Two weeks ago while visiting the Paris Air Show, I took some time to cross off a few landmarks I hadn't had time to see on my previous trips to Paris. I found that the Palace of Versailles is very much overrated and its gardens are very much underrated. Obviously the palace to see while in Paris is not Versailles, but the Château de Fontainebleau, far superior to it in nearly every way and I have my friend Fatih to thank for this, but I digress. In line behind me and my good friend at Versailles was a family from Uruguay. We got to talking and I thought I'd get some local input about Uruguay. It's not every day you meet Uruguayans, so I didn't want to miss the chance. I especially wondered whether the much-hyped former president of Uruguay, José Mujica, lived up to the hype.
Mujica gained notoriety during his five years as president for his "humility." A former leftist guerrilla fighter, Mujica spent over a decade in jail and was freed under a general amnesty later entering politics. While his many policy stances and his life as a leftist guerrilla are of course important, I don't know enough about his actual role nor do I know enough about the environment in Uruguay during this period to do the topic any justice. I bring up Mujica because of what my Uruguayan line-mates said about him. When I asked if his use of a 30-year-old car and his rejection of the presidential residence and staff were true, it was "all for show" and that he was no different than any other politician was the reply.
While the GDP per capita of Uruguay is quite high, nearly $16,000, the median income is far lower. In other words, the Uruguayans visiting Versailles may have a less than objective view of the former president. The "all for show" aspect of politics is, however, what I want to focus on here.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie went to the beach over the weekend, but he didn't get a tan. And so begins one of the most bizarre political controversies in a long time. Christie is in the midst of a political war with the state legislature which has led to a shutdown of the state government. This means state parks and other state-run "non-essential" services are suspended until the governor and the representatives can agree on continuing funding for the state. The story takes an unusual turn here as the governor took a state helicopter to a state park on a barrier island off of New Jersey to spend the 4th of July weekend with his family. Maybe not so controversial yet. When asked about his upcoming trip on Saturday and his decision to use the Governor's Mansion, more modest than Fontainebleau no doubt but still a mansion, Christie defended it, saying, "Run for governor, and you can have a residence there." The controversy begins with the fact that the state park in which the governor's mansion is located was deemed non-essential and closed. This means the public was unable to use the beach and the other attractions at the park during the holidays. The abandoned beach allowed the Christie family and their friends to have the entire beach to themselves. Photographed by a low-flying aircraft, Christie is seen soaking up the sun and enjoying the state park and the mansion's beachfront property. What makes the story controversial is that later Christie lied about his weekend saying "I didn't get any sun." After the images of him on the beach surfaced, Christie's spokesman Brian Murray corroborates his boss's statement saying "He did not get any sun. He had a baseball hat on." Now while the semantics of what constitutes "getting sun" aren't very important, the tone-deaf nature of an unapologetic governor using public government land made off-limits to the public by his disagreements with the legislature are important.
Perhaps Mujica wasn't really humble and the intentions behind his non-use of government perks were worse than Christie's potentially good intentions of using the governor's mansion and spending time with his family. Intentions are hard to read. Effective politicians that better the lives of their constituents are entitled to be rewarded with the perks the people legally bestow upon them as elected leaders. But while there's nothing worse than an ineffective politician who unabashedly uses the perks of being a leader, an ineffective leader that doesn't use said perks for the sake of optics and continues to govern poorly is not far behind.