TIME Chris Christie

Why Pundits Shouldn’t Read Too Much Into Chris Christie’s Pronouns

New Jersey Governor Christie gives news conference in Trenton
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie gives a news conference in Trenton, January 9, 2014. Carlo Allegri—Reuters

It's hard to say "I'm sorry" without venturing into first-person singular territory

In the first lines of his public apology about the traffic scandal imperiling his political future, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie referenced himself repeatedly. Arranged as a first-person poem, those lines would look like this:

I come out here to this office where

I’ve been many times before and

I’ve come out here today to apologize …

I apologize to the people of Fort Lee and

I apologize to the members of the state legislature.

I am embarrassed and humiliated …

Pundits pounced on Christie’s usage of self-referential pronouns during his marathon news conference—about lane closures near the George Washington Bridge that turned out to be an act of political vengeance—presenting them as confirmation that Christie is egotistical and self-centered. But while the governor may have such unflattering attributes, academics have pointed out that drawing such a conclusion based on “I” and “me” counts is a faulty science.

New York magazine’s Benjamin Wallace-Wells argued that when Christie rephrased a reporter’s question as “What does it make me ask about me?”, the prospective 2016 candidate had unwittingly captured “the essence of Chris Christie,” a man who “can make any story, no matter how big, about him.” In the New York Times, Frank Bruni wrote that Christie “found a way to spell apology with a thousand I’s,” and tied this to an assertion that Christie “always seems to have himself first and foremost in mind.”

This isn’t the first time that the governor has been accused of self-aggrandizing based partly on how many times he strayed into first-person singular territory. And Christie’s critics are hardly the first to imply that kind of correlation. After President Barack Obama announced Osama bin Laden’s death, National Review’s Victor Davis Hanson said that his usage of words like I and my reflected “a now well-known Obama trait of personalizing the presidency.” In a review of a book Bill Clinton wrote after his presidency, Newsweek’s Evan Thomas said that “judging from his use of the first-person pronoun four times in the first sentence, his agenda is not entirely selfless.” In 2008, columnist Frank Rich declared that “All presidential candidates… are egomaniacs,” and he submitted first-person pronoun tallies from speeches by Obama, Hillary Clinton and John McCain as evidence.

Language researchers have taken the time to do more math than that. One thing they’ve found is that politicians maligned for using an inordinate amount of first-person pronouns don’t necessarily use them more than other politicians. “If you struck from Barack Obama’s vocabulary the first-person singular pronoun, he would fall silent,” conservative columnist George Will has said. But in his book The Secret Life of Pronouns, social psychologist James Pennebaker examined presidential press conferences from Truman to Obama and found that the current president actually used the I-word less than any other president in recent history.

In the wake of Christie’s so-called Bridgegate scandal, University of Pennsylvania linguistics professor Mark Liberman conducted a similar test. He took a selection of apologies excerpted by the New York Times the day after Christie’s news conference and analyzed the frequency of first-person singular pronouns in the full statements. He found that Christie’s was in the middle of the pack, containing a lower percentage than apologies given by politicians such as Bill Clinton, David Vitter, Anthony Wiener and Eliot Spitzer.

FPSPpercent1
Courtesy of Mark Liberman

“When pundits make quantitative claims, even implicit ones, those claims ought to be true,” Liberman said in an email. “If they complain about how so-and-so is inordinately fond of doing whatever, we should be able to trust that if we count so-and-so’s whatevers, there really will be more than we’ll find for other similar people in similar circumstances.”

In this circumstance, Christie was apologizing, which means it’s natural for him to use more personal pronouns than he would in, say, a speech about inclement weather. In his analysis, Liberman looked at the excerpts as a composite and found that nearly 10% of the words were first-person singular pronouns. “That’s just the nature of the situation,” Liberman says. “The person apologizing needs to take responsibility or deny it, to explain what they did or didn’t do, why they did it or didn’t do it, how they feel about it, and what if anything they’re going do about it.” Talking about his aide who was partly responsible for the closure, Christie could have used a shirking passive voice and said “someone who was in that circle of trust… betrayed my trust.” Instead he upped the I-count and said, “someone who I permitted to be in that circle of trust… betrayed my trust.”

In his research, Pennebaker found that I-words work differently than people would likely expect. People who are insecure and self-deprecating tend to use a lot of I-words, while people who are confident or lying tend to drop them. After examining a transcript of Christie’s presser, Pennebaker tells TIME that his use of first-person pronouns is in a “high-normal” range. “The way he is using I-words is consistent with someone who is self-focused and self-reflective, perhaps guilty, anxious, and even self-effacing,” he says. “The overall tone of the press conference is not one of arrogance—at least as measured by I-word usage.”

Determining someone’s state of mind through their use of pronouns is still a far cry from declaring their character. The suggestion that Christie showed his egomaniacal colors through pronouns in his mea culpa is “like accusing someone of lying because he blinks so often, when (a) he doesn’t blink especially often, and (b) blinking a lot is not a reliable sign of lying anyhow,” Liberman says. That’s not to say that critics are wrong to accuse Christie or Obama or any other politician of egotism—just that even a thousand I’s or me’s aren’t proof.

This is an edition of Wednesday Words, a weekly feature on language. For the previous post, click here.

TIME politics

Why Pols From New Jersey Aren’t Born to Run

Chris Christie
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie pauses as he addresses the media during a news conference Jan. 9, 2014, at the Statehouse in Trenton. Mel Evans / AP

The Garden State's got a checkered history in national politics—going back to Aaron Burr

I’m beginning to feel sorry for increasingly embattled New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. I’m not feeling Christie’s pain because he’s a Republican (I’m a small ‘l’ libertarian politically), but because I’m a proud native of New Jersey, the greatest state in this — or any other! — country. Whether you’re talking about arts and media (Philip Roth, Jon Stewart), industry (Johnson & Johnson), a history of invention (Edison’s Menlo Park, Bell Labs), hiking, beaches, scrub pine forests, the best goddamn tomatoes ever (seriously), or paying more in federal taxes than it gets back, New Jersey has always punched above its weight.

Indeed, over the past decade or so, New Jersey has started to earn belated props in the public imagination, with television shows such as The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire, and even Jersey Shore using the state as a backdrop for meditations on the American Dream. The recent and quick rise of Gov. Christie himself speaks to what might even be considered a New Jersey cultural bubble. He’s the first serious presidential contender to come out of New Jersey since Woodrow Wilson.

Yet the Garden State — insert a not-inaccurate joke about the entire place being a Superfund toxic waste dump here — has been a national punchline at least since Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton rowed across the Hudson River from New York to shoot it out in Weehawken. (Needless to say, Burr, a native of Newark who happened to be U.S. vice president at the time, won.)

To grow up in New Jersey is to battle an unending barrage of jokes about Jimmy Hoffa’s corpse being buried in the Meadowlands (not true!), post-apocalyptic wastelands such as Camden and Newark (all too true!), and what exit you’re from on the Turnpike (not funny!). It’s a cheap laugh that F-Troop’s slow-witted Cpl. Agarn was from Passaic and that Clint Eastwood’s title character in Bronco Billy is revealed to be a former shoe salesman from New Jersey. If the hypodermic needles on the beaches don’t get you, then the guidos and guidettes memorialized in Jersey Shore will.

The state bird isn’t the Goldfinch, it’s cancer. The state vegetable isn’t the tomato, it’s Karen Ann Quinlan. What does it say about the people who stay behind that New Jersey has the country’s biggest brain drain, as measured by the number of people who leave to attend college? What does it say that the state’s unofficial anthem is “Born to Run,” an epic Bruce Springsteen song that’s all about getting somewhere — anywhere — else?

Growing up in such an environment takes a toll on a person, forcing him or her not just to grow a thick skin but also to become a latter-day existentialist who recognizes that status, truth, and power are up for grabs, especially if you’re willing to reinvent yourself, take risks, play fast and loose with rules, and maybe even skirt the law on occasion (it’s no coincidence that Martha Stewart, who remade herself and homemaking en route to becoming the nation’s best-mannered felon, was born and raised in New Jersey).

Shows such as The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire only make sense in a place like New Jersey, where everyone has a chip on their shoulder, is hustling to make a buck, and is desperate for prestige (as South Park memorably summarized it in 2010, “It’s a Jersey thing”). That’s the reason, too, that Abscam, the FBI sting operation that informs the plot of the acclaimed new movie American Hustle, was centered around Atlantic City and took down mostly New Jersey politicians, too. Even more than the typical elected official, Garden State pols want money, power, and respect.

But as Tony Soprano (played so memorably by the late Jersey native James Gandolfini), could tell you, the same forces that spur ambition and success also carry within them their own demise. It quickly becomes difficult to know when serious lines are being crossed or the wrong messages are being sent to the people around you.

It’s telling that in his rise to national prominence, Gov. Christie captured headlines less for what he did than how he did it. Where other Republican governors have implemented major structural changes to collective bargaining (Wisconsin’s Scott Walker) or educational policy (Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal), Christie has essentially governed as a big-government conservative, spending more money each year he’s been in office and doling out conventional corporate welfare to favored constituents. The State of the State address he delivered yesterday didn’t change any of that.

What’s made him famous — or infamous, depending on your politics — was his willingness to shout down teachers, reporters, and even voters that he deemed idiots or worse. In short, it’s his Jersey attitude, not his policies, that have put him on top of potential Republican presidential candidates.

For sure, he has not been found culpable for “Bridgegate.” And he’s fired the aide who apparently was responsible for creating a traffic jam as payback against the mayor of Fort Lee, who refused to support the governor’s re-election campaign. Yet as the investigation continues, the question remains: Even if Christie didn’t issue a direct order, did he create a climate in which such stupid and destructive actions were conceivable? The audit of Hurricane Sandy relief funds may well prove tougher for Christie in the long run. He stands accused not just of using federal funds to pay above-market prices for a commercial touting state tourism after Sandy but of improperly inserting himself and his family in the spot during an election year.

Even if he’s ultimately fully exonerated in these and any other scandals, a question about his temperament will remain. Ironically, the same 100 percent Jersey temperament that got him noticed may disqualify him for life outside of Trenton. New Jersey exports tons of fruits, vegetables, pharmaceuticals, petroleum products, and above all, smart people. What it hasn’t done in a very long time — and probably for very good reason — is export a president.

TIME psychology

Yes, Chris Christie’s a Narcissist

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie speaks during his 100th town-hall meeting, held at St. Mary's Parish Center in Manahawkin, N.J., on Jan. 16, 2013 D Dipasupil / Getty Images for Extra

The guv loves himself — and that could be a big problem for his state and his future

No one knows exactly how Chris Christie spent every hour of the four days in September when the people of Fort Lee, N.J., were being punked by members of his staff who decided that it might be fun to toss traffic cones on the George Washington Bridge and see what happened. It’s certain the governor wasn’t sitting in any of the all-day traffic jams the stunt caused. It’s certain he wasn’t fretting at home while his kids tried to get to their first day of school or waiting for emergency medical care that couldn’t get through the manufactured gridlock.

But Chris Christie suffered all the same. And if you don’t believe him, ask Chris Christie.

“I am a very sad person today,” he said at his marathon press conference last week. “That’s the emotion I feel. A person close to me betrayed me … I probably will get angry at some point, but I’ll tell you the truth, I’m sad.”

But sad was only part of it. Christie was tired too, since, as he took pains to mention, he’d had very little sleep the night before. He was also “blindsided and “humiliated” and found it “incredibly disappointing to have people let [him] down this way.” So all told, the governor had a very tough week, thank you very much.

(MORE: Bunnies, Stinkbugs and Maggots: The Secrets of Empathy)

If you got the sense that Christie has seen the unfolding mess mostly in terms of how it affects, you know, Christie, you’d be justified. Google the words Christie and narcissist and you get 3.3 million hits. Salon calls his press conference “a mix of narcissism and bullying.” New York magazine writes of “The narcissistic drama of Chris Christie’s apology.” In a Washington Post piece, “New Jersey narcissist,” Dana Milbank actually counts the number of first-person references Christie made in his endless presser: I led the field with 692 repetitions; me, my and myself were next at a combined 217; I’m clocked in at 119; and I’ve was last at a still-impressive 67. So, a lot of verbal selfies.

But it’s not language alone that makes Christie the narcissist he is. It’s not his loudness and largeness or personality either, nor is it his history of bullying or his disdainful impatience with those he appears to think of as his lessers — though all of those things are certainly part of the narcissistic profile. I’ve spent the past two years deep in the literature of narcissism for a just-completed book, and if there’s a sine qua non that turns up again and again in the personality of the narcissist, it’s a wholesale lack of empathy — an inability to see any suffering but the narcissist’s own, even when the narcissist has caused real suffering in others.

Some of America’s most florid narcissists have been jaw-droppingly good at this very bad tendency. “How could they f-cking say this? How could they do this to me?” wailed John Edwards when press reports of his career-wrecking extramarital affair began appearing, according to Game Change, by John Heilemann and TIME’s Mark Halperin.

“I don’t believe it, first it snows and now this,” moaned baseball bad girl Marge Schott, former owner of the Cincinnati Reds, when a storm threatened to delay Opening Day and, after the game did start, umpire John McSherry suffered a fatal heart attack behind home plate.

“Others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself,” a teary Richard Nixon counseled his White House staff on the morning after he resigned the presidency — affecting the pose of the wronged leader who was rising above the pettiness of his attackers, rather than the constitutional vandal getting out of Dodge before he could be thrown out.

(MORE: Narcissists Know They’re Obnoxious, but Love Themselves All the Same)

The utter absence of the empathy app in narcissists like Nixon, Edwards, Schott and, it seems, Christie, is in some ways a mystery, since it’s one that usually gets downloaded and booted up very early in life. Empathy is hardwired in the brain at birth in the form of mirror neurons, which, as their name suggests, help us experience what others are feeling in a powerful — and sometimes painful — way.

Researchers cite studies, for example, showing that while crying is always contagious in a roomful of newborns, it’s not the noise that appears to be responsible — at least not always. Babies can distinguish between the sound of a real cry and the sound of a recorded one, and will respond with their own tears mostly to the genuine one — presumably because it’s a sign of equally genuine suffering. “Infants show empathy from the very beginning,” says psychologist Jean Twenge of San Diego State University.

Psychologist Mark Barnett of Kansas State University similarly cites the sweet if unscientific phenomenon of toddlers who will respond to the sight of an injured or unhappy adult by racing to bring a plush toy or one of their other favorite comfort objects. It works for them, so why shouldn’t it work for a grownup? “It’s called emotional mimicry,” Barnett says. “It’s not true empathy, but it’s a start.”

Christie did bring his own version of a stuffed teddy to the mayor of Fort Lee, visiting him directly after his press conference to offer his apologies and his sympathy. But it was a small, late and self-preserving gesture, and only to true Christie partisans did it read like real contrition. To most others, it looked like Christie looking out for the man he cares about most, which appears to be Christie.

Narcissism is not all bad. Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela may have been among the greatest, bravest, most virtuous men of their era, but if you don’t think they got a deep and primal charge out of being cheered by crowds that numbered in the hundreds of thousands, you don’t know human nature. Diffident people don’t change history. But petty people, self-interested people, people who are very good at feeling their own pain but poor at feeling others’ don’t either. Christie has been learning that lesson since last week. Like other narcissists who have fallen before him, he may find he’s learned it too late.

TIME Chris Christie

Christie’s Traffic Jam May Have Cost Millions

Gov. Chris Christie Addresses The Fort Lee George Washington Bridge Scandal
Traffic drives across the George Washington Bridge on January 9, 2014 in Fort Lee, N.J. Andrew Burton / Getty Images

Hundreds of thousands of productivity hours lost

Post updated at 12:26 p.m.

Ongoing revelations that a staffer for New Jersey Governor Chris Christie instigated a massive, four-day traffic jam in the area surrounding the George Washington Bridge is costing him politically. But what about the economic effects of the incident?

Economists have been studying the cost of traffic for years, and one of the most definitive looks comes from Texas A&M’s Transportation Institute. Each year, the institute releases its “Urban Mobility Report” which gauges the economic effects of congestion on the American economy. The group found that the average commuter wastes 38 hours in traffic each year, and that this costs the economy $818 per commuter in wasted time and fuel. That means a wasted hour in traffic costs roughly $22.

A few more data points:

  • According to INRIX, a traffic information and services group, commuters in the New York metropolitan area spend on average 34.5 minutes getting to work each day.
  • The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey says 102 million vehicles per year cross the George Washington Bridge, which comes to 279,000 vehicles per day. Assuming half of those are traveling from New Jersey into New York, that means 139,500 vehicles were caught in Christie’s traffic jam per day. Multiply that by the four days traffic was slowed and you have a total of 558,000 affected vehicles.
  • Anecdotal evidence says that workers spent anywhere from 2 to 4 times as much time commuting to work each day than they did without the lane closures.

Therefore we can estimate that commuters spend 320,850 hours going from New Jersey to New York over the bridge during a normal four-day stretch. If we assume the traffic jam doubled that time, the total cost of the jam would be $7 million. If we assume that it quadrupled commuters time on the road it could have cost as much as $21 million!

Obviously this is just a rough, back-of-the envelope estimate of costs, but given that 1) traffic problems in Ft. Lee due to lane closures likely affected more drivers than those crossing the bridge, and 2) the median salary of workers in the New York metropolitan area is 19% higher than the country overall, this calculation could be an underestimate.

Correction: An ealier version of this post mistakenly used the total number of minutes traveled each day across the bridge rather than hours, overestimating the cost by a factor of 60. Thanks to reader Gary Goetz for pointing out the mistake!

VIDEO: A look at New Jersey governor Chris Christie’s changes in demeanor before and after the George Washington bridge scandal

TIME Chris Christie

Lawsuit Filed in Christie Bridge Scandal

In this Sept. 12, 2013, file photo provided by the Office of the Governor of New Jersey, Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Anne Kelly, right, stands with Gov. Chris Christie, left, during a tour of the Seaside Heights, N.J., boardwalk after it was hit by a massive fire Office of Gov. Chris Christie / Tim Larsen / AP

Class-action targets New Jersey governor and other players in traffic snafu

At least six residents in New Jersey are bringing a class-action lawsuit against high-ranking government officials in connection with the simmering scandal over bridge traffic that gridlocked a north Jersey town in apparent political retaliation against an opponent of Gov. Chris Christie.

The suit was filed Thursday in the U.S. District Court of New Jersey, attorney Rosemarie Arnold said, and targets key players in the saga, including Christie, his former aide Bridget Kelly, and two former Port Authority officials who resigned in December over the controversy, the Associated Press reports.

In a long news conference Thursday, Christie said he was “embarrassed and humiliated” after documents surfaced showing Kelly, then his deputy chief of staff, furtively plotting last year with Christie allies and transportation officials to create traffic in Fort Lee, N.J., after the town’s mayor declined to back Christie’s reelection bid. That eventually led to lanes being closed on the George Washington Bridge, the busiest in America, effectively turning parts of Fort Lee into a parking lot for four days.

The final number of plaintiffs in the class-action suit has not yet been determined, but according to the filing, possible plaintiffs include “any and all individuals and business owners” who were negatively affected by the massive four-day traffic jam in Fort Lee last year. Arnold stressed that the traffic snarl was not merely a standard inconvenience in Fort Lee, but a manufactured public health hazard.

Christie, a likely 2016 Republican presidential candidate, apologized Thursday, fired Kelly, and said he knew nothing of his aides’ actions.

Meanwhile, Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, who had expressed outrage after emails surfaced implicating the governor’s office and told CNN Christie shouldn’t even bother contacting him to apologize, struck a less combative tone Thursday after meeting with Christie.

“I’m glad he came. I take him for his word, which is he had nothing to do with it,” Sokolich said. “And I said this once, I said this 100 times. We in Fort Lee are not rooting for facts to, you know, come about and surface that would suggest in some shape or form that he was involved in it. We take him for his word.”

[AP]

TIME Chris Christie

Apologetic Chris Christie On Bridge Flap: “I Am Not A Bully”

New Jersey Governor Christie gives news conference in Trenton
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie gives a news conference in Trenton, January 9, 2014. Carlo Allegri—Reuters

Facing one of the toughest tests of his political career, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie offered a broad apology Thursday to the people of his state and the city of Fort Lee for traffic jams that apparently had been orchestrated by members of his political team. He also announced the dismissal of two senior members of his team.

“I am not a focus-group tested, blow-dried candidate or governor,” Christie said, acknowledging the brash and outspoken style that has made him a media darling, but now imperils his political future, including a potential run for the White House in 2016. “I am who I am, but I am not a bully.”

Emails released Wednesday suggested that Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Anne Kelly helped orchestrate closing lanes of the George Washington Bridge to punish the Mayor of Fort Lee for refusing to endorse Christie for re-election. Christie said he was lied to by the aide when asked if anyone in his office had anything to do with the shutdown.

“I am embarrassed and humiliated by the conduct of some of the people on my team,” he said somberly in a press conference in Trenton. “The conduct that they exhibited is completely unacceptable.” Christie said he fired Kelly, effective Thursday morning. “I also have to apologize for my failure as the governor of this state for failing to understand the true nature of this problem.”

Christie also cut ties with former campaign manager Bill Stepien, also quoted in the messages released Wednesday. The governor said Stepien would no longer be considered for the post of chairman of the New Jersey Republican Party and would not be a consultant to the Republican Governors Association, which is headed by Christie.

At a press conference last month, Christie laughed off allegations that he or his staff was responsible for the shutdown. Christie explained that before that event, he informed members of his staff that he was going to dismiss the accusations and urged them to speak up if there was any reason he shouldn’t say that. None came forward, he said.

“What did I do wrong to have these folks think it was okay to lie to me,” Christie said. “I’m doing a lot of soul-searching. I’m sick over this.”

Christie reaffirmed that he had no personal knowledge of the scheme until he was “blindsided” by the release of the emails Wednesday. He said he is conducting an internal investigation into what his staff did and didn’t know, and that his office will cooperate with both legislative and criminal investigations. He promised to publicly disclose any further senior staff involvement that he uncovers.

“I had no knowledge or involvement in this issue, in its planning or its execution,” Christie asserted. “I was told that it was a traffic study.”

“I am heartbroken,” Christie continued. “I would never have come out here four or five weeks ago and made a joke about these lane closures.”

“I am sad to report to the people of New Jersey that we fell short,” Christie said.

TIME

Officials Say Christie Bridge Scandal Hampered Emergency Responders

An EMS official warned the local mayor that the traffic was slowing down response times

It wasn’t just petty politics, it was dangerous.

That’s what local officials in New Jersey said about lane closures last year on the busiest bridge in America, lane closures that snarled traffic for days in a town near New York City and were revealed Wednesday to be part of a political revenge plot pushed by top aides to Gov. Chris Christie. The scandal has hurt the 2016 presidential hopes of Christie, who said late Wednesday that he was misled by aides about the issue and is set to hold a news conference Thursday morning.

In a Sept. 10 letter obtained by the Record newspaper in New Jersey, EMS Coordinator Paul E. Favia told Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich that emergency crews took more than twice as long to respond to some cases and said that paramedics were delayed in reaching a 91-year-old woman who later died of cardiac arrest. In another instance, he said he was forced to jump a curb to circumvent traffic and reach a car accident with multiple injuries.

“I would like to bring this to your attention as this new traffic pattern is causing unnecessary delays for emergency services to arrive on scene for medical emergencies within the borough,” Favia wrote in the letter.

Documents that surfaced Wednesday suggested that members of Christie’s administration — which initially attributed the delays to a mishandled traffic study — deliberately shuttered lanes leading to the George Washington Bridge after Sokolich, a Democrat, wouldn’t endorse Christie, a Republican, in his ultimately successful reelection bid.

“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Bridget Anne Kelly, a deputy chief of staff, wrote in an Aug. 13 email, shortly after Sokolich declined to back Christie.

“What I’ve seen today for the first time is unacceptable,” Christie said in a statement late Wednesday. “I am outraged and deeply saddened to learn that not only was I misled by a member of my staff, but this completely inappropriate and unsanctioned conduct was made without my knowledge.”

Sokolich said on CNN late Wednesday that he had tried to no avail to plead with the governor’s office for help while his town turned into a veritable parking lot for four days.

“Who would possibly reduce themselves to closing lanes to the busiest bridge in the world, putting my town in harm’s way?” Sokolich said. “He has to publicly address the folks that are specifically impacted by this. I think apologies need to be doled out.”

“You have intentionally put people in harm’s way,” he said.

[The Record]

TIME 2016 Election

Chris Christie Gets Caught in Traffic

Chris Christie
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie could find his 2016 hopes hurt by a local traffic scandal Mel Evans / AP

New Jersey governor hits first real 2016 speed bump

Chris Christie long played the part of New Jersey bully with pride, dressing down reporters and even constituents in made-for-YouTube moments that catapulted him to national fame as a new kind of tough-guy, say-it-like-it-is politician. If there were ever such a thing as a principled, good-government bully, Christie was supposed to be it: willing to speak his mind even if it wasn’t politically artful. He played above the pettiness that has soured so many Americans on Washington.

That all changed on Wednesday. Or at least that’s the politically perilous risk for the Garden State governor and presidential hopeful, after newly disclosed documents revealed one of his top aides vindictively tasking a transportation official to snarl traffic in a town whose mayor wouldn’t endorse her boss. The documents read like a caricature of government bureaucrats plotting to wreak havoc — not what Christie had in mind when he declared during his victory speech last year that Washington could learn a thing or two from Trenton.

“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Bridget Anne Kelly, a deputy chief of staff, wrote in an Aug. 13 email, shortly after the town’s mayor declined to back Christie. Emails and other messages showed transportation and administration officials boasting with glee that they were ignoring the panicked pleas of Fort Lee officials wondering why their constituents couldn’t get to the heavily trafficked George Washington Bridge into New York City. When one official conceded feeling bad for the children, another shot back with seeming disdain for supporters of Christie’s failed Democratic opponent Barbara Buono: “They are the children of Buono voters.”

Until Wednesday, Christie had insisted his office never had any involvement in what staffers called a “traffic study,” even as two close allies he appointed to the Port Authority resigned in an attempt to spare him the distraction. After canceling his only public event on Wednesday to go into crisis control, Christie issued a statement late in the day disavowing those who sought to act on his behalf.

“What I’ve seen today for the first time is unacceptable,” he said. “I am outraged and deeply saddened to learn that not only was I misled by a member of my staff, but this completely inappropriate and unsanctioned conduct was made without my knowledge. One thing is clear: this type of behavior is unacceptable, and I will not tolerate it because the people of New Jersey deserve better. This behavior is not representative of me or my administration in any way, and people will be held responsible for their actions.”

What happens next remains to be seen, and there’s every expectation that heads will roll. Some were quick to declare Christie’s White House ambitions dead on Wednesday. That is surely premature — no votes will be cast for two years. It will be a heavy lift for his opponents to turn an obscure traffic incident in north Jersey into something that matters to swing voters in Ohio or primary voters in Iowa and New Hampshire.

But the danger to Christie is real, and Republicans inside Washington and out — many who see him as a savior for the party — were shocked and dismayed to see him embroiled in such a parochial scandal.

“I do not believe for a minute that Chris Christie knew about this, and if he had known about it, he would have stopped it,” says Fred Malek, a top GOP fundraiser who works with Christie on the Republican Governors Association. “This is a bush-league tactic that is far below a man of his character and sophistication. It’s not an acceptable practice, and he needs to deal with it decisively.”

“I don’t blame Chris Christie for this personally,” Republican strategist Rick Wilson says. “But his people did not serve him well. All the people involved in doing this have to be canned, all the people who hired them have to be canned. You can’t tolerate stupidity on the part of staff if you’re going run of President, where everything becomes public.”

With Republicans already voicing quiet concerns that Christie might be too thin-skinned for a presidential bid, it didn’t go unnoticed that Christie’s people picked this fight during a race he was sure to win in a landslide anyway.

“These people were engaged in a political-revenge play against a small fish,” Wilson says.

At risk is nothing less than Christie’s very political identity, which he had controlled so well to this point. A credible governor — or President — doesn’t act like a local political boss, and while Republicans have long lambasted President Barack Obama as a typical Chicago-machine politician, they never really caught him acting like one. With stories of Christie’s team’s penchant for vengeance starting to pile up — and Democrats more motivated to highlight the tales than when they rolled over for him in 2013 — time is short for him to wrestle back control of his story.

“Democrats are beside themselves that they gave Christie a free pass to define himself in 2013 on very favorable terms,” one prominent Republican strategist tells TIME. “They’re going to spend 2014 making up for lost time. It’s only going to get worse from here on out.”

One close Christie ally at the center of the scandal is set to testify publicly on Thursday, and New Jersey Democrats promised to pursue their own investigation with renewed fervor.

And the small-town mayor whom Christie’s people sought to punish? Mark Sokolich took to CNN to take a victory lap for the forgotten players in the scandal, his Fort Lee constituents who got stuck in place for two days: “Who would possibly reduce themselves to reducing lanes to the busiest bridge in the world?”

TIME Chris Christie

Chris Christie ‘Outraged’ At Staff’s Role in Traffic Scandal

New Jersey governor says he was unaware of "completely inappropriate and unsanctioned conduct"

Updated at 8:05 p.m. EST on Jan. 8

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said Wednesday that he was “outraged” to learn his aides snarled traffic on a major commuter bridge last year as political revenge against one of his opponents.

“What I’ve seen today for the first time is unacceptable,” Christie said in a statement. “I am outraged and deeply saddened to learn that not only was I misled by a member of my staff, but this completely inappropriate and unsanctioned conduct was made without my knowledge.”

(EARLIER: Emails suggest Christie staff snarled traffic for political revenge)

Christie’s remarks came after newly released documents revealed earlier Wednesday that one of his top aides had approved closing lanes on the New Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge in September, seemingly in retribution to the mayor of Fort Lee, who declined to endorse Christie’s ultimately successful reelection bid.

“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Bridget Anne Kelly, a deputy chief of staff to Christie, wrote in an email to a Christie ally at the Port Authority in August, weeks before lane closures created mayhem on the first day of school. Christie had previously denied that anyone in his office had any role in the lane closures.

The revelation that one of his top aides sanctioned the closures quickly became a threat Wednesday to Christie’s 2016 presidential ambitions, and to the reputation he has crafted as a no-nonsense politician who is above everyday partisan sniping.

“One thing is clear: this type of behavior is unacceptable and I will not tolerate it because the people of New Jersey deserve better,” Christie said in his statement. “This behavior is not representative of me or my Administration in any way, and people will be held responsible for their actions.”

After Christie’s statement, Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich questioned whether the governor was truly clueless about the “venomous form of political retaliation.” He told CNN, “As this story continues and as things begin to unravel, with emails, the actions of counterparts, resignations, engagement of defense counsel, that position becomes … more and more difficult to believe.” The lane closures, he added, not only caused unnecessary stress for motorists, but also delayed response times for the town’s emergency services and police force.

This story was updated to include comments from Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich.

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser