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A Bridge to Somewhere

Early last week, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) tried to laugh off his bridge scandal. Seven days later, no one's laughing.
A view of the George Washington Bridge from Fort Lee, New Jersey crossing the Hudson river towards New York City, January 7, 2011.
A view of the George Washington Bridge from Fort Lee, New Jersey crossing the Hudson river towards New York City, January 7, 2011.
When the New York Times first reported on New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's (R) bridge scandal last week, it published a report on page A23. By Saturday, the controversy had worked its way to page A1.
In other words, the political relevance of this story, which we've been following with great interest, appears to be increasing.
After having brushed off the scandal as "crazy" earlier in the week, by Friday the governor was willing to concede "a mistake got made." This is, of course, a classic of passive-voice politics -- during the Bush/Cheney administration's U.S. Attorney scandal, then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said "mistakes were made." During the Iran-Contra affair in 1986, then-President Reagan said "mistakes were made." In the wake of the Abu Ghraib scandal, then-President Bush said, "It's also important for the people of Iraq to know that in a democracy, everything is not perfect, that mistakes are made."
The problem with passive voice, of course, is that it's intended to obscure responsibility. Christie is now prepared to admit "a mistake got made," but the question remains: who made the mistake?
NBC's First Read picks up on the controversy today, highlighting this piece from New Jersey's largest newspaper.

The Newark Star Ledger: "No one has publicly accused Christie of ordering two of his top appointees at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to close lanes to the world's busiest bridge to get back at a Democratic mayor who wouldn't endorse his re-election bid. But questions about the incident have fueled a scandal that even Christie's masterful team of brand managers can't make go away." And if the Christie administration DIDN'T close the lanes for political reasons, it hasn't given a really good reason WHY it closed them. In addition, if politics had nothing to do with these decisions, then why did he accept the resignations of his Port Authority appointees? If there is nothing to see here then these two officials shouldn't have lost their jobs, right?

I've seen some argue that the seriousness of this story is limited because one town suffering with high traffic for one week just doesn't seem that outrageous. I continue to believe this misses the point and broader salience of the controversy.
First, Christie and his team have spent years carefully cultivating a reputation: the governor is "above politics" and has no use for "politics as usual." If Christie deliberately crippled a community for nearly a week because its mayor didn't endorse him, and there's reason to believe that may indeed have happened, it does enormous, perhaps permanent, damage to that reputation.
Second, though no one was seriously hurt in Fort Lee during this imaginary "traffic study", Port Authority officials have described this as "dangerous" -- when the Christie administration brought the community to a halt, emergency crews were unable to move, too.
And finally, once officials are known for abusing their power, it's a tough label to shake. This is less about a few days of traffic and more about a governor accused of using a powerful public agency as some kind of weapon, punishing a town out of petty, partisan spite, while putting public safety at risk.
Complicating matters, neither Christie nor his team have even tried to come up with a rival explanation that would make this story go away. As the Star-Ledger wrote late last week, just hours before Bill Baroni, the governor's friend and chief appointee at the Port Authority, resigned, "[A]n explanation that once seemed utterly ridiculous -- that the lanes were closed to create traffic havoc in the town of Fort Lee as some sort of political retribution against the town's Democratic mayor -- has actually emerged as the only logical explanation."
As for the latest developments, the story got a little weirder over the weekend, when David Wildstein, Christie's high-school pal who's already announced his resignation as the Port Authority's director of interstate capital projects, started buying up dozens of internet domain names, including -- Pat Foye is the Port Authority's executive director, who's been critical of the Christie administration's inexplicable decision to close down the lanes in question.
As for why Wildstein would buy these domains, no one seems to have any idea.