Because this is New Jersey ... and because we could
January 14, 2014 12:00 AM
Has any thought been given to writing an op-ed or providing a statement about the G.W.B. study?
— Oct. 9 email from a New York-New Jersey Port Authority staff member to David Wildstein, Gov. Chris Christie’s appointee at the authority
From: David Wildstein
To: Bewildered citizens
The time has come to clear the air about the George Washington Bridge lane closings in Fort Lee, N.J.
Now, I realize that “clear the air” is not the first phrase that comes to mind when you think of the George Washington Bridge, or of New Jersey in general. But bear with me.
Yes, we knew that traffic would be “snarled” by closing two lanes of the bridge in September. But journalists are the only people on God’s green earth — which includes, again, New Jersey — who use the word “snarled” to describe traffic. They also trot out the term “jackknifed” whenever a tractor-trailer tips over. When was the last time you said “jackknifed”?
Traffic doesn’t snarl; people snarl, when they are stuck in traffic. And we wanted to see just how much they would snarl, especially in New Jersey. Remember, we’re talking about a place where shock jock Howard Stern once considered running for governor on a platform of staggering highway tolls and restricting work crews to night duty to prevent traffic jams.
So what if we actually created a jam, and then watched what happened? How cool would that be?
As in any piece of scientific research, we’d have to start with a hypothesis: The more we restricted traffic, the more misery would come to people who voted against Gov. Christie in the last election.
Let me be clear: We did not actually target Democratic voters for any kind of “retribution,” as several media outlets have alleged. In New Jersey, retribution is what happens when you don’t pay your loan shark on time or when you sing to the feds about “organized crime” running the state.
But we were curious, nevertheless, about how traffic would affect Democratic politicians and their constituents. Fort Lee seemed like a natural laboratory for this experiment, because it’s right next to the George Washington Bridge. And its mayor — a little Serbian named Mark Sokolich — supported Barbara Buono, Gov. Christie’s hapless opponent in the last gubernatorial election.
Now, as every good researcher knows, experiments can generate unforeseen consequences. We really had no idea that emergency medical crews would take hours to reach the ill and suffering, or that school buses (filled, incidentally, with the children of Buono voters) would be stalled.
Nor did we intend to turn the little Serbian into a folk hero — albeit, a Croatian one. Remember, we hypothesized that the traffic tie-ups would hurt him! Little did we imagine that they would hurt us, instead.
And by “us,” of course, I mean Gov. Christie’s entire network of loyal friends, admirers and supporters. A lot of us go way back. I mean, I went to high school with the guy!
I know that some of you think that Gov. Christie has thrown me into traffic — I mean, under the bus — by suggesting that we weren’t such great buddies after all. But I promise you: We hung out. He called me “Wild Wildstein.” Like all young Jerseyans at the time, we cruised up and down the highways listening to the Boss. (We also listened to Foreigner and Kansas, but we don’t talk about that as much.)
And my own loyalty to the Boss — meaning Gov. Christie! — remains undiminished. I can assure you that he is not a bully. That’s why he says “I am not a bully” so often.
Most of all, I can promise you that he knew nothing — nothing! — of our traffic study. In the state of New Jersey, we do a lot of research. The governor doesn’t have time to monitor all of it, and he can’t be everywhere at once. Remember, he gets snarled in traffic, too.
Jonathan Zimmerman,a history professor at New York University, commutes through New Jersey each week from his home in suburban Philadelphia.
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