In 1776, General George Washington ordered his men to build a bridge on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River, as part of the defense of New York City. The fort was first known as Fort Constitution, but the name was changed to Fort Lee, to honor General Charles Lee, who had just won an important victory in South Carolina. Lee had been a British officer before the war, but joined the rebellion, and fancied himself the logical choice to head up the American army instead of that Washington dude. The fort renaming was intended as a conciliatory gesture by General Washington, but it didn’t work; Lee’s jealousy of Washington never really abated. After Lee ordered a retreat following the battle of Monmouth in 1778, Washington had him court-martialed, claiming Lee had disobeyed orders. Lee’s defense was that he was out-numbered, and his retreat was strategically justified. While this was almost certainly true, the court-martial stood. Lee’s bitterness over it led to a duel between him and John Laurens (one of my favorite Revolutionary figures), in which neither man was harmed. Lee retired to Philadelphia, and died in 1782. He was very fond of dogs, and owned several at a time. He’s also a major character in Assassin’s Creed III, the video game. See the cool stuff you can learn from Wikipedia?
Anyway, Fort Lee New Jersey is now a town of about 35, 000 people. Basically, it’s the New Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge. At the other end of the bridge is New York City. Which means the George Washington Bridge is one of the busiest bridges in the world.
On September 9, 2013, the three dedicated toll lanes for the Fort Lee entrance to the upper level of the bridge were reduced to one, initially without explanation. When an explanation was finally given (a traffic study), it turned out to be bogus. Those lanes remained closed until September 13. The result was a horrific traffic jam that spread into the town of Fort Lee, leaving school children stranded on buses, making commuters late to work, and hampering emergency response teams in the town. That traffic jam, we know from emails that were released a few days ago, was ordered by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s deputy chief of staff, Bridget Kelly, and implemented by David Wildstein, an old friend of Christie’s who had been appointed a top executive for the New Jersey Port Authority, which runs the bridge. Jon Stewart gives the story the slightly R-rated funny treatment. Rachel Maddow’s show has had the story from the beginning; check out the Jan. 8 episode.
To the very limited extent that anyone could possibly prognosticate meaningfully a Presidential election that’s over two years away, Chris Christie would have to have been regarded as one of the frontrunners for the Republican nomination in 2016. I think it’s going to be difficult for Governor Christie to recover, though, from the revelations of this week. It’s true that Christie held an effective press conference on Thursday, and it’s true that he’s showed what looks like genuine contrition over the whole affair. But there remain so many unanswered questions.
The smoking gun email exchange between Kelly and Wildstein was very terse. “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” wrote Bridget Kelly. “Got it,” responded David Wildstein. Wildstein was even more terse when he testified before the New Jersey State Assembly: he pled the Fifth Amendment on basically every question asked of him, including questions about things like his job history. What everyone would like to know is; who knew what when? That email exchange wouldn’t make sense if there weren’t a plan in place already that Kelly and Wildstein were both aware of. There had to have been meetings, other memos, other emails. And the texts and emails sent over to the relevant Assembly committee were heavily redacted. By who? Why? What’s going on?
Rachel Maddow’s MSNBC show has covered this story since September. Rachel Maddow could see the traffic jam back then from her apartment window. She was ridiculed a bit for keeping after it. Now she looks incredibly on top of things, and she’s done a bit of a victory dance about it the last few nights. Entirely justified; who can blame her? Her show has done some first-rate journalism here. She also has a plausible theory as to why Governor Christie’s administration suddenly decided it was time to hammer Fort Lee.
But here’s why this is so damaging to Christie. It’s not just that his story–that he had no idea his deputy chief of staff was doing this, and still doesn’t, because he fired her without so much as asking her about it–doesn’t make sense. If he’s genuinely concerned about rooting out this kind of politicization of his office, wouldn’t he have to have asked her about it? Why didn’t he order an investigation back when it first became a national story four months ago? Why did he mock and ridicule the story in December, instead of, you know, asking some people in his office some serious questions? Those are genuinely important issues that need to be dealt with. But here’s why this is so damaging.
It’s a traffic jam.
I live in Provo, Utah, and work a lot in Salt Lake City. There is a very large mountain between Provo and Salt Lake. I-15 is the main freeway artery between the two cities, and it certainly has been repeatedly widened and improved in recent years, but it’s still a nasty rush hour commute. Traffic jams are an annoying fact of life in my area, and my guess is that traffic jams are a pain where you live too. In bad weather, that forty-five minute commute can take up to three hours. That, in fact, happened to me back in December. Opening night for a play of mine, and the traffic was awful, and the snowstorm unrelenting, and it took my wife and daughter and I three hours to make the drive, and we barely made it in time, and boy was that aggravating. But really, it’s also the kind of thing you can be pretty Zen about. It’s just one of those things, like potholes and head colds and electrical outages. Facts of life.
But if it came out that someone, some jerk in the governor’s office had created that traffic jam on purpose, I would be furious. I would be livid. Egypt probably had plagues of frogs–but when it turned out that Moses guy was causing them, that’s when Pharoah really got ticked. Traffic jams are annoying facts of life, but we get that they’re random, just one of those things. But if we discovered that this incredibly frustrating experience had been caused by someone?!?!? Oh my heck.
And it’s dangerous. EMTs in Fort Lee were delayed; emergency services thereby compromised. Generally, EMTs in Fort Lee take 3,4 minutes to respond to a call. In September, during the traffic jam, those same calls took 10 minutes. A 91 year-old woman died. As a result? Who knows? But if you’re an EMT, you would certainly feel responsible, and you’d be furious to learn that because someone in the Governor’s office caused those traffic problems on purpose.
We’re also, of course, incredibly spoiled, we Americans. I don’t know what emergency response times are in my home town of Provo, but I bet they’re not 3 minutes. But there are lots of countries in the world that don’t even have emergency services. Or that require the payment of some kind of bribe before they let you in the ambulance. We take it for granted, that if you call 9-1-1 and report, say, chest pains, trained medical staff will show up quickly and work efficiently and professionally. We take for granted good doctors, well appointed emergency rooms, competent personnel. People like to complain about the inefficiency and incompetence of government. But we forget how incredibly efficient and competent most government actually is, most of the time, in our country.
I do feel a little bad for Chris Christie. I’m not a Republican, but I do love my country, and would love it if the Republican candidate for President in 2016 were someone pragmatic and sensible and not-particularly-ideological. Also, he’s a big guy, and I like the non-sizeist implications of his potential candidacy. Mostly, I think it’s bad for the country when one of the parties nominates a loon. And in 2016, loons will be running. Chris Christie is the most prominent plausible non-loon out there. And honestly, I give him no more than 50-50 odds of surviving this. To heck with the Presidency–he may not get to stay governor of New Jersey.
But if you’re in public office, you don’t get to do this. You don’t get to punish a city with traffic jams for political retribution. And kudos to good journalists getting the story right.