Monday, January 13, 2014

Traffic Conehead

“I moved the cones, actually. Unbeknownst to everybody."—New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, at a December news conference concerning the closure of Fort Lee access lanes to the George Washington Bridge, quoted in Michael Daly, “In New Jersey, There’s No Exit for Chris Christie’s Bridge Trolls,” The Daily Beast, January 9, 2014

Except for the once-in-a-lifetime event coming from left field (e.g., Eliot Spitzer’s dalliances with hookers), political scandals usually stem from faults well within sight of the electorate. With Ronald Reagan, it was inattention to detail; with Bill Clinton, unquenchable appetites of which sex formed a part; with Richard Nixon, rampant paranoia.

With Chris Christie, now forced to deal with fallout from massive traffic jams at the George Washington Bridge in early September that his own administration caused, it was bullying.

You can even hear the tone in the quote leading off this post. The sarcasm is palpable. In effect, the New Jersey Governor was responding to legitimate media questions about his complicity in punitive measures against a Democratic mayor who refused to support his reelection by asking, “What do you take me for—a bonehead?”

Not a bonehead, Gov. More like a Conehead.

Now, the Wideloads might be the skits that Saturday Night Live fans associate with the governor, even after his weight-loss surgery. But in the case of the George Washington Bridge fiasco, the Coneheads, with their obliviousness to the reality of those with whom they come in contact, fit the bill.

Consider this explanation to a confused IRS agent from alien paterfamilias Beldar on how he ended up in his current environment: “Yes, our records were lost, when the craft which brought us from France plunged into Lake Michigan. We crawled from the bottom of the lake, and lived by night for years off our remaining proto-caps.”

This account is, on the face of it, astonishing—but not more so than what Christie told the public about how he got to the spot he’s in, during what surely will rank among the most infamous gubernatorial press conferences of all time.

I direct your attention to this statement from that marathon non-event: “I come here today to apologize to the people of New Jersey,” Gov. Christie began. “I had no knowledge or involvement in this issue, in its planning or execution and I am stunned by the abject stupidity that was shown here.”

Dear me. I keep looking at this sentence and am unable to detect any Clintonesque loophole that might allow him wiggle room. Christie has made a statement, bold as primary colors, that, as a onetime U.S. Attorney, he would have loved to hear in court.

The pre-gov Christie, upon hearing this, would not have been able to contain himself: “Really? How about this e-mail message: ‘Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.’ Could you please read to the court the name of the sender of that message?.. Right : Bridget Anne Kelly. And what was her title in your administration?.... Deputy Chief of State. Doesn’t that mean she worked closely with you?.... And who received the message?.... Yes: David Wildstein, not just a member of your own party or even your appointee to the Port Authority, but someone you’ve known since high school, correct?...

“Now governor, this court is not interested in the fact that you were a class president and athlete while nobody knew anything about Wildstein in high school! We’ve established that, like Ms. Kelly, Mr. Wildstein knew you very well indeed. Let’s turn to this person who told Wildstein not to worry about a Sept. 18 article in The Wall Street Journal about the lane closings. Wasn’t his name Bill Stepien? And wasn’t he your campaign manager? And Bill Baroni—wasn’t he another P.A. appointee?

“Let’s recap, shall we? At least four people well known to you knew about the traffic situation, with at least Kelly and Wildstein aware of it since August, correct? And that’s three weeks before the George Washington Bridge lane closings, yes?

“You mean to tell this court that, in a matter bearing on the health and safety of thousands of citizens in the area—on days not only surrounding the start of school but the anniversary of 9/11—that these people withheld this, quote-unquote ‘secret’ concerning the busiest bridge in the world from you for three whole weeks?

“Governor, isn’t it true that you have a reputation as a hands-on manager? Would the scenario I’ve just laid out accord with that image?”

For several weeks, even up to now, many in the news media have been contending that this scandal will blow over. They sound like their national counterparts 40 years ago, when a pair of young Washington Post reporters saw their grinding investigation into Watergate dismissed by senior, jaded pundits.

Today’s media, caught up in issues sexier than transportation (literally, in the case of abortion and same-sex marriage), have been largely silent on Christie’s four years of mismanagement over a crucial quality-of-life issue in the state: commuting. To cover such matters in depth would have required that reporters dig deeper; interview commuters and ordinary workers on the bridges and tunnels about their challenges; understand the vagaries of budgets and bureaucracies; and put events in a larger context.

Journalists could have started with the fact that the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey has become, on sides of the Hudson River, a dumping ground for political hacks and a black hole for taxpayer funds. Baroni and Wildstein possessed no visible qualifications for their posts other than their closeness to Christie. While tolls have increased inexorably, so, unfortunately, have commuting times. In other words, the people who use this system to get back and forth to work each day have watched their hard-earned money go to waste.

The managerial incompetence and political maladroitness that Christie has displayed in response to this agency has been at odds with the image of the tight ship erected by his administration and parroted by the media till the most recent events. What kind of administrator, for instance, kills the ARC Tunnel under the Hudson—not just a project he previously backed in talks with the Obama administration, but one that was already funded,  under construction and desperately needed to relieve traffic congestion? (See this explanation by Noah Kazis of "Streets Blog.") What kind of administrator defends a New Jersey Transit system that failed to take into account the impact of climate change—and watches as 300 railcars, one quarter of its fleet, were damaged by Hurricane Sandy? (Check out this indispensable analysis by WNYC.)

That would probably be a tone-deaf, out-of-touch administrator—the type of guy who would brag to an eight-year-old that his favorite “thing to do” was this: "When you're governor, they close the Lincoln Tunnel for you. And you get to drive right through! No traffic! It's the best!"

The December press conference in which Christie made his ill-advised comment about the cones also displayed in its purest form the culture of contempt shared by so many of his appointees. He was not only sarcastic but downright cavalier about the need for so many local access lanes onto the George Washington Bridge: Why did Fort Lee residents need three lanes? It was as if he knew answers that had never occurred to traffic engineers who had studied the problem for years. (As a Bergen Record article has indicated--and what I, and any other commuter, could have told Christie's lackeys--at least one-quarter of the traffic going into the bridge comes not from Fort Lee residents, but from surrounding towns.) He gave no sign of ever having read the results of the “study” that had started the whole controversy, nor any particular interest in being briefed on it. It was all "no big deal"--just what you'd expect to hear from someone who never has to worry about getting into the city in decent time.

Journalists, concerned with the appearance of bias, have repeatedly stated that no evidence has emerged yet to show that Christie ordered the lane closures himself. Too few have asked why a former prosecutor, seemingly trained to be skeptical, could have lacked such curiosity about what his aides were telling him. Couldn’t he have asked, “Let’s have a report on those numbers”—or, at least, an executive summary?

No, as in the case of Nixon, a notorious micromanager, someone given to fits of pique, does not change his character overnight. And that is why Christie’s disclaimer, “I am not a bully,” is destined to become as memorable in its way as Nixon’s “I am not a crook.” It is a flagrant denial of the man’s essence.

Jon Stewart’s hilarious segment on the scandal the other night on The Daily Show, which reminded viewers of New Jersey’s rich history of corruption, forgot to mention a decade of gubernatorial recklessness that endangered public safety. Only three months after 9/11, Jim McGreevy appointed lover Golan Cipel, an Israeli national ineligible for security clearance, to be the state’s anti-terrorism adviser. On his way to a meeting between Don Imus and the Rutgers women’s basketball team, where his presence represented a photo-op rather than a necessity, Jon Corzine ordered the state trooper driving him to speed more than 90 miles per hour. Both politicians suffered for their foolishness (McGreevy, through a resignation forced by Cipel’s blackmail attempt, and Corzine, through a car crash that, because of his unwillingness to abide by seat-belt requirements, nearly killed him).

Neither McGreevy nor Corzine, however, had political hacks engage in premeditated plans to tie up traffic for several days, resulting not only in massive disruption of commerce but also in needless interference with emergency situations (four documented instances in the first day alone). Why did so many Christie appointees involve themselves in massive retaliation against a mere mayor if they didn’t think their boss would heartily approve?

At this point, the question arises as to what to do about the governor. Some regard the upcoming hearings into the closures as politically motivated. Others think they’re a costly distraction from more crucial affairs of state. Still others believe that the crushing of Christie’s Presidential hopes that may result from this, even his reduction to impotent lame-duck within his own state, is insufficient punishment for what occurred.

All of these objections have, to some degree or other, some merit. For that reason, I propose an alternative punishment: Every person caught in traffic for those days in September, every Port Authority middle manager and cop baffled and annoyed at implementing a scheme they rightly believed foolhardy, every citizen of Fort Lee and its environs, every New Yorker also stuck in this commuting maw, should be offered the opportunity to give Christie what he has practically been begging for throughout his first term: a good, swift kick in the butt.

The particular merit of this punishment is that it is very, very unlikely that any of the people on the delivery end of it will ever forget it. And you can be damn sure that Christie won’t.

You might argue that this constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. But how does that differ from intentionally worsening traffic jams on the George Washington Bridge from hellish to otherworldly insane—the kind that only Beldar Conehead could appreciate?

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