As political scandals go, it’s a silly one — silly and senseless and now, critically dangerous for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
In a nutshell, Christie asked the mayor of Fort Lee, N.J. for support during his run for governor. The Fort Lee mayor was a Democrat, Christie a Republican, and the mayor demurred.
Christie was going to win anyway, but he wanted the biggest win in New Jersey history, something that conceivably might catapult him into being a presidential hopeful.
His staff decided to get some revenge: they ordered traffic police to close down two of three tollbooth lanes from the George Washington Bridge on the first day of school, causing a huge traffic jam and even delaying emergency vehicles.
Christie’s deputy chief of staff summed up the reasons for the sudden lane closures in an email: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”
It’s so outlandish, such a petty and blatant abuse of political power, that you can’t help but shake your head.
But, then again, how is it fundamentally different from skewing road repair funding so that districts who voted for your government get preferential treatment (and at the same time, punishing those who didn’t vote for you) or using government-paid political staff to do dirty tricks like rigging online media polls?
I’ll answer that question — it isn’t.
It isn’t different at all.
I mean, you can dress it up differently; you can try to dismiss it as everyday politics, but what’s always left out of that equation is that the only party or politician that gets to wield it is whoever the current winner is.
It’s hard to accept the logic of “everyone does it” when there’s only one party, the government party, actually capable of doing it.
It’s not business as usual or ordinary politics or “boys will be boys” or any dismissive analysis like that. It’s not the stuff of chuckles and nudges: it is, basically, the fundamental nub of corruption. It is the willingness to take public resources and convert them to your own use.
What it is, is the willingness of a politician to decide that the strengths and powers a government can bring to bear are their personal property, to do with as they wish.
Let’s not put too fine a point on it — it’s just as much stealing as it would be if you emptied the petty cash drawer into your briefcase and hightailed it out the door.
It rings of Louis XIV of France, and the possibly apocryphal statement of “L’État, c’est moi,” (“The state is me”) supposedly made to the Parliament of Paris in April 1655.
There is a point where those who serve in a government decide that the government is, in fact, them.
That, rather than being at the helm of a ship that serves all people, they are actually the ship’s owner, and it is for their own use, wherever they decide to sail and by whatever means they choose to sail there.
It’s an occupational hazard of power, an almost-predictable hardening of the ethical arteries, and I’ve covered politics for long enough to know that it’s a constant end-game, whether federal or provincial, whatever the political stripe.
It doesn’t matter if they are Liberals or Conservatives or New Democrats: when a government has reached the point where politicians, or worse, civil servants, feel the powers of government are their own personal tools, it’s time for a change.
Gov. Chris Christie is no longer a likely presidential candidate; he says he neither made the decision to barricade Fort Lee nor knew anything about it. It may seem unfair that he’ll pay, too, but, that being said, his senior staff were quite comfortable using the levers of state to settle political scores.
That kind of attitude can only trickle down from the top.
Christie’s woes now? It’s pretty much the way things should be.
Looks good on you.
Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s
editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.