We have been through a lot of political scandals. But never before has the nation been roiled by a conspiracy to create a traffic jam.
There’s barely been time to get used to the idea that Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey is a Republican presidential contender. Now we’re going to have to wonder if he’s a Republican presidential contender who would deliberately create a monster four-day-long backup on the George Washington Bridge to punish a Democratic mayor for not endorsing his re-election.
“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” emailed a Christie deputy chief of staff last summer. Suddenly, commuters were seeing two, three, four hours added to their drive times.
This is very big. Voters have been known to overlook financial chicanery or stuffed ballot boxes. They might continue to love a guy who screwed up the local bond rating or got evicted from the governor’s mansion by an irate wife. But could you ever trust a politician who was implicated in a deliberate effort to ruin rush hour?
We are, of course, going to refer to this as Bridgegate. Also, we will try to figure out some way to call it a political polar vortex.
One central character in the story — which unfolds in newly public emails and texts — is David Wildstein, the governor’s high school pal and a former mayor of their mutual hometown who was appointed to a very important position in the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. The Port Authority controls the George Washington Bridge, which carries more motor vehicles than any other span in the world. In September, Mr. Wildstein had workers block off two access lanes to the bridge from Fort Lee, N.J. This appears to have been an effort to get back at the mayor for his failure to join the governor’s re-election team.
Imagine what would happen if the mayor of Tijuana did something to tick off President Chris Christie. Goodbye border crossing.
“The lowest level of political venom that you could possibly even make up,” Mayor Mark Sokolich fumed to CNN on Wednesday. In an email, Mr. Wildstein referred to the mayor as “this little Serbian.” Mr. Sokolich has described himself as both outraged and Croatian.
America has not been this conscious of Fort Lee since the early days of Weekend Update on “Saturday Night Live,” when Gilda Radner played correspondent Roseanne Roseannadanna, continually answering questions from “Mr. Richard Feder of Fort Lee, N.J.” Now we are imagining Mr. Richard Feder on his morning commute to Manhattan, sitting behind the wheel and staring bleakly ahead as the clock ticks on toward 10 a.m.
Emergency services complained about delays. Children were trapped on buses en route to the first day of school. Meanwhile, the texting by the Christie camp went along the line of: “Is it wrong that I am smiling?” One of them expressed some mild regret about the kids. Mr. Wildstein pointed out that they were probably the spawn of Democrats.
Nothing in the newly uncovered email exchanges came directly from Mr. Christie. Perhaps he did not know what was going on. Perhaps Mr. Christie, the chairman of the Republican Governors Association, appointed childhood chum and political blogger Mr. Wildstein to the Port Authority because of his in-depth expertise in bridges and tunnels.
On Wednesday, Mr. Christie declared in a brief statement that he was shocked, shocked, and was determined to hold people “responsible for their actions.” On Thursday, he apologized profusely and fired his deputy chief of staff. He has apparently dropped his earlier position that the whole blocked-lane thing was probably a useful study of traffic patterns.
“There’s a difference between a Jersey attitude of being blunt and direct and telling it like it is and a Nixonesque act of retaliation that punishes innocent people,” said Loretta Weinberg, the majority leader of the state Senate who represents Fort Lee. The nation first met Ms. Weinberg, 78, when Mr. Christie winningly urged reporters to “take the bat out on her for once.”
Republicans around the nation are going to be brought up short by an idea of a plot to screw up our constitutional right to drive to work. Among the great political divides in this country is mass transit versus cars, and Republicans tend to be rather hostile toward the former. (Driving is individualistic; buses are communal. Driving is the wide open spaces; trains are sort of France.)
Also, they’re going to wonder if we really need more people in Washington with no sense of discretion when it comes to the stuff they say on the Internet. Or who suffer from serious problems with proportionality. The governor won re-election with more than 60 percent of the vote. Obsessing over one Democratic mayor’s failure to jump on board is right up there with Martha Stewart’s attempt to save her financial empire $45,000 through a gambit that netted her five months in prison.
Gail Collins is a syndicated columnist for The New York Times.