There's something admirably old school about the costly and dangerous prank that members of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's administration allegedly pulled on a political opponent last year -- to the detriment of the entire city of Fort Lee, N.J. And in a strange way, I wish Christie had taken responsibility for it rather than denying it as he did Wednesday afternoon. It would put him in LBJ's league as a bare-knuckled power-broker.
Granted, deliberating creating a giant traffic jam in a city to spite the mayor ranks as a textbook abuse of power. So it's not exactly the kind of thing we want elected officials to do.
Nevertheless, with Washington populated by politicians who talk crazy but never do anything, am I wrong to feel a touch of guilty admiration for someone who might actually do something crazy?
OK, I guess I am.
Here's a recap for those who'd heard nothing about the flap. Fort Lee is a borough of about 36,000 residents located right across the Hudson River from New York City. If you head over the George Washington Bridge and onto the New Jersey Turnpike, you'll pass right over the middle of the town. Its mayor is a Democrat, Mark Sokolich, who had the temerity not to endorse Christie's bid for reelection last year.
He was hardly alone in that category, yet a series of internal emails reported by the Record of Hackensack suggest that a handful of top Christie appointees decided to punish Fort Lee two months before the election. The agency that oversees transportation into and out of New York City, whose chairman is a Christie appointee, suddenly shut down two of the three lanes leading from Fort Lee onto the bridge. The shutdown, which continued for four days, caused hours-long backups on the roads leading to the bridge, delaying traffic within the borough as well as commuters traveling in and out of it.
The agency said at the time it was conducting a traffic study, yet the lack of warning left the city completely unprepared for the mess that ensued. On the fourth day, the lane closures were canceled by New York's top representative on the agency.
The emails obtained by the Record suggest that one of Christie's three senior deputies was involved in planning the lane closures, along with a top Christie appointee on the agency's staff. They also seemed to be getting a kick out of what they were doing. "I feel bad about the kids, I guess," one unidentified person writes in an email to a Christie appointee.
Christie put out the following statement Wednesday:
"What I've seen today for the first time is unacceptable. I am outraged and deeply saddened to learn that not only was I misled by a member of my staff, but this completely inappropriate and unsanctioned conduct was made without my knowledge. One thing is clear: This type of behavior is unacceptable, and I will not tolerate it because the people of New Jersey deserve better. This behavior is not representative of me or my administration in any way, and people will be held responsible for their actions."
That's the right thing to say, assuming it's all true. And if it isn't -- if Christie was behind the whole thing -- there's nothing he could say, really, to make things right.
Critics will likely argue that the tone of an administration is set at the top. The abusive lane closures wouldn't have happened, they will say, if not for the aides' expectation that Christie would approve of their actions.
Although I can't offer any evidence to the contrary in this case, I don't buy into such theories. Everybody has his or her own moral compass. And there's an easily discernible difference between Christie's brash rhetoric and the punitive politics on display in September. It's the same difference between a defender in football who hits hard and one who plays dirty.
So there's really no justifying what was done to Sokolich and his constituents. But at least the abuse wasn't done for the sake of lining someone's pockets, a la the city of Bell, or running roughshod over human rights, as in the Los Angeles County jails. It was just a political message, dealt with blunt force.
If I lived in Fort Lee, I'd still be furious. From the safe distance of Southern California, though, some part of me nods in appreciation at the brazenness of it all.
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