Roving thoughts and provocations

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A Smaller, Meaner Scandal

John Moore/Getty Images
Traffic on the George Washington Bridge between New York City and Fort Lee, New Jersey, December 17, 2013

Yesterday, stuck in traffic on the George Washington Bridge, my husband said, “Chris Christie.” I laughed, because those were precisely the two words that had just crossed my mind. I looked around, wondering how many of the drivers and passengers stalled beside us were also thinking about the New Jersey governor, whose office has admitted to unnecessarily shutting down two of the three access lanes from Fort Lee to the bridge for four days in September. Though it remains unclear how much the governor knew and how directly he was involved, recently revealed private e-mails between people in his administration suggest that the lane closures had no purpose other than to embarrass Mark Sokolich, the Democratic Mayor of Fort Lee, for refusing to endorse the Republican Christie in his most recent re-election campaign.

Regardless of who dreamed up this highly inventive way of punishing a political rival, there’s something distressing about the story, and not only because the obvious and sensible warnings—that the closures would compromise the ability of EMS vehicles to reach the sick and injured—were ignored. What has made “Bridgegate” simultaneously risible, demoralizing, and destructive is that it’s so quotidian, so simple. Being stuck in traffic is a familiar experience, a lot easier to imagine and to understand than the details of Obamacare or of the technical glitches that nearly sabotaged the inception of the new health-insurance laws. Americans may have differing views on immigration reform, but there’s not one of us who wants to sit in the car for hours because someone is getting even with someone else. Ultimately, it’s a political scandal that transcends politics; right, left, and center can agree that it’s a bad idea to prevent emergency vehicles from getting help to people in need.

What also seems dangerous is how strongly it confirms the growing skepticism and cynicism with which Americans view their government, our conviction that our leaders are out of touch with, and don’t care about, the well being and the lives of ordinary people, and our belief that politicians see voters merely as pawns to be manipulated in the nasty chess game that Republicans and Democrats are playing against each other. Presumably, the governor’s close associates weren’t stalled on the bridge, nor was it their mothers or grandmothers who might have died in the ambulance en route to the hospital.

One can’t help asking why the energy and creativity that was expended on imagining a devious method of inconveniencing citizens and turning Fort Lee into a parking lot hadn’t instead been spent on figuring out ways to improve the lives of those same citizens. What’s startling, too, is how closely the story resembles the plots of prime-time TV dramas set in Washington, series such as Scandal, House of Cards, and The Blacklist, shows in which Congress and the White House are portrayed as roiling snake pits of covert operations, illegal machinations, and nefarious strategies designed to grab personal and political power, settle scores, and cover up the crimes of the past.

The smallness, the meanness, and the pettiness of the scenario—the desire for revenge and the means of revenge—are likewise disturbing to people who, given the stresses under which so many Americans now live, spend a good deal of their time and energy on overcoming the passing impulse to be small, mean, and petty. Christie apologized for the debacle in a speech that lasted over an hour, but Americans have gotten so jaded and alienated by the unattractive spectacle of politicians apologizing that the subject of guilt and repentance, of accountability and responsibility has become a sort of joke. It’s a pity, because some small—very small—part of us still expects (or at least hopes) that our leaders will behave with some measure of decency; we may not expect that they will keep their election promises, but we are still surprised when they break the law or, in this case, put the public in danger in order to carry out a vendetta.

It will be interesting to see how much damage this does to Chris Christie’s career. Will it prove easier for voters to forgive a sex scandal (as they have with Mark Sanford) than a massive traffic tie-up? And what does it say about our values, our ability to take the larger view, to form opinions about complex moral and political issues, and our sense of proportion that this latest scandal is arousing nearly as much indignation and negative publicity as the recent revelations about the fact that the NSA had been spying on private citizens?

Stuck in traffic on the George Washington Bridge, I found myself recalling another act of political vindictiveness: the Bush administration’s purposeful “outing” of CIA officer Valerie Plame after her husband, former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson, contradicted the administration’s claim that Saddam Hussein had attempted to buy uranium from Niger—the raw material from which Hussein was allegedly manufacturing the (as it turned out, nonexistent) Weapons of Mass Destruction. Surely we have not forgotten Lewis “Scooter” Libby, sentenced to jail—a sentence commuted by George W. Bush—for revealing Plame’s professional identity, though it was widely suspected that the “leak” had come from higher up in the White House. How are we meant to trust our elected officials when it is now widely assumed and accepted that their underlings will “fall on their swords” to protect their bosses? Two of Christie’s employees are out of a job, but the governor may still manage to persuade the public that he was never informed about their plans to snarl traffic all the way back into deepest New Jersey.

And yet it’s quite possible that “Bridgegate” will do more harm to Christie than the Valerie Plame leak did to the Bush White House; it’s conceivable that a traffic tie-up will affect voters more negatively, and will be remembered longer, than the notion that our leaders lied about the Iraqis possessing WMDs. That thousands of American soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians died to save us from the threat of imaginary weapons may turn out to be easier to forgive than dramatically disrupting—for no good reason—the lives of citizens who are simply struggling to get to work and school.

After all, we were at war—at war with terrorism and with Saddam Hussein. The complexities of that war were more polarizing and difficult to comprehend than the blessed simplicity of being late for work. And we, as a society, prefer and increasingly often insist that things be kept simple. So perhaps that will turn out to be Chris Christie’s real mistake: his office could so easily have saved the governor a great deal of trouble and embarrassment by openly and officially—instead of furtively and underhandedly—declaring war on the Mayor of Fort Lee.

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