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Span of disaster / January 15, 2014
After a year of headlines flying about so fast you had to wear a hard hat to avoid a concussion, life hereabouts has slowed with the new year. Alas, peace and quiet are not the column writer’s friends. The sudden change of pace means that yours truly must monetarily search far and wide for fat targets. Traffic-clogged bridges and New Jersey politicians? We can do that.

I’ll confess: I’ve developed an insatiable appetite for coverage of the scandal that swallowed up New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie this week. (OK, I’ll just stop now.) You probably already know the essentials: Christie’s henchmen in state government and on the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey ordered the closing of traffic lanes on the George Washington Bridge back in September, virtually paralyzing the New Jersey city of Fort Lee for four days. What the story lacks in profit motives and sexual peccadillos, it more than makes up for with venality and sheer stupidity. And clarity: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” and “It will be a tough November for this little Serbian” are instant classics in the genre of e-mails gone very, very awry.

The “little Serbian” is Fort Lee mayor Mark Sokolich. (He actually is of Croatian heritage. The e-mail description was penned by a Christie ally on the Port Authority.) Apparently this entire business is about Sokolich’s refusal to endorse the governor’s re-election bid in the fall, and the vengeance meted out for this perceived slight by members of Christie’s team (and perhaps by Christie himself, although so far there’s no evidence directly tying the governor to the scandal).

As explanations go, this one doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Why would Christie, or members of his administration, get steamed because a Democratic mayor wouldn’t endorse a Republican governor? When politicians want to see their counterparts across the partisan divide continue in office, the usual response is for them to sit on their hands whenever a fellow party member deigns to launch a challenge. In the New Jersey gubernatorial race, Christie’s re-election was a foregone conclusion. Who in the right mind would care about some no-name mayor not making a public show of kissing the governor’s ring?

To expect people to muddle through the complex and murky details of ordinary political scandals is one thing. Grasping the thuggishness of an administration that deliberately snarled highway traffic for days on end is quite another. People don’t need to read a four-part investigation to understand what this shameful episode is all about; while the pundits don’t quite seem ready to bury Christie’s 2016 chances for president, a sizeable share of the rabble is. (I’m with the rabble on this.) Yet for all the speculation on Christie’s political future, and the still-unanswered questions about what the governor may have known and when did he know it, the truly striking thing about this scandal is this: Why would the perpetrators of Fort Lee’s traffic disaster seem to have believed that no one would pin it all back on them?

I mean, really: You orchestrate a real-time meltdown on what is reputedly the busiest bridge in the world — with traffic brought to a potentially dangerous standstill in the shadow of lower Manhattan on Sept. 11, no less! — and the thought process seems to be, “The rubes will never know what hit ‘em.” Christie’s underlings — his deputy chief of staff, his representative on the bi-state Port Authority, his campaign manager —dialed up the stupid factor to 11 by trading gleeful e-mails on the evil deed, as if no one would possibly ever get ahold of those. As paper trails go, this is the equivalent of the Jersey Turnpike. It did take awhile for the truth to come out, but thanks to the alert reporting of the Bergen County Record and a Wall Street Journal reporter who found himself buried in traffic that fateful week, the scandal broke and now pretty much the entire nasty and brutish bunch is out of a job.

Maybe the degraded state of reporting (the newspaper variety, not the ambulance chasers you see on TV) lulled Christie’s aides into believing that they could act so brazenly without consequence. But what about the potential for blowback from the Port Authority itself? One of the more amusing aspects of this story (to me, at least) is counting the multitudinous layers of bureaucracy that our friends in Yankeeland have constructed for traffic purposes. Let’s see: Christie has his appointees on the Port Authority (a sweet source of patronage!), New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has his, the Port Authority’s executive director comes from New York, his deputy is from New Jersey, there’s a separate director of the George Washington Bridge, his boss is the director of the bridges and tunnels, and sprinkled throughout are enough mid-level staffers, legislators, spokesmen, inspectors, transit police, campaign aides and political hacks to populate a Dickens novel. Certainly an extended “Seinfeld” episode. So, none of these people were going to rat out each others’ secrets?

Here in Virginia, at least our scandals have a closely-held, comparatively modest feel — we might never have learned about Bob McDonnell’s transgressions if not for a scorned mansion chef and an imperious first lady (to say nothing of a bungling Attorney General). The McDonnell-Star fiasco, at root, is about nothing more than simple graft, with few actual seeming consequences beyond the McDonnell family checkbook. Jersey does it differently — suppose there had been a terrible outcome from this little stunt, such as a traffic emergency that caused death or injury? The doltishness of Team Christie may be good for a laugh, but one must be pretty awful person indeed to treat the potential consequences of this episode so blithely as they did at the time. Just what kind of monsters are in charge of running New Jersey, anyway?

Venality, greed, callousness — thy name is humanity. It’s not surprising that our worst qualities would flare up from time to time in the public sector, but lately it does seem that the worst failures are perpetuated by people who present themselves as the antidotes to government — non-nonsense types who rage about busting heads and whipping spoiled bureaucrats, special interest pleaders and moochers in line. Chris Christie has developed a reputation as something of a Republican moderate, owing to his rejection of the more extreme tenets of social conservatism, but before this episode his biggest claim to fame may have been his YouTube videos that showed Christie berating New Jersey schoolteachers. And this is the GOP’s Great White Moderate Hope! If Christie is supposed to mark the center of American politics, does this mean the far right has gone over the edge completely?

You probably already know my answer to that question. But whatever your own view, it’s hard to look at the events of this past week as anything other than a wholesale repudiation of hard-right shibboleths — the disdain for regulation, the insistence on state (as opposed to federal) control of government, the rejection of government activism that isn’t weighted in favor of big business. The other major story this week, of course, has been the disaster in West Virginia, which apparently decided to forgo environmental enforcement along the Elk River for the sake of placating its coal industry. In West Virginia, the bureaucrats are toothless; in New Jersey, they’re feckless. Does that really mean there should be no bureaucrats?

Maybe a better approach would be for voters to quit buying into the demonization of the public sector and think harder about the people they put in office to run it. It’s trite but true — politicians who insist that government is the problem are usually the ones who only end up making it worse. The other side of the political spectrum, of course, is prone to its own set of fumbles, although to my mind there’s a qualitative difference between trying something new and failing and pre-authorizing failure from the start. One approach to governing feeds off hopeful ambition, the other on dismissive arrogance. It’s hard to imagine how the latter was supposed to serve the best interests of Fort Lee’s residents as they stewed in traffic for a week in September.

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