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Opinion: What the Bridgegate Scandal Cost Gov. Christie

The toxic traffic jam didn’t help Christie’s run for the GOP presidential nomination, and surely lost him the VP slot on the Trump ticket

To all of those who were convinced that the access lane closures at the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee and the traffic jams they produced three years ago were of little consequence and would quickly fade from the public consciousness, take note of the following:

  • Gov. Chris Christie conceded that the scandal damaged his pursuit of the Republican presidential nomination.

  • Republican nominee Donald Trump offered the vice-presidential spot to Christie after the governor pleaded his case directly to him, but withdrew it 24 hours later after his advisers convinced him that Bridgegate would haunt his candidacy.

Even the governor’s communications chief, in what, in retrospect, was a monumental error in judgment, dismissed the episode as a one-day story that the public was largely ignoring.

The cascade of events and revelations unleashed by investigations conducted by a select legislative committee and the U. S. Attorney’s office embedded the term “Bridgegate” in the public mind and guaranteed it would dominate the political environment for nearly Christie’s entire second term.

It is understandable that in the first days of the lane closings, the resulting gridlock was seen as a typical garden variety traffic jam, the type that New Jersey commuters have become accustomed to and accept with weary resignation as the price to pay for working in New York City.

As more details emerged, along with rumors that the lanes had been closed to exact revenge on the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee for refusing to endorse Christie’s reelection, the crucial mistake was committed: A cover story was concocted that the action was a traffic study authorized by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey with the goal of easing congestion at the world’s busiest bridge.

That fateful decision and the administration’s insistence on clinging to it in the face of mounting evidence that political retribution lay at the heart of the lane closings, eventually brought the entire episode crashing down, exposing lies and deception and giving the public a glimpse of the political manipulation rampant in the governor’s office.

History is littered with the pitfalls inherent in promoting cover stories to disguise political misbehavior. To maintain even a modicum of credibility requires constant explanation and each rationale inexorably drags those with knowledge of the truth deeper into a bog of deception. It demands, moreover, that great care must be taken to remember each retelling of the cover story to avoid being caught up in contradictions.

Ideas, suggestions, and proposals to act on or respond to a particular problem or issue flow through a governor’s office -- any governor’s office -- on a daily basis. While some are taken seriously and referred to the appropriate staff level or cabinet department for further study, most are considered unworkable at best or outlandish at worst, stuffed into a file drawer and forgotten.

The scheme to shut down the bridge access lanes arrived in the governor’s office from David Wildstein, then director of interstate capital projects at the Port Authority, and someone who even the governor’s top staff people described as coming up with one bizarre, wacky idea after another and attempting to sell the administration on them.

Whether his scheme was considered relatively harmless and easily explained with the tale of an authority-sanctioned traffic study isn’t known.

It was, however, set in motion on the opening day of school in September 2013, producing the desired result -- four days of complete traffic gridlock, trapping cars, trucks, school buses, and emergency vehicles for hours while backing up surrounding local streets.

When the governor’s office received a message from an outraged executive director of the authority that the lane closures violated the law and he intended to order them lifted, it should have been an unmistakable signal that it was a disaster in the making.

Had the administration acted immediately, ordered the lanes opened, and characterized the entire episode as poorly thought out and executed, it may well have ended at that point.

There may have been a day or two of critical media coverage, editorial demands for greater oversight of the authority and its operations, but the controversy could have been put to rest and quickly forgotten.

The public can be quite forgiving of an administration that concedes it acted inappropriately, admits its mistakes, and apologizes.

Instead, the executive director was ordered to butt out, the lanes remained closed, and the seeds were planted for a scandal that erupted with the disclosure that a deputy chief of staff in the governor’s office was deeply involved in the scheme and had been close contact with Wildstein.

The traffic study cover story collapsed, replaced by allegations of political retribution and revelations of the ongoing and extensive political activities in the governor’s office.

It was, of course, inevitable that the old truism “It’s not the initial act, but the coverup that creates the problem” would be rolled out repeatedly. History certainly suggests the validity of that observation.

That Christie was damaged and weakened by the Bridgegate furor is indisputable. At the same time, his presidential candidacy was always a long shot and, despite his belief that it was harmed by the controversy, his poor showing in both the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary was attributed to other, more compelling reasons.

He was, however, a serious contender for the vice presidential selection. After he abandoned his own quest for the nomination, Christie earned Trump’s gratitude by quickly endorsing and campaigning for him and becoming a close adviser.

After reportedly offering Christie the spot as his running mate, Trump was convinced by his other advisers that the governor’s presence on the ticket would drag Bridgegate and all its associated baggage directly into his campaign. Trump relented and rescinded the offer.

When Watergate burst into the open in 1972, the Nixon White House ridiculed it as “a third-rate burglary.” Bridgegate was dismissed as an all too frequent traffic jam, not worth becoming agitated over.

While Bridgegate certainly does not rise to the level of corruption and law-breaking as did Watergate, both were the first snowflake in the blizzard, burying a presidency in the first instance and a political future in the second.

Carl Golden served as press secretary for Republican Gov. Thomas Kean for eight years and as communications director for Republican Gov. Christie Whitman for three years. He is currently a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University.

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