Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey has survived the first week in office after the explosion of Bridgegate. That is the scandal that blew up in his face when emails showed his staff and associates plotting to create a traffic jam in Fort Lee, N.J., as an act of political payback.
Calling the scandal Bridgegate is an obvious thing to do for smart-alecky columnists and editorial writers, evoking as it does the Watergate scandal, which was the progenitor of all the “-gates” that have followed. One of the revelations of Watergate was that President Nixon had an assistant whose specialty was “dirty tricks,” a phrase that entered the political lexicon then in a particular way.
The dirty tricks of the Nixon era included a variety of crimes, including the burglary of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office. Ellsberg was the Edward Snowden of the day, and Nixon’s henchmen wanted to dig up dirt on him. The wiretaps, break-ins, enemies’ lists and other misdeeds all grew out of the paranoia of a president insecure about his re-election in 1972. Thus, they mostly occurred within the competitive arena of electoral politics.
What has astonished people about Bridgegate was what it says about the mindset of the people working around Christie. Dirty tricks of a sort might be expected in most elections, but electoral combat generally targets one’s opponents.
Christie’s staffers took it further: They targeted the people of New Jersey. They created four days of traffic mayhem for the people at the New Jersey end of the George Washington Bridge as a way of getting at the mayor of Fort Lee. It was all about politics and retribution. And that is how the people of New Jersey came to be used as pawns in the game — slow-moving pawns, forced to creep in traffic for long hours on their way into Manhattan.
As dirty as politics may be, as self-serving as politicians may act, we like to think that they understand that they are there, actually, to serve the people. To create difficulty for people intentionally, as an act of political retribution, goes beyond our most cynical expectations.
Christie survived the week because none of the communications that have surfaced so far show that he was aware of the planned traffic jam. Thus, his famous two-hour press conference emphasized the embarrassment and sense of betrayal he felt, only underscoring what he professed to be his innocence.
He may or may not be innocent of directly causing Bridgegate. Nevertheless, for a staff member even to think up such a plan, he or she would have to be operating from a set of assumptions about politics that Christie had a hand in creating. Among the assumptions was that anyone who failed to get in step behind the governor was deserving of punishment. There was the assumption that the interests of the politician far exceed those of the people. Getting revenge was paramount; the inconvenience of commuters did not register. All of these assumptions depend upon a surpassing degree of arrogance.
Voters will have a hard time believing that Christie is innocent of creating the atmosphere of political thuggery that allowed his assistants to carry out this scheme. Christie’s own reputation for thuggery preceded Bridgegate.
For the political narcissist, it’s all about him, or her. Christie’s narcissism apparently had infected his staff. One of the traits of the narcissist is that he behaves like a bully, a behavior that appears to be the modus operandi of his staff.
The Christie fiasco would not be the news phenomenon that it became if he hadn’t been mentioned as a presidential contender, potential leader of a party that may be tilting back toward the center. But for Republicans to embrace a candidate whose staff members are willing to use the levers of government for political retribution would seem to be a stretch. Before the investigations and revelations on Bridgegate are complete, we may well learn it wasn’t only staff member who were manipulating those levers.
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