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The scandal involving New Jersey Republican Governor Chris Christie, whose aides virtually shut down Fort Lee by throttling its access to the George Washington Bridge into New York City, reportedly to punish the city’s mayor for not endorsing their boss, is so classic that you could put it in a textbook on how a politician can make a developing political scandal much, much worse.
The model goes like this: aides to a governor, a rising political star, are looking to hurt the governor’s enemy. They engage in behavior that is definitely low, likely illegal, and possibly criminal. People start pointing fingers in the direction of the State House. The governor ridicules the critics. But the state legislature, controlled by the opposing party, launches an investigation and subpoenas high officials. The testimony is embarrassing. Key gubernatorial appointees quit suddenly, one labeling the evolving scandal a “distraction.” Then — inevitably, it seems — a smoking gun surfaces.
The governor apologizes. He fires someone. But people accuse him of painting himself as a victim instead of taking full frontal responsibility for the mess. Debate begins on whether his political future is toast — nay, on whether he should step down from office.
This is both the generic description of a modern political scandal and a strikingly specific account of what happened to Christie. He wanted New Jersey’s Democratic elected officials to endorse his re-election bid in order to create a display of bipartisan appeal for the benefit of his fellow Republicans. The Democratic mayor of Fort Lee declined to accommodate.
Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie’s deputy chief of staff, contributed an e-mail that will certainly become part of the vocabulary of all scandal mavens: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” Lanes were closed on the Fort Lee access to the bridge. Traffic problems, predictably, ensued.
Now, here are some words to be said for Christie: If in the weeks before the scandal broke he spent too long — as he did — dismissing the possibility that lanes had been closed as a deliberate political vendetta, he was probably not denying something that he knew to be true. Instead, albeit conveniently, he was denying something that his aides told him was not true and that he thought was not likely to be true because it was so — well, off the wall.
Consider: Yes, when compared with the rest of the world, the United States of America is a piker in the field of political vengeance. We’ve produced no Madame Defarge, entering the names of enemies of the people destined for the guillotine into her knitting — at least not literally. We are missing a history like that of the Stalinist purges, where millions died. This so horrified even the Soviet Union’s rulers that afterward it became a matter of vast procedural complication to execute a political prisoner. (So Natan Sharanky said, explaining why he had survived his years in Soviet captivity.)
Still, we are no strangers to payback – the opponents exiled to the equivalent of Siberia, highways bulldozed through the farm acreage of political rivals the enemy lists that make the Nixon administration’s seem uninventive.
So, what was so impressively unusual about the Fort Lee lane closings? It was that the governor’s aides, exacting revenge on a political rival, decided to cause him maximum embarrassment by punishing his entire community. It is as if a member of the Chinese National People’s Congress had decided to retaliate against a rival by poisoning the well in his village.
This was not only what you might call morally insensitive but monumentally stupid, since it was not unforeseeable that with thousands upon thousands of people affected, the commuters late for work and the children trapped on school buses and the emergency medical technicians stranded on the way to tending to 91-year-old ladies, people would begin to Ask Questions.
Which they did, with predictable results.
Indeed, such results were so predictable that you can see why Christie, confronted with the accusation that the lanes had been deliberately closed, reacted with a confidence born of the conviction that no aides of his could have been seriously demented enough to do the deed.
Is this, then, a defense of the governor’s behavior?
Well, no. It is rather the opposite.
If there is one lesson to be learned from the scandals that have punctuated our political landscape since Watergate, it is that behavior that seems too stupid to be plausible turns out to be true with significant regularity. The implication of this lesson is that a politician with a decent instinct for self-preservation will cultivate a habit of disciplining his hubris.
In operational terms, this means that the horrible stuff your enemies say about what your people did may be true even though it is your enemies who are saying it. You ridicule your critics at your peril.
This type of lesson may be especially disagreeable for someone of Christie’s temperament. His recent press conference apologies to the people of New Jersey, for example, were remarkable for a strange detail: his elaborate complaint that his aides had lied to him. Plus the expressions of his aggrieved disappointment that such duplicitous individuals had made their way into his inner circle.
At this moment, nobody wants to hear from the governor about his injury and hurt. Christie might have done himself more favors if he had said a word about his own responsibility for the political and moral atmosphere pervading that same inner circle.
We’ll see whether he does better in the coming months of what looks like is going to be a very long scandal.
Suzanne Garment, a lawyer, is the author of “Scandal: The Culture of Mistrust in American Politics.”
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