I’ve been completely obsessed lately with the Chris Christie scandal. My daughter and I have taken to watching Rachel Maddow every night, as she’s emerged as the best source for all things New Jersey. MSNBC has Steve Kornacki on staff, and he’s from New Jersey, used to work with David Wildstein, knows all the players, has great sources–he’s obviously a great resource. Chris Christie has attacked Maddow as biased. She is an admitted liberal, and has gone hard after Christie, but I don’t think out of any particular animus. She’s a journalist, first and foremost, and this is her scoop. When mainstream reporters were mocking MSNBC because of this obsession with a bridge closing and resultant traffic jams, Rachel Maddow soldiered on. Three weeks ago, This Week with George Stephanopoulos, (an über-reliable guide to the emerging mainstream media consensus), basically declared that the story was dead; that Christie’s ‘excellent’ performance in his two hour press conference had effectively put the story behind him. Last Sunday, the This Week tune was very different. And one of the main reasons is because of Rachel Maddow’s relentless reporting.
I know some people who can’t stand her, who think she’s gloating, that she’s inappropriately gleeful, that she went after a popular Republican politician, and is now doing a victory dance. I don’t agree, not at all, any more than I thought Woodward and Bernstein were gleefully triumphant when they uncovered some of the main Watergate secrets, and brought down a President. That’s what reporters do. They look at powerful people, and hold them accountable when they screw up. We don’t yet know exactly what Chris Christie did, don’t know what he knew or when he knew it, don’t have a smoking gun. In fact, we don’t even know motive; why Christie did what he maybe possibly may have done. But David Wildstein’s attorney now suggests that there is, in fact, evidence of early Christie involvement. It’s getting very interesting.
There are in fact three separate scandals involving Chris Christie, so let’s sort them out, and, as is obligatory in political scandal stories, assign each a ‘gate. First, there’s Bridgegate. Lanes leading onto the George Washington Bridge were closed, by the order of someone in the New York/New Jersey Port Authority, causing massive traffic jams in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Second, there’s Hobokengate. The mayor of Hoboken claims that she was told that disaster relief money for her city, badly damaged by Hurricane Sandy, would be contingent on her supporting a private development in her city that the governor favored. Finally, there’s Videogate; the allegation that money for Sandy relief was diverted by the governor to make a video supporting his re-election campaign. The state legislature is investigating all three of these scandals, and the US attorney also seems to be getting involved.
Of the three scandals, my favorite, by far, is Bridgegate. It’s so bizarre. The idea of a governor deliberately causing massive traffic jams as some kind of political retribution seems so dickish, so mean. It may seem like small potatoes–people were inconvenienced for a few days, and EMTs were a little later than usual responding to emergency calls. The stakes don’t seem all that high. But it was a deliberate misuse of the powers of governance. That’s not supposed to happen.
Anyway, my daughter and I have become ‘experts’ on this particular cast of characters, with strong opinions on who should play them in the movie. (Jodie Foster as Rachel Maddow?) Starting the week of September 9, 2013, Bridget Anne Kelly (Rooney Mara), Governor Christie’s deputy chief of staff sent an email to David Wildstein (Jonah Hill), Governor Christie’s appointee on the Port Authority, saying ‘time for traffic problems in Fort Lee.’ Wildstein responded, ‘got it.’ Lanes onto the bridge were closed for four days, and massive traffic jams resulted. In November, Bill Baroni (Josh Brolin), also a Christie Port Authority appointee, testified at some length to the New Jersey Assembly, with lots of photos and exhibits, explaining that the lane closures were needed for a traffic study. There was no traffic study; it never existed. The entire ‘traffic study’ presentation was a fabrication, a cover-up. Baroni was prepped for his testimony by a Port Authority attorney named Phillip Kwan (Chow Yuen Fat), who had previously been nominated for the New Jersey State Supreme Court by Governor Christie, a nomination that the Assembly did not approve. Governor Christie (Wayne Knight) now says that when he first heard of the lane closures, he asked his chief of staff, Kevin O’Dowd (Liam Hemsworth) and chief counsel, Charles McKenna (Oliver Platt), to investigate. They claimed to have done so, and discovered nothing.
Okay, so we know there was a crime (the lane closures, involving Bridget Kelly and David Wildstein) and a cover-up (the ‘traffic study’ testimony before the legislature, involving Bill Baroni and Phillip Kwan). That, at least, seems irrefutable. Bridget Kelly right now is refusing to testify, as is David Wildstein. Wildstein’s attorney also says that evidence exists that implicates Chris Christie. He wants immunity for his client before he’ll release it.
And all sorts of weirdness has come out. Someone in the Christie camp released an email to the press attacking Wildstein’s credibility, saying that ‘his high school social studies teacher’ called him ‘deceptive.’ Seriously. There really is a permanent record, I guess. Wildstein was supposedly this ‘deceptive’ nobody, but he had a job at the Port Authority, Director of Interstate Capital Projects that paid $150,000 a year, with no job description, in a job did not exist prior to him getting hired there. Apparently, Governor Christie ordered the Port Authority to invent a job for Wildstein, so he’d have a guy there reporting only to him.
I’m a political scandal junkie, and when I hear Christie saying ‘I knew nothing about this,’ I think of other famous lines in American political history: “The American people need to know if their President is a crook. I am not a crook.” Or “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” But sometimes, political figures are accused of things they didn’t actually do. Sometimes they really are innocent.
Example: the Vince Foster ‘scandal.’ Bill Clinton’s Deputy White House Counsel, a long-time friend named Vince Foster, killed himself in 1993. Immediately all sorts of conspiracy theories were posited, that Foster had been murdered by President Clinton because Foster ‘knew too much,’ or something. It was all nonsense; Foster’s death was investigated by four separate law enforcement agencies. There never was a scandal there, and we ought to have known it.
How? To me, it’s a matter of interrogating the narratives. Let me demonstrate, by comparing the Vince Foster narrative to an actual scandal narrative; the Anthony Weiner sexting scandal.
Vince Foster, then. Narrative One: a man with a history of clinical depression was found dead in a public park; a suicide note was found in his office. He killed himself. No scandal. Narrative Two: somehow someone in the Clinton administration had Foster killed, then covered it up so cleverly it fooled four separate law enforcement agencies. Which is more plausible?
Anthony Weiner. Narrative One: a young married Congressman met a 21 year old woman, and tweeted lewd pictures of himself to her, using the pseudonym Carlos Danger. And he kept doing it, sexting at least three other women. Narrative Two: a faithfully married Congressman had his Twitter account hacked, and someone else sent those pictures, which weren’t even of him. Which is more plausible?
I think, in both cases, we’d agree that, based on our experience with human nature, that Narrative One is more plausible. I suppose it’s barely possible that the President of the United States could order the CIA or someone to have someone killed and make it look really really plausibly like a suicide. But seriously depressed people do, sadly, sometimes end their own lives. As for Weiner, I guess a really vindictive and mean-spirited and massively computer savvy political enemy could hack his Twitter account. But, sadly, powerful married men do stray, and hit on women inappropriately. And it turns out, in both cases, the more plausible narrative turned out to be the true one.
So apply it to Christie. When Kelly emailed Wildstein ‘time for some traffic problems,’ he didn’t respond ‘what on earth are you talking about?’ There was clearly a plan in place they both knew about. Wildstein was in the Port Authority specifically to do the Governor’s bidding–he didn’t seem to have any other job over there. How likely is it that Governor Christie’s deputy chief of staff would just decide on her own, without talking it over with her boss, Kevin O’Dowd, or the Big Boss, Christie, that she needed to hammer Fort Lee? How likely is it that she would be able to persuade Bill Baroni to lie on her behalf? How likely is it that Phillip Kwan and Bill Baroni could have come up with this phony ‘traffic study’ story and make it so persuasive that Governor Christie is still saying ‘who knows, maybe there really was a traffic study?’ Do high ranking members of a governor’s staff just decide to do stuff like this? On their own? Are they likely to be able to get away with it for four months? These are all people making six figure salaries; would you risk your high paying job like this? So you can punish Fort Lee for something? Or, more likely, was this something everyone was in on? Including the Governor.
We don’t know the details yet. But it’s early days. We will know a lot more, and we’re likely to know it fairly soon. Meanwhile, it’s the best show on television. The plot may be predictable, but it’s sure fun to watch.