There is a phrase we in newsbiz are told to avoid like the plague: “Only time will tell.” It’s too much of a cliche for those of us who live and die with cliches. So cringe along with me as we consider the political future of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Can he be a credible presidential candidate after “Bridgegate” (still another cliche)? You guessed it: Only time will tell.
Seriously, there so many unanswered questions after that news conference in which he tried to convince the world that he was not the reincarnation of Richard Nixon. Where Nixon insisted “I am not a crook,” Christie declared, “I am not a bully.” In both cases, there is considerable evidence to the contrary. And in both cases, there clearly was an enemies list. So we’re left with the what-did-he-know-and-when-did-he-know-it question. If Christie’s claim holds up and he had no knowledge that his top aides made the decision on their own to cause traffic chaos as payback to a mayor of another party who had dared to not endorse him for re-election, then maybe this will be all but forgotten by the time 2016 rolls around.
That’s a huge “if,” since just about anyone with subpoena power in New Jersey will be investigating, to say nothing of us predatory reporters. But assume for the moment that we don’t find the smoking gun (another cliche from the Nixon days) and we’re not all disgusted by the possibility that the governor has fostered an atmosphere in his administration where toxic vindictiveness is encouraged — which he denies — maybe this will blow over. Of course, it’s also possible that some of the top aides will emerge from where they were thrown under the bus, to offer a competing version, so, well, you know.
But this is about more than just disrupting thousands of lives by creating monster gridlock as an act of nasty pettiness. What we’re seeing from the tyrants who engineered the paralysis at the George Washington Bridge is relevant to the debate over the massive surveillance conducted by the National Security Agency and the other American intelligence services. They operate under an “end justifies the means” code, and insist that they can use, however they want, the awesome technology available today to pry into just about every facet of our once-private lives. In both cases, the lesson is this: Power will be abused. It’s obvious in New Jersey, and it’s obvious in spookland. That’s why it’s so important to keep a tight rein on those who we place in charge.
The apologies that we heard from a chastened Gov. Christie came not because he felt remorse for those caught up in the commuter gridlock — in fact, a few days earlier, he’d joked about being out there and moving around the road cones. His two-hour exercise in contrition came only after the outrageous actions of his key people were undeniable, and advisers said that his best damage control would be to face the music for as long as it took for the media people to run out of steam. In other words, he and/or his had been caught.
The same holds true for our spymasters. They are furious that an upstart kid exposed their mind-boggling intrusiveness. Edward Snowden revealed that they had tapped into the communications of foreign leaders, as well as all of us, and then lied about it before Congress — which is a crime, by the way. No wonder they are hellbent on severely punishing him. Maybe he should be congratulated. His disclosures are forcing leaders to consider imposing a tiny bit of sanity into their operations.
Perhaps we’ll find out that the NSA was spying on Chris Christie, and then maybe they can shed some light on just how culpable he really is for the ugly bridge debacle. Only time will tell.
Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast columnist, including 20 years at CNN.