Author, Journalist, Filmmaker

Christie unmasked

American Governor               Ruthless Ambition

Before Chris Christie fell by the wayside on the road to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, it seemed like once the extremists, dullards, and one hate-mongering billionaire were gone from the primary races he had a chance to become the 2016 Republican candidate for president. He had national visibility, high-level Republican connections, Wall Street friends and donors, and formidable gifts as a political operator, debater, and campaigner. Add to this the public’s ignorance of his real political career and the bully behind the “Jersey style” mask, and his candidacy seemed like a real possibility.

Then came the fall: the cascade of primary defeats, his rejection by President-elect Donald J. Trump, and his ignominious retreat to New Jersey, whose no-longer-amused citizens have whacked him with an 18 percent approval rating.

But make no mistake about it – he will be back. At 54 years old, Christie is a young man in political terms. In recent stories in Politico and Vanity Fair and local media, he claims to have turned down “multiple offers” from Trump, settling into the limbo of courtier-in-waiting, hoping to capture high office once a wave of high-level vacancies is caused by Trump’s erratic and capricious behavior.

Meanwhile, the legislature has refused to allow him to profit from the book he wants to write. So those who want another version instead of the governor’s self mythologizing can turn to two books which, when combined, offer a portrait of Christie’s inner workings and outer ambitions: “Ruthless Ambition: The Rise and Fall of Chris Christie” by former Hudson County Assemblyman Louis Manzo, who was also a defendant in Operation Bid Rig 111; and “American Governor: Chris Christie’s Bridge to Redemption,” by Matt Katz, the WNYC-FM reporter who covered the Bridgegate scandal on an almost daily basis.

Each book has its strengths, and weaknesses. Each focuses on the two biggest early chapters of Christie’s career, although neither covers Christie’s dogged, futile quest to win the Republican nomination for president that has been his prime goal since he was sworn in as governor in 2009.

Both books are very complimentary to each other. Manzo’s is driven by the sense of outrage one would expect from an innocent victim of Christie’s over-reaching. Katz’s book, which touches briefly on Bid Rig, widens out to a personal and political biography, and finally includes Bridgegate as it unfolded, has a warmer tone and, while not overly hostile or friendly to Christie, does give you a nuanced sense of the man behind the calculating and ambitious political operator.

“Ruthless Ambition: The Rise and Fall of Chris Christie”

Manzo’s book focuses relentlessly and with ice-cold precision on how the strategies and legal corner-cutting of Operation Bid Rig 111 exposed Christie’s ruthlessness and pragmatic willingness to flout law and regulation in pursuit of his ambitions. Manzo’s fight to eventually prove the injustice of the charges against him and his innocence consumed over two years of his life and his entire personal fortune.

Most important, Manzo’s heavily-researched story details how laws prohibiting federal prosecutors from influencing elections were ignored by Christie’s allies in the U.S. Attorney’s office. Manzo charges that they were focused on the jobs a governor Christie would grant them if they helped get him elected.

The centerpiece of Manzo’s examination of Operation Bid Rig 111 is the unholy alliance between federal prosecutors and key Bid Rig informant Solomon Dwek. Facing 30 years in prison and a $1 million fine for bank fraud in 2006, Manzo reports: “Christie’s office rescued Dwek by offering him a plea deal and agreeing not to seek prosecution on any of the ‘thousands’ of crimes that Dwek admitted to under oath, at an estimated cost to his victims of hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Wired for video and audio, posing as a developer willing to pay off any officials who would help him realize his plans, Dwek foraged for grafters throughout North Jersey, and especially Hudson County. Caught up in the web and ultimately exonerated was Manzo, a candidate at the time for mayor of Jersey City specifically targeted by the Department of Justice and arrested in the federal sting in July 2009 that preceded Christie’s defeat of Governor Jon Corzine. After a legal defense that took two and a half years he was found not guilty in February 2012.

His book is an impressive piece of investigative reporting that goes well beyond his personal legal case to portray a system in which political ambition and the willingness to flout the law by it’s own guardians was business-as-usual: “The evidence was conclusive,” Mazo writes, “that federal prosecutors, including those who once worked for United States Attorney Chris Christie, broke the law and used their offices to personally and politically profit themselves, obstruct justice, and engage in what appeared to be a government orchestrated coup to disrupt the 2009 gubernatorial election.”

“American Governor: Chris Christie’s Bridge to Redemption”

Notwithstanding it’s title, which is both true but sort of meaningless, Katz has written both a biography of a political striver and a very well-documented expose of the lane-closing scandal that may have toppled Christie from frontrunner to also-ran. Rich in local history, the story is deeply knowing about the machinery underlying New Jersey political life, especially in how immediately the newly-elected governor kissed the rings of the North and South Jersey bosses of the opposing party, Joe DiVincenzo and George Norcross, who enabled Christie to get a lot of his agenda through a Democratic-controlled legislature.

Due credit is given to how Christie took charge when Superstorm Sandy devastated New Jersey, a high point in his approval rating, but also how state and Federal aid for storm recovery was manipulated for political advantage, most notoriously when his lieutenant governor allegedly pressured Hoboken’s mayor for a quid pro quo that favored a developer represented by Christie confidante David Samson. The governor’s manipulation and corruption of the workings of Samson’s Port Authority are also extensively detailed.

But the centerpiece of Katz’s story is a meticulous recounting of the rolling Bridgegate scandal. His book was obviously rushed into print to capitalize on Christie’s part in the 2016 presidential race and it ends a year before the Iowa caucuses, the deflation of Christie’s campaign balloon, the fall into disgrace and house arrest of David Samson, the conviction of two of his top aides in the scandal, his embrace of then rejection by Trump, and his return to his home state, where he is widely reviled.

Katz’s book gets closer to Christie the man and politician than Manzo’s. Readers may finish it hoping Katz will return to his subject and investigate why a politician who seemingly had so many advantages conducted such a dud of a campaign. That story may prepare us for Christie’s inevitable rise from the swamps of Jersey, whether as part of the Trump administration, or as a candidate again in 2020…or 2024…or 2028. “American Governor: The Sequel” could serve as a valuable, er, bridge, to whatever comes next in the career of Christopher J. Christie.