The Answers to Two Big Questions about the Christie Bridge Scandal

Since there are probably only so many posts you want to click on about Chris Christie's Bridgeghazi (or Bridgegate or Bridgeica Bridgewinsky or whatever you want to call it—the scandal is not yet big enough to get its own name, at least one that doesn't reference another scandal), this post actually concerns two separate issues. If you're only interested in the question of why this is getting so much media attention, go ahead and scroll down. But first…

Yesterday, in writing about this issue, I suggested that it was entirely possible that Governor Christie knew nothing about the intentionally created traffic tie-ups, since whatever else you think of him, "he isn't an idiot, and only an idiot would think screwing over a small-town mayor in so public a fashion, just before an election you're going to win in a walk, would be a good idea." Since then, a number of colleagues and friends have suggested that this is pretty tenuous logic, and I have to admit that they have a point, so I decided to revisit the question.

While I still think it's entirely possible that Christie is telling the truth when he says the whole thing was cooked up by his aides and he never knew anything about it until two days ago, the fact that he's a smart pol isn't reason enough, in and of itself, to think so. Because you know who else was a smart pol? Bill Clinton. He was one of the smartest pols ever, and he thought he could receive a generous gift of pleasure from a young intern right there in the White House and get away with it. Richard Nixon was a smart pol too, and he thought he could, for instance, order his aides to stage a break-in at the Brookings Institution to steal files and never be held to account, despite the fact that he himself was taping the criminal conspiracy ("God damn it, get in and get those files. Blow the safe and get it").

In fact, in pretty much every good-sized scandal, there are multiple examples of people doing things which, if you were asked about them before they had occurred, you'd say, "Nobody would be dumb enough to do that." But yet, somebody always is. So why is that?

One simple answer is that people are stupid, and people who work in politics are no less stupid than anyone else. Even smart people do incredibly stupid things, and if there's a competitive situation in which they're under pressure to perform (as there always is in politics), then that makes it even more likely somebody will come up with a stupid idea, and somebody else will say, "All right, let's do it." Another answer is that power corrupts, and produces temptations to use your power in ways that turn out to be dumb. If you or I had the ability to partially shut down the GW Bridge to mess with somebody we didn't like, maybe we'd do it too. It also could be that in politics, there are both reporters and political opponents who are on the lookout for your stupidity. If you're the regional manager of widget sales for GlurpCorp and you set in motion some kind of equally misconceived hare-brained scheme, chances are that if anyone notices, it'll just be a story they tell to their spouses, or at worst, you'll lose your job. But it won't be on the front page of The New York Times.

And finally, it's probably the case that the dumb schemes carried out by government or candidates that we hear about are just the tip of the iceberg. Who knows what else they're up to.

Now let's address a separate question: Why is this getting the front-page attention it is? I've seen a lot of conservatives on Twitter complaining that this is big news, but the media ignored Benghazi. Of course, that's insane—there were hundreds and hundreds of stories written about Benghazi, appearing in every major news outlet in America—but there is a legitimate question underneath. So here are the basic reasons why this is a bigger deal than a similar case in a different place with a different protagonist might be:

1. It's about New York, where the major media are based. Journalists have driven over the George Washington Bridge, and like everyone else, they think things that happen in the place they live are more important than things that happen elsewhere.

2. Chris Christie was already a national figure, and is probably running for president. If this were about the Delaware Memorial Bridge and the governor in question was Jack Markell, it would be just a blip. But it's Chris Christie.

3. Chris Christie is fun to cover. Whether he's doing well or poorly, Christie is good copy. He doesn't come off as heavily scripted. He makes jokes. He yells at people. He's crafted a persona (the tough-talking, straight-shooting, non-nonsense Jersey guy) that reporters love. A Christie press conference is much more likely to produce something interesting than a press conference featuring the human Ambiens who run Congress.

4. It's easy to understand. If you're a reporter writing about this, you don't have to do a lot of explaining. There isn't an intricate web of financial dealings or anything like that—it's about one politician being mad at another politician, and a bunch of people getting stuck in traffic as a result. It's a blatant and clear abuse of power. And we all hate traffic.

5. It's kind of funny. Everybody loves to laugh about corrupt New Jersey politics! And you get to make jokes about The Sopranos!

There are probably other reasons you could come up with, but that's more than enough.

Comments

You forgot the obvious comparison: Benghazi was carried out by terrorists against American interests. No doubt about who was full of hate and acting irrationally. In the bridge case, it is American leaders who are acting like terrorists. It is a huge betrayal. Betrayals cut deeper than acts by your enemy, whom you expect to do bad things.

Another important point that was missed is how elections spread fear. This plan could only be logical in a state of heightened paranoia, which not coincidentally, is why al Qaeda rejects the American style of 'democracy.' We have cycles of paranoia that makes us appear to be just as schizophrenic to them as they appear to us. In fact, in bin Laden's Letter to America, he mentions our failure to punish Clinton as an example of our moral decay.

Closing the bridge was an tactic one would expect from a terrorist or the radical left, not from those in charge of keeping it open. There are many Orwellian nuances to this story: doublethink, thoughtcrime (failure to endorse Christie), paranoia, reprogramming, Ministry of truth (coverups), etc.

What a sad state of affairs and a sad reflection of our own moral integrity.

I totally agree. I was typing along the same lines, though not as clearly, at the same time you were.

All of the above, but I think there's more to it than that. I'd "rather go to hell than New York City," as the song says, and I've been over the GW Bridge half a dozen times in my life (if that), but I spent an hour this morning reviewing videos and online print material about the case because I'm goddamn fascinated by it. This is looking like the journalism-driven unraveling of a major political career. Maybe the best one since Watergate. The journalists who kept it alive till the national media caught on were local, including the Bergen Record's traffic reporter, for heaven's sake. (As the former features editor of a weekly newspaper, I like this part a lot.)

If the rage was inspired, as Rachel Maddow has suggested, by a battle between Gov. Christie and the NJ state senate Democrats (whose leader represents Fort Lee) over appointments to the state supreme court, the politics get more interesting. Christie pulled a fast one in 2010, the Dems haven't let him forget it, and in mid-August it cost him a big one. The directive that led to the traffic snafu came the very next day, so it seems. And the prolonged traffic snafu was definitely a threat to public safety -- isn't this the kind of thing we're terrified that "terrorists" might pull off? Worth paying attention to, IMO. Even if it isn't, I'm paying attention anyway.

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