We can say this now with certainty if we ask ourselves one basic question about human nature: What good does it do a political operative to screw over the opposition if you can’t then tell your boss about it? Where is the joy for any lickspittle hack in the office hierarchy if he or she can’t pull off a dirty trick against a political adversary, then walk down the hall and tell the boss just how well you did on his behalf? What would be the point?
I’ve actually found New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s bluster and anger to be endearing at times, if only for the plain-speaking insistence on results. I don’t find anger to be a particularly negative trait when that anger is offered on behalf of others, nor do I regard argument as anything other than a worthy endeavor if the argument is actually about something. I didn’t agree with Mr. Christie on any number of issues, but I found him credible as a public servant. He reminded me in some respects of the late Maryland Governor and Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer — Mayor Annoyed as we knew him, the angriest, melon-headedest white man in our tarnished state’s political firmament. “Do It Now,” was Mr. Schaefer’s daily mantra, and while he could be stubborn and bullying at points — and petty and juvenile at his worst moments — he got quite a bit done during his tenure. My city and state could have done a lot worse with more restrained and thoughtful leadership.
But even Mr. Schaefer’s petulance and childishness had its limits. He might read a letter to the editor from a complaining citizen and call that individual in a cranky rage. He might tell reporters off-the-record to go fuck themselves and their editors. He might play every all-in-the-game political angle to reward friends and harm adversaries and take pride in the result. He would not, however, snarl some Maryland traffic purposely, endangering residents of his state, to achieve the most petty kind of payback. He wouldn’t purposely set his state’s performance back for a petty and vicious comeuppance. Mayor Annoyed had spent too many years filling potholes to dig any of his own, for any reason.
For that kind of behavior you need someone really, really small. For the anger and argument to become that self-absorbed and infantile, you need someone with even more selfish insecurity and fractured ego than Mr. Schaefer could offer. You need someone who saw himself as being not only larger than the sum of his constituents, but larger than the commonweal itself. Add in the potential for actually harming innocent people — ambulances unable to reach calls, school buses unable to transport children — and you have something that leaves the Schaefers of the political world entirely incapable. For this kind of petty venality, you have to look to a Huey Long or a Richard Nixon, someone for whom any fealty to democratic processes and public service no longer matters when personal ambition and aggrandizement are at stake.
Think on this: A 91-year-old woman in Fort Lee, New Jersey, unreachable by an ambulance with life-support equipment caught in a traffic jam engineered as Governor Christie’s retribution for the denial of a political endorsement, died later that day at an area hospital. I’d like to know her name. I’d like to see her photograph. I’d like to hear from her family. I’d like the governor to know her name, to see her photograph, to visit with and apologize to her family. He owes them that much.
Because he knew.
If Mr. Christie didn’t order this mayhem himself, then he knew because the aides who achieved this carnage on his behalf were so successful in doing so that they could not have possibly held their silence. Not over the course of four long days of maintaining the traffic snarl in Fort Lee. All of us who have worked in an office, who have experienced institutional hierarchy, who have seen the wages of unthinking loyalty to the boss — we know this much. The same kind of people who would embark on such an action would not be able to do anything but run right down the hall to tell the governor how they had delivered pain to his political enemy. They would then wait on their attaboy. People of that ilk live for the attaboy. Like cats with a fresh-caught mouse, they were bringing home a prize. And there’s no joy for any housecat if the prize can’t be displayed to the master of the house.
I’m sorry for Mr. Christie, who seems in his better moments to be something of a leader. But anger and argument lose all charm when they are employed for stakes so small, stupid and selfish. He knew. And he’s lying about it now.