When the Hindenburg flew over Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey on May 6, 1937, as it burst into flames, causing 35 fatalities, WLS radio’s Herbert Morrison’s eyewitness account became one that would be remembered for the ages: “Oh, the humanity!”
We’re now witnessing the explosion and lightning nosedive of Gov. Chris Christie’s carefully cultivated and executed political branding. Some suggest he won’t be politically destroyed if it turns out he wasn’t directly involved in the intentional slowing of traffic on the George Washington Bridge, and if it isn’t proven he held money designated for Hurricane Sandy relief hostage because Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer didn’t green-light a redevelopment project. But it’s now clear his political image has been tarnished, if not shattered.
Christie now joins the list of political figures who had been considered political dynamos because they were either charismatic or could attract votes beyond their own political sports team -- but crashed and burned. Some (former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura and former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger) came from the world of entertainment or sports, made it to the state level and proved to be lousy politicians or administrators. Christie joins the category of the politician who became a national figure then saw his credibility swiftly collapse. We’ve seen massive crash and burns before.
In 1988, we saw Sen. Gary Hart (D-Co.), a Kennedy associate (and some claimed a Kennedy imitator) who rose in the polls and dominated the news media in his bid for the Democratic Presidential nomination. Amid rumors he wasn’t faithful to his wife, he dared the media to follow him. They did, exposing his affair with Donna Rice, making the name “Gary Hart” and the dish “topped rice” a popular punch line. Hart was like a shooting star who zoomed up, skyrocketed down, then dropped out of Presidential-contender sight. He suspended his campaign, and when he re-entered he got just 4 percent of the vote in the New Hampshire primary.
This the biggest parallel to what’s happening to Christie. The Hart scandal didn’t involve allegations of corruption or abuse of power like the scandals swirling around Christie. But Hart had been seen as an up-and-coming Democrat. The camera loved him and he seemed to be someone destined for either the White House or a great cabinet job. The rapidity and totality of his descent was breathtaking. Hart went on to have a highly distinguished career as a professor, writer, author, commentator and public speaker. But politically? He was damaged goods.
Then there was former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) whose brand never quite put him over the top. His image was of a sincere, caring person who talked from the heart. It turned out he actually talked out of a lower part of the anatomy when it was proven he betrayed his terminally ill wife, his staff, and his followers. The word is overused, but he was a liar.
Yet another stunning descent was seen 2012 with conservative Republican Texas Gov. Rick Perry, whose advance billing described him as a formidable political master, a charismatic figure who would have the money, charisma and smarts to get the Republican nomination. But after he underperformed in debates, and after his (in)famous “Oops” debate brain freeze, his support collapsed faster than Mel Gibson’s invitations to bar mitzvahs.
All three politicos had personas created by their actions and words as politicians, their political positioning, their skillful staffs and a media that covered what them extensively and reported how people perceived them. But when they stumbled, perceptions about them were quickly negatively redefined in the public’s mind.
I’ve said don’t count Christie out yet. But it increasingly looks like Christie faces more, not fewer problems. Some other shoes could drop. He now looks done as serious Presidential prospect, and it’s so sad: he had positioned himself in America’s middle, became a cultural personality due to appearances on late night shows and parody videos, and seemed different than most tiresome politicians. That status is now gone forever.
Oh, the humanity.
Joe Gandelman is a veteran journalist who wrote for newspapers overseas and in the United States. He has appeared on cable news show political panels and is Editor-in-Chief of The Moderate Voice, an Internet hub for independents, centrists and moderates. He also writes for The Week’s online edition. CNN’s John Avlon named him as one of the top 25 Centrists Columnists and Commentators. He can be reached at email@example.com.