My father taught me as a youngster that there was a difference between bullies and tough guys and it went like this: The toughest guy in class did not start fights but could certainly be there to finish them while the bully could always be counted on to start fights but not be there to finish them.
At the time the distinction did not mean much to me. As one of the smaller kids in my class I was constantly finding myself on the end of taunts and threats from the class bully. Remember this was a time, the early 1960s, when at least in Northeast Philadelphia toughness was a fairly reliable barometer of manhood, or male kid-hood.
As I would grow older, wiser, and mercifully relinquish my unwanted title of class shrimp, I grew to appreciate the distinction and the wisdom of my dad’s words. Over the course of a nearly 40-year career in politics, I have witnessed toughness and bullying on a different and far more sophisticated scale, but at the core of the issue not much has really changed. I have encountered many bullies and a few tough individuals. The most surprising and consequential change over my lifetime has been the obliteration of gender as a determinant of either toughness or bullying.
I have served presidential administrations, two United States senators, two major state governors, the organization representing the nation’s large city mayors, and throughout my career have found myself tangling with state legislators, city councilors, county commissioners, and township supervisors. You name the level of government; I have worked closely with all of them, which brings me to the current situation confronting New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.
Christie has often been labeled a bully and in typical Jersey bravado has parlayed that into being tough. Being from across the river in Pennsylvania, I can appreciate the allure of a tough leader, particularly in this time of political dysfunction where rarely is heard a courageous whimper from those charged with the responsibility being responsible stewards of the public interest.
Citizens from Trenton to Juneau and everywhere in between are starved for effective leadership, yet confidence levels continue to slip miserably into a waste pit fueled by anger and frustration over the direction our society is headed. Therefore I believe it is incumbent upon us as citizens to exercise our brainpower and common sense and stop electing politicians whose bravado is not matched by an ability to actually do the job.
Christie’s defense essentially has come down to pleading ignorance as to what was actually being done in his name. Now, as implausible as this may seem, particularly to those who have dealt with him over a number of years, let us just assume for a minute that he can be taken at his word. Another thing we are taught from a very early period in our life is that ignorance of the law is no excuse.
Christie makes a mockery of the tough guy branding he has so assiduously cultivated during his political career. A tough guy is also a stand-up guy. A truly tough guy would accept responsibility for what happened on his watch and vow to never allow it to happen again. Of course, the risk with this strategy is that one must be fully prepared to accept the inevitable scrutiny and investigation that would bear out the claim of ignorance. But a smart leader would never allow ignorance to even be a conceivable option in the first place. Few would describe Christie as a dummy, especially adversaries he has slayed or pummeled in his rise to the throne. Which brings us back to the current conundrum confronting the guv: either accept that you are a bully or that you are not up to the job or a promotion.
Pick your poison, Governor — your recent dreams of becoming president are evaporating before your very eyes and you can count your lucky stars if the end of the road does not result in an indictment.
One can only imagine the consequences of such antics had they been exercised on an international stage. The country needs toughness and restraint in its leaders; the stakes of bullying are much too severe in a world inhabited by humans. But what is astoundingly evident in this sorry episode is the abject lack of judgment the governor used in appointing individuals whose ultimate allegiance is to the people not the man.
However the story unfolds, Christie has clearly shown that he simply is not up to the task of governing. But let this be a lesson to all who equate bullying with toughness that wisdom and competence are still essential ingredients to effective governance. These ingredients are absent in the contemporary political arena across a wide swath of the nation.
Former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell wrote a book titled A Nation of Wusses, in which he argued that toughness is sorely missing in the current political environment. I could not agree more. Unfortunately, we do have an abundance of bullies masquerading as tough guys, and given my Philly roots the term guys here is not gender specific. A dash of genuine toughness combined with vision and more than a scooch of wisdom is a rare commodity and sorely required. But we need to put an end to bullying in every sense of the word.