Hours before the first flakes of snow started to fall over his state last week, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie boarded a plane with his family to Disney World. It quickly became evident that the snow storm would be a major one, but Gov. Christie decided to remain in Orlando.
It was no problem. That’s what lieutenant governors are for. But it turns out his lieutenant was out of the country visiting her ailing father.
Even as three feet of snow blanketed parts of the state and media criticism intensified, Mr. Christie stubbornly refused to return to his state.
According to the Newark Star Ledger, Mr. Christie showed no remorse upon his return home:
“I wouldn’t change the decision even if I could do it right now,” Christie said. “I had a great five days with my children. I promised that.”
When it became clear that the storm was getting worse, Christie said his wife warned him to not “even think about” canceling the trip.
“I would have been doing the same thing here as I was there,” Christie said. “I would not have been out driving a plow.”
Mr. Christie is right on the facts – he probably was able to do most of his job over the phone. But he’s missing one critical point: none of that matters. In a crisis, facts alone don’t drive the storyline. Optics matter, and Gov. Christie’s inaction was a stunning act of political tone deafness. He should have learned from the litany of other recent high-profile optical disasters, such as when:
- President Bush was photographed looking out from his plane over New Orleans days after Hurricane Katrina wiped out the city
- President Obama and Vice President Biden were criticized for playing golf during the B.P. oil spill
- BP CEO Tony Hayward was filmed attending a yacht race as tarballs rushed ashore in Florida
In a crisis, people want to see their leaders at the scene, even if their presence doesn’t actually accomplish anything. Good examples of leaders in crisis include:
- Former NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s walking with an oxygen mask at Ground Zero in the immediate aftermath of 9/11
- President Bush visiting Ground Zero days after 9/11 and standing next to a rescue worker on a pile of rubble with a megaphone
- President Clinton delivering a tone-perfect speech in Oklahoma City after the bombing of a federal building killed 168 people
To be sure, those crises were all more severe than a snowstorm. But the lessons learned from them remain equally as valid for smaller crises. One of those lessons is this: good leaders are visible during a crisis. In all three of the “bad” examples above, the leaders were AWOL; in all three “good” examples, they were present.
Gov. Christie would be wise to stop digging in his heels and apologize to his constituents. He should admit that although he tried to make the right decision for his family, his primary obligation during the massive snow storm was to the state. And he should promise voters that from now on, he will always remain in New Jersey during a crisis.