WASHINGTON — No scandal is exactly like another, but there is similarity between what is now dubbed “Bridgegate” and its famous antecedent, the scandal that gave rise to all the “gates,” the break-in at the Watergate office complex that forced the resignation of President Nixon. It was a bungled attempt to burgle records about the Democratic opposition in the 1972 presidential race, and it was totally unnecessary to assure victory, just as the caper allegedly orchestrated by Governor Chris Christie’s loyalists in New Jersey was an over-the-top expression of hubris.
Just as Nixon was clobbering Democrat George McGovern leading up to the ’72 election, Christie had his re-election sewed up. In his mea culpa press conference last week, Christie said he wanted to “run up the score” with support from Democratic-leaning groups, and from Democratic mayors in cities and towns across the state. Christie won endorsements from more than 60 Democratic mayors after pursuing hundreds. His staff’s failure to bring Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich into the tent is apparently what triggered the payback scheme that clogged traffic for four days as residents found lanes closed without warning on the George Washington Bridge.
Christie says he was “blindsided” by the news of his staff’s involvement in the lane closings and denies knowing anything about the act of political retribution that inconvenienced thousands of Fort Lee residents. If he’s not telling the truth, we’ll know soon enough as more information surfaces. Assuming he’s truthful, the bone-headed scheme itself may not have been directly ordered by Christie any more than the Watergate break-in was set in motion by an explicit command from Nixon.
We do know that Nixon established in July of 1971, during his first term as president, a special investigations unit known as the White House “Plumbers.” Their purpose was to track down and plug leaks of national security information, a legitimate goal that quickly morphed into illegal activity with a break-in at the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist in an attempt to find information that would discredit Ellsberg, who had leaked the Pentagon Papers to the media.
We don’t know if Christie tasked any of his aides to go the extra mile to correct real or perceived political slights. He claims that he called his top staff together and gave them an hour to tell him the truth about what they knew. When none came forward he felt free to joke about the lane closings, saying he was out there moving the orange cones himself, the story was that ridiculous.
Since then, various tales of political retribution by the governor’s office have surfaced, from cancelled meetings to firings. It’s in the eye of the beholder as to what goes over the line, and what is standard operating procedure in local government in New Jersey. “I am not a bully,” Christie famously declared at his press conference when asked about his penchant for punishing those who defy him.
For those who remember Watergate, Nixon’s insistence at a press conference when questioned by newsman Dan Rather is one for the history books. “I am not a crook,” Nixon said. True, he didn’t line his pockets. Watergate wasn’t about money, it was about abuse of power, and that’s another parallel with Bridgegate.
When the Washington Post was hot on the trail of the Watergate scandal, the saying among Nixon hands was “the first one into the prosecutor’s office gets the best deal.” All the principals in the unfolding New Jersey scandal are lawyered up, and it won’t be long before someone starts talking, explaining the un-explainable. It looks like a dirty trick gone bad, and that’s one of the oldest stories in politics.