Forty years ago, Rod Stewart had a number one single and album named Every Picture Tells A Story. Last year at this time in New Jersey, we had a story that painted a picture – several of them in fact.
The story involved the state’s ill-fated application for federal Race to the Top education funds. New Jersey lost out on $400 million, essentially because the state made a clerical error on its application.
As for the pictures that story painted, they tell a lot about Governor Christie, the media and more.
For example, Christie demonstrated just how adept he can be at spinning a story. This was not a new revelation. As U.S. Attorney, he had displayed an ability to work the press to his advantage. For the most part, he continued this practice throughout his campaign for Governor and during his first few months as the state’s chief executive.
But the Race to the Top story was a real test. Christie’s Administration had lost out on $400 million in federal education funds because, in response to simple question requesting New Jersey budget information for 2008 and 2009, it provided budget information for 2010 and 2011 instead. As a result, the state lost 4.8 points on its application, enough to place it out of the running for the federal dollars. To make matters worse, it was common knowledge that the state had hurriedly rewritten its application over Memorial Day Weekend after Christie objected to the version that had been submitted to him by his Commissioner of Education.
In his first meeting with the press after the debacle, the Governor’s strategy was to change the focus of the story. He came out swinging and pinned the blame on the Obama Administration and the federal bureaucracy. “This is the stuff, candidly, that drives people crazy about government and crazy about Washington,” he told reporters, adding that the President should tell New Jerseyans “why he's depriving them of $400 million that this application earned them, because one of his bureaucrats in Washington couldn't pick up the phone and ask a question, couldn't go on the internet and find information.” He also said the state attempted to correct the error during an August 11 presentation in Washington, D.C., but federal officials refused to accept the correct numbers because the June 1 application deadline had passed.
In theory, the Governor’s strategy was a good one and it did work, but only briefly. One of the other points this episode underscored was the fact that politicians sometimes bend and embellish the truth. In this case, the U.S. Department of Education fired back at Christie by releasing a video recording of the state’s August 11 presentation refuting the Governor’s statement that federal officials had refused to accept the new numbers. In fact the tape showed that a federal reviewer at the session twice offered the state an opportunity to provide the correct numbers, but the state officials making the presentation were unable to find them.
In explaining the disparity, Christie claimed that he merely was relating information that had been provided to him by his Education Department. But Education Commissioner Bret Schundler had a different story, and when he continued to stand by his version of what transpired, he soon became Christie’s former Education Commissioner – a development that also told us something about the Governor. In case there was still was any lingering doubt, it now was clear: Don’t cross him or you’re likely to pay the price.
Not all of what emerged from the Race to the Top incident involved the Christie Administration. The story showed that the media – despite all of the cutbacks and changes that have hindered the industry in recent years – can still be a powerful and influential force. Had not the press reported the reason why New Jersey lost out on the federal funding, the story would have died within a day or two and Bret Schundler might still be a member of the Christie cabinet.
The incident also demonstrated something important about the Obama Administration and the President’s chances for re-election. Throughout most of his time in the Oval Office, Barack Obama has been a punching bag, absorbing hits from Republicans and occasionally from members of his own party. He doesn’t generally strike back with the speed and force that his Education Department used in refuting Christie’s comments. With Race to the Top, we saw that the Obama Administration is capable of fighting back. The Obama White House and 2012 campaign staff will have to do more of the same in order to win re-election.
One final and most important point: If you decide to redo a 1,000-page application over a holiday weekend, make sure to proofread it thoroughly. Otherwise, you could end up costing children some very badly needed money for their education.
Richard A. Lee is Communications Director of the Hall Institute. A former State House reporter and Deputy Communications Director for the Governor, he also has taught courses in media, politics and government at Rutgers University, where he is completing work on a Ph.D. in media studies. Read more of Rich’s columns at richleeonlineand follow him on Twitter.