Politicians—successful ones, anyway—have an uncanny ability to hide their dark side from the public eye. Whether you’re talking about a megalomaniacal bully like Chris Christie or a narcissistic grifter like former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, their public personas are carefully crafted to obscure the true nature of the individual holding office.
Often, the facade is designed to obliquely reference the hidden characteristic, to blunt the criticisms those who would point out the emperor’s disturbing lack of wardrobe. So Chris Christie transforms from a vindictive tyrant to a good-guy-who-gets-thing-done. Bob McDonnell becomes a charming businessman instead of a huckster. Mitt Romney was sold as an “economic expert and job creator” instead of the vulture capitalist he was.
And, in what was possibly the masterwork of such perception reconfiguration, George W. Bush, an incurious frat boy who hadn’t worked a real day in his life, was presented as a tough-as-nails rancher.
Anybody who knows better, which is to say, anybody who has enough real world interaction with said individuals to see what they are really made of, either keeps their mouth shut out of loyalty to the political game’s own version of omerta, or they speak up and are dismissed as partisans, disgruntled by their opponent’s success (or traitors, if they come from within the same party).
The perception bubble can be very resilient, especially if the politico and their team play smart poker. Inevitably, however, someone’s true nature starts to show, first around the edges, becoming more evident, until the outline of greed, ambition, and corruption wear through the bubble for all to see. While it may be human nature to put on a mask, it is also human nature to let the mask fall away when one gets too comfortable. And it seems like things can get very comfortable inside the bubble of political power.
In regards to Chris Christie and his Bridgegate nightmare, along with the much-more-damaging questions it’s raised regarding Hoboken’s Sandy relief funds, it appears to simply be a case of the Governor getting too comfortable and letting loose his inner-bully in a situation that was too close to the public eye, thinking himself invincible from the fallout. Instead, the ruse fell apart, and now the man who was supposed to save the Republicans from the TEA Party will be lucky to finish his term without facing a grand jury.
Christie’s belief in his own immunity likely came from a political career built on backroom bullying. It’s simply how he does business. The trick was doing business like that and coming across to the public as some kind of fair-minded moderate.
Bob McDonnell’s constitution consists of entirely too much Virginia milquetoast to qualify for bully status. His darker nature appears to be rooted in a cynical selfishness, a cultural entitlement descended from the old Southern gentry attitudes. He considers himself among a certain upper echelon, as a birthright, and whatever must be done to maintain that status is justifiable by nature. If that means hiding one’s troubled finances (and the exposure to corruption that comes with them) behind credit cards and too-clever-by-half business arrangements, then so be it.
In McDonnell’s case, he was undone by a spouse who shared his greed but not his caution, and a sugar daddy (the owner of a shady health supplement company) whose own house of cards was headed for collapse. But before it all went down, you had the Governor of Virginia (along with his wife) literally selling public policy to plug the hole in their bank account.
At one point, he actually took a meeting with the state Secretary of Agriculture as an opportunity to hawk his benefactor’s snake oil like some desperate Amway salesman, all while pretending he had no connection to the manufacturer. Instead, he just pulled out a bottle of the stuff (called Anatabloc) from his pocket and started touting its benefits, like he just happened to think of it in the middle of a high level cabinet meeting.
The teleplay writes itself.
How much damage these revelatory moments end up doing to a politico’s career depend largely on when they occur. Assuming McDonnell stays out of jail or the poorhouse, the consequences are mostly to his reputation. He won’t be on anyone’s shortlist for Vice President, but he’s not running for anything, so this one is more entertaining than anything—as well as being a good argument for why a candidate’s financial situation is a relevant line of inquiry during a campaign.
For Christie, the consequences are much more existential, pretty much torpedoing his Presidential ambitions—but let’s be real, he would have never survived a modern Republican primary—and even putting his governorship in jeopardy. The timing couldn’t have been worse (which makes one wonder if the Clinton camp wasn’t involved in some behind the scenes maneuvering to push this one up to the surface, eliminating what they likely perceive as the main potential threat in 2016).
Despite the multi-billion dollar political messaging industry, a person’s true nature is very difficult to obscure indefinitely. The only question becomes how long they get away with it, and how much damage they do in the meantime.