Opinion: Faith in Government, the Real Casualty of Bridgegate

Carl Golden | February 20, 2014 | Opinion
As more and more troubling details emerge, it become all the more difficult for New Jerseyans to have confidence in their leaders

Carl Golden
There can be no doubt on the part of anyone now that the multiple investigations into Bridgegate and the allegations of improper behavior associated with it will continue for months.

There is simply no end in sight as a squadron of attorneys joust and skirmish on behalf of their clients; a legislative committee pores over all manner of documents while threatening action against those who’ve decided to ignore committee subpoenas; potential witnesses invoke their Fifth Amendment right; and the U.S. Attorney sends FBI agents into the field to interview key figures in the scandal.

Presumably, at some distant point in the future, the public will learn who was responsible for closing access lanes to the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee; whether Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno really did threaten to withhold relief funds for Hurricane Sandy recovery from Hoboken unless Mayor Dawn Zimmer dropped her objections to a proposed development; and whether those funds were doled out or withheld as political favors or retribution.

And, presumably, anyone who acted improperly or illegally will be called to account and punished.

In the meantime, though, public confidence and trust in government will continue to suffer. The belief will spread and harden that the officials they’ve elected and the staffs those officials have entrusted with helping to govern instead chose to place personal gain and the misplaced exercise of power above their sworn duties and responsibilities.

The proper role of government — that of an institution to create, strengthen, and nurture an environment in which citizens can live safely and thrive economically — has already been undermined and, the longer the investigations, the greater the chances the institution will crumble further.

Each time the scandal narrative appears to have lost momentum, another document surfaces, another allegation is made, or another incident is uncovered by the media, providing the spark to propel the storyline back onto front pages and newscasts leads.

The public conversation is driven by suggestions that political insiders stood to reap an enormous windfall through secret knowledge of proposed government actions. Or that government authority was abused by those who — given a level of power they hadn’t experienced before — used it to bludgeon opponents or critics for the mere sake and inner satisfaction of wielding the club of punishment under official sanction.

The scandal began as an admittedly partisan attempt to blame and embarrass the administration of Gov. Chris Christie for creating a traffic jam of unprecedented size and duration by shutting down two access lanes to the George Washington Bridge last September.

When the rationale offered by officials of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey that the closures were a part of a traffic study collapsed, the issue quickly escalated, ensnaring the governor’s office directly and leading to the very public reputation-shredding and dismissal of a member of the governor’s staff and the chairman of his reelection campaign.

Since then, it’s spread to other high-ranking staff in the governor’s office and the Port Authority, to authority police officers and their union leadership, and to political allies of the administration.

The blizzard of news accounts has had its impact. Numerous polls show that the governor’s political standing has taken a potentially lethal blow, but — more importantly — his reputation for honesty, veracity, and integrity has been damaged as well.

A certain amount of trust has been lost, perhaps irretrievably so. With it has gone a level of public willingness to accept at face value the words and deeds of government. Suspicion has crept in, an uncertainty about the motives behind those words and deeds.

There has surfaced a tendency to more quickly question whether private interests are at play, whether a select clique of insiders holds a stake in government and stands to benefit personally or professionally from it.

An unfortunate side effect is that as the stain of alleged impropriety spreads, it reaches those whose only misfortune is to have been a part of a government increasingly held in distrust.

That the American people have become increasingly benumbed to political scandal is undeniable. Watergate convulsed the nation and the scars it inflicted on the body politic remain visible. The sordid personal activities of President Bill Clinton were a deep embarrassment that has followed him ever since and will surely reemerge if Hillary Clinton seeks the presidency in 2016.

The Obama administration continues to deal — sometimes successfully, sometimes not — with questions about the deadly terrorist attack on a United States compound in Benghazi, a Department of Justice undercover sting operation in which guns fell into the hands of drug gangs in Mexico, and the actions of the Internal Revenue Service in harassing politically conservative organizations that had applied for tax-exempt status.

This is not to suggest that closing traffic lanes at the George Washington Bridge or playing fast and loose with federal funds intended for relief for disaster victims rises to the level of the criminality of Watergate or is the equivalent of flaws in our national and international security apparatus.

However, each in its own way contributes to an erosion of confidence and an increase in cynicism toward established authority and leadership. Each raises difficult questions about how a culture could flourish at the highest levels of government that allowed such activities to occur.

The struggle to restore trust in government is both lengthy and difficult. Proving noble intentions to a public made weary and suspicious by an incessant barrage of accounts of impropriety and questionable behavior is a task of Sisyphean proportions.

The ongoing investigations will be long and arduous. Recovering will be the same.