indirectly, from one of Henry’s knights:
Exton Didst thou not mark the king, what words he spake,
‘Have I no friend will rid me of this living fear?’
Was it not so?
Servant These were his very words.
Exton ‘Have I no friend?’ quoth he: he spake it twice,
And urged it twice together, did he not?
Servant He did.
Exton And speaking it, he wistly look’d on me,
And who should say, ‘I would thou wert the man
That would divorce this terror from my heart’;
Meaning the king at Pomfret. Come, let’s go:
I am the king’s friend, and will rid his foe.
I can imagine Christie essentially saying—although perhaps more subtly than Henry—“have I no friend who will make these Democrats pay?”
If they want to protect themselves, however, Christie’s subordinates would do well to read Richard II (and also T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral) to learn what happens next. The future for those doing their king’s dirty work is not promising. Let’s start first with the killers in Eliot’s play:
King Henry–God bless him–will have to say, for reasons of state, that he never meant this to happen; and at the best we shall have to spend the rest of our lives abroad.
And here’s what happens to Exton when he shows up with Richard’s body:
Exton Great king, within this coffin I present
Thy buried fear: herein all breathless lies
The mightiest of thy greatest enemies,
Richard of Bordeaux, by me hither brought.
Henry Bolingbroke Exton, I thank thee not; for thou hast wrought
A deed of slander with thy fatal hand
Upon my head and all this famous land.
Exton From your own mouth, my lord, did I this deed.
Henry They love not poison that do poison need,
Nor do I thee: though I did wish him dead,
I hate the murderer, love him murdered.
The guilt of conscience take thou for thy labor,
But neither my good word nor princely favour:
With Cain go wander through shades of night,
And never show thy head by day nor light.
“They love not poison that do poison need” and “I hate the murderer, love him murdered” are masterful instances of a politician weaseling out of responsibility. (“I know it looks bad because it’s so convenient but I’m not responsible.”) The rest of Henry’s “press conference” looks like Christie’s as well: he laments Exton’s deed, says that he feels sad, and vows that he will take a trip to the Holy Land (which in Christie’s case was an apology trip to Fort Lee):
Lords, I protest, my soul is full of woe,
That blood should sprinkle me to make me grow:
Come, mourn with me for that I do lament,
And put on sullen black incontinent:
I’ll make a voyage to the Holy Land,
To wash this blood off from my guilty hand:
March sadly after; grace my mournings here;
In weeping after this untimely bier.
As least the knights in Murder in the Cathedral anticipate their king’s response. Exton is utterly surprised. One wonders how surprised are Bridget Kelly, David Wiseman, and other Christie associates.
If they want a passage that spells out how such leaders operate, they can read Antony and Cleopatra. Octavius, Antony and Pompey, Rome’s triumvirs after the death of Julius, are negotiating with Pompey, ruler of Sicily and Sardinia, to rid the sea of pirates. Menas, a Pompey confederate, offers to assassinate the triumvirs and make Pompey “lord of the whole world.” Pompey is not adverse to the idea but chastises Menas for having told him that he would do so. After all, Menas has just taken away Pompey’s ability to truthfully deny that he knew anything. Here’s the conversation:
Menas These three world-sharers, these competitors,
Are in thy vessel: let me cut the cable;
And, when we are put off, fall to their throats:
All there is thine.
Pompey Ah, this thou shouldst have done,
And not have spoke on’t! In me ’tis villany;
In thee’t had been good service. Thou must know,
‘Tis not my profit that does lead mine honor;
Mine honor, it. Repent that e’er thy tongue
Hath so betray’d thine act: being done unknown,
I should have found it afterwards well done;
But must condemn it now.
Honor, in other words, is defined as what we now call “plausible deniability.” One difference between Shakespeare’s play and real life, however, is that leaders aren’t generally this explicit about how the game is played.
Menas, incidentally, draws a very different lesson than do the assassins of Thomas a Becket and Richard, one that Kelly and Wiseman should have followed. Menas decides that if his boss wants dirty work done while he himself remains “honorable,” then he is not worth following:
Menas [Aside] For this,
I’ll never follow thy pall’d fortunes more.
Who seeks, and will not take when once ’tis offer’d,
Shall never find it more.
If Pompey were to accept Menas’ offer, he probably would become emperor of Rome. Because he does not, he is defeated and executed.
So if you work for someone who wants you to do dirty tricks, know that there’s a very good chance that you’ll be thrown over the moment these tactics become a liability. I could well imagine that Christie, without being as explicit as Pompey, has been hedging certain conversations and encounters with Kelly, Wiseman, et. al. in the four months since the engineered traffic jam. This is so that he can react with “sadness” the moment it all comes out. In a voice filled with righteous indignation, he can fire Kelly on the spot, essentially sending her to wander, like Cain “through shades of night,” never again showing her head “by day nor light.”
Luckily for Kelly and the others, Christie doesn’t have the same power that Henry II and Henry IV do. Operating in a democracy, they have leverage of their own and may offer up damaging information in exchange for immunity. Stay tuned.
Note: I was reminded of these passages from Shakespeare by an excellent essay, Theodor Meron’s “Leaders, Courtiers, and Command Responsibility in Shakespeare.” It appears in the collection International Law And Armed Conflict, Exploring the Faultlines (eds. Michael Schmit and Jelena Pejic, 2007).