Politics boils down to three pronouns: I, you, we. The politician who has them in balance goes a long way.
From the "I" comes the lust for attention necessary to face all the cameras, hear all the clamoring, weather all the commentary. From the "I" comes the yearning to be celebrated and, because celebration often hinges on accomplishment, the drive to get things done. Personal glory and public good dovetail. What we call narcissism overlaps with what we call altruism, neither of which is as tidy as we make it out to be.
"You" matters just as much in this transactional age. A politician must promise measurable improvement to each and every voter's life. That's what President Barack Obama was trying to do with his pitch for the Affordable Care Act; he just went way too far. He became utterly fixated on the individual "you," when the best argument for universal health insurance was and is about the communal us.
"We" is essential. It must be in the mix. A politician who can cast his or her mission as our mission not only finds the cloak in which self-regard is most fetchingly wrapped but also creates the sense of collective purpose that's vital to progress.
Can Chris Christie do that? Can he fit the "we" into me, me, me?
This question preceded the scandal that enveloped him last week. This question will also survive it, even if the public officials and reporters digging into his role in the lane closures near the George Washington Bridge never find a smoking traffic cone. And that's because this question strikes to his overarching problem, which isn't an instance of gridlock but a pattern of grandiosity. While Christie sometimes seems to be fighting for you and for us, he almost always seems to have himself first and foremost in mind. There's too much "I" in the stew. Its flavor isn't sufficiently masked or muted.
In his news conference on Thursday he found a way to spell apology with a thousand I's.
Perhaps he nonetheless managed to assure voters that he hadn't directed the nightmare on Fort Lee's streets. His denials couldn't have been more emphatic, unconditional or expansive. He spoke and spoke and spoke, which made some sense, in that he cast himself as someone volunteering information rather than running from the truth.
But as he spoke and spoke and spoke, the apology sprawled into an odd aria of self-congratulation, and he even praised his own penance.
Of course calling out politicians for being entranced with themselves is like calling out actuaries for being interested in math. Certain professions require certain temperaments. But the lesson of political success and failure is that egoism does best with checks and camouflage, lest one's career be shortened, one's ultimate goal unreached. Newt Gingrich didn't want to exit the House of Representatives as soon as he did, and his life's plan wasn't to wind up hosting "Crossfire." An overblown "I" landed him there.
Bill Clinton's appetite for adulation may have been almost as keen, but its expression took the form of groveling as often as it did grandstanding. That's long been his genius: to leaven the boastful with the solicitous. Did he, as a candidate and a president, really feel our pain, or did he just feel the need to have us believe that? It didn't matter. When that lower lip jutted out and those eyes misted, you wanted to give him a blanket, a binky and your support.
It's interesting that the most frequently imagined presidential matchup for 2016 is Christie versus Hillary Clinton, because she's a textbook case in taming what the first President Bush, uncomfortable with the first-person singular, called "the big I."
Back in 1993, shortly after she and Bill moved into the White House, she appeared in an angelic pose on the cover of The New York Times' magazine, for a profile titled "Saint Hillary." It thrummed with self-satisfaction.
Then she fell. And then, as she picked herself up, she learned. In her bid for a Senate seat, she went on that famous "listening tour," an exercise in self-effacement devoted to you, you, you. As secretary of state, she assiduously logged (and publicized) all those miles. It was a way of projecting a nose-to-the-grindstone humility, the appearance of which is a cornerstone of her sustained popularity.
Humility comes haltingly to Christie, if it comes at all. There wasn't a scintilla of it at the 2012 Republican convention. His keynote speech there was broadly disparaged for the way the big I eclipsed the little mentions of Mitt Romney, in whose service it was supposedly being delivered. Chris Wallace, an anchor for Fox News, quipped, "For a moment, I forgot who was the nominee of the party."
Humility was absent when Christie bragged to Dan Balz of The Washington Post about how many Republican luminaries pleaded with him to get into the 2012 race and save the party. Humility doesn't factor into his habit, as governor, of having someone trail him to collect video of his trademark confrontations with naysayers so that these exchanges can be uploaded onto YouTube, viral testaments to his vaunted truth telling.
When a politician's self-promotion scales the Olympian heights that his has scaled, a dangerous message goes out to aides, who assume that ascendance is everything and that victory vindicates anything: browbeating, rule-tweaking, a knot of traffic around the world's busiest bridge.
Something else happens, too. Or, rather, doesn't. Real friendships beyond a posse of loyalists aren't made, though they're essential. A politician needs not just acolytes and fair-weather allies but also peers who feel real admiration and deep affection and will be there when the storm comes.
It's unclear, in the early days of this scandal, if Christie has that. Some Republican operatives have been strangely tepid in their assessments and defenses of him. Other Republican governors have been slow to rally around him.
Without enough "you" and "we," a politician inevitably bumps up against a word that, unlike apology, is correctly spelled with an I.
Frank Bruni is a columnist with The New York Times.