Chris Christie as “Boss” Willie Stark

Broderick Crawford in "All the King's Men"

Broderick Crawford in “All the King’s Men”

I have been watching the ever burgeoning Chris Christie scandal with amazement as the man many thought would be the GOP 2016 presidential nominee disintegrates before our eyes. At first his staff closing down Fort Lee’s access lanes to the George Washington Bridge seemed like a petty act of spite against a mayor who had refused to endorse the governor. If I had applied America’s greatest political novel to the affair, however, I would have realized that there had to be a lot more to the affair.

The novel I have in mind is Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, which dazzles me every time I pick it up. To compare Christie to strongman “Boss” Willie Stark is to cast some light onto what is going on in New Jersey.

If you don’t know the novel, it is about the rise and fall of a populist politician turned tyrant. It is told through the vantage point of his press agent Jack Burden, who believes that Stark represents the best chance to clean up Louisiana’s fabled corruption. Stark is based on Huey Long, Louisiana governor and senator from 1928 until he was assassinated in 1935.

Stark and Christie even have some physical resemblances although Stark isn’t quite as heavy. Here’s Warren’s description:

Fate comes walking through the door, and it is five feet eleven inches tall [Christie is five feet eleven inches tall] and heavyish in the chest and shortish in the leg and is wearing a seven-fifty seersucker suit which is too long in the pants so that the cuffs crumple down over the high black shoes, which could do with a polishing…

Both Stark and Christie make/made their way to the governor’s mansion by going after corruption. Stark exposes a fraudulent contractor whose rotten bricks, bought from a relative, result in the collapse of a school and the killing and maiming of several children. His signature line becomes “Gimme that meat axe” as he lets his constituents know what he plans to do to corrupt contractors and officials.

Christie, meanwhile, became famous for going after corrupt New Jersey politicians, whose numbers apparently are legion. The “perp walk” became the signature of his days as federal attorney, as did the many leaks from his office. He rode New Jersey residents’ longing for a clean government to the governorship.

Then scandals begin to arise. In Stark’s case, one of his underlings, state auditor Byram B. White, is guilty of graft and subject of an impeachment attempt by Stark’s political rivals. Stark, although he knows White is guilty, sees the impeachment attempt as really an attack on himself and goes on the offensive, digging up dirt on his foes and also organizing mass rallies. He wins reelection in a landslide.

Christie’s go-to strategy is also attack although, unlike Stark, he was more than willing to throw his underlings (David Wildstein, Bridget Anne Kelly, Bill Baroni) under the bus. Or at least, he sacrificed these particular underlings. There may be others that he is protecting.

The more we hear about Christie, the more accounts of intimidation we learn of. As I reread All the King’s Men, I wondered could imagine Christie versions of Stark’s attempt to talk Judge Irwin out of endorsing one Callahan, who is running against Stark’s candidate Masters:

“No man,” Judge Irwin said, and stood up there straight in the middle of the floor, “has ever been able to intimidate me.”

“Well, I never tried” the Boss said, “yet. And I’m not trying now. I’m going to give you a chance. You say somebody gave you some dirt on Masters? Well, just suppose I gave you some dirt on Callahan?—Oh, don’t interrupt! Keep your shirt on!”—and he held up his hand. “I haven’t been doing any digging, but I might, and if I went out in the barn lot and stuck my shovel in and brought you in some of the sweet-smelling and put it under the nose of your conscience, then do you know what your conscience would tell you to do? It would tell you to withdraw your endorsement of Callahan. And the newspaper boys would be over here thicker’n bluebottle flies on a dead dog, and you could tell ’em all about you and your conscience. You wouldn’t even have to back Masters. You and your conscience could just go off arm in arm and have a fine time telling each other how much you think of each other.”

“I have endorsed Callahan,” the Judge said. He didn’t flicker.

“I maybe could give you the dirt,” the Boss said speculatively. “Callahan’s been playing round for a long time, and he who touches pitch shall be defiled, and little boys just will walk barefoot in the cow pasture.” He looked up at Judge Irwin’s face, squinting, studying it, cocking his own head to one side.

There’s some resemblance between this story and the account of Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer, whose city was pounded by Hurricane Sandy, being told (so she asserts) that Hoboken receiving Sandy aid was contingent upon her agreeing to a high-rise development in which associates of the governor have a stake. (Lt. Governor Kim Guatagno, supposedly the one carrying the governor’s message, has denied that she pressured Zimmer.) Other suspicious handling of Sandy money is now coming to light, causing the Star Ledger to retract last year’s endorsement of Christie.

In fact, Alec MacGillis of the New Republic has written a remarkable article contending that Christie’s fabled corruption-busting was actually more selective than it once appeared. McGillis claims that Christie targeted small fry while currying favor with large city bosses, thereby helping both them and him. If that’s the case, then the bridge scandal may be more than just a temper tantrum directed at a Democratic mayor who didn’t endorse the governor. It’s the way the Christie administration conducts business. Why make life miserable for Fort Lee Mayor Sokolich? In the words of Voltaire, “pour encourager les autres.”*

We shouldn’t be surprised that each day brings news stories of Christie government corruption. As Stark himself says in a riff on the 51st psalm,

Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud. There is always something.

Following the money is usually a good way to understand politics, and money in New Jersey is often tied to real estate. It could well be that the explanation for the Fort Lee gridlock is a parcel of land waiting to be developed—a parcel tied to the GW Bridge’s access lanes.

There’s another point of comparison between Stark and Christie worth noting: both are similarly obsessed with running for higher office (as perhaps are all such people). Here’s Warren describing Stark’s first run for governor. Unbeknownst to him, he is being used to split the “hick vote” by one Tiny Duffy:

He had been called. He had been touched. He had been summoned. And he was a little bit awestruck by the fact. It seems incredible that he hadn’t taken one look at Tiny Duffy and his friends and realized that things might not be absolutely on the level. But actually, as I figured it, it wasn’t incredible. For the voice of Tiny Duffy summoning him was nothing but the echo of a certainty and a blind compulsion within him, the thing that had made him sit up in his room, night after night, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes, to write the fine phrases and the fine ideas in the big ledger or to bend with a violent, almost physical intensity over the yellow page of an old law book. For him to deny the voice of Tiny Duffy would have been as difficult as for a saint to deny the voice that calls in the night.

There’s one key difference between Christie and Stark, however. For all his ego and eventual corruption, Stark at least operates from a populist vision of standing up for the rights of working people (or “hicks” as he calls them and himself). For instance, he dreams of building a state-of-the-art hospital for Louisiana whereas I don’t see Christie standing for anything other than his own aggrandizement. He doesn’t have, as Stark does, the love of the people to fall back on. His main supporters are Wall Street financiers and Roger Ailes.

That may ultimately mean that he doesn’t recover.

*The line, “to encourage the others,” is offered as an explanation to Candide about why a British naval officer is being shot.

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One Comment

  1. Ed Camp
    Posted February 24, 2014 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    What a potent comparison. Liz and I both grew up in Louisiana and remember
    well the antics and malfeasance of Huey P. He looms large in La. history.
    Robert Penn Warren is an icon for us also — his connections with Vanderbilt,
    etc.

    Best wishes. So good to see you and hear your voice at the Desegregation celebration
    here in Sewanee! A splendid occasion. You represented your father, mother and
    family so well. Wish Anne could have been here and she would like to have been.

    Ed & Liz

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