Before we delve into the starting point for most ethics inquiries—What’s going on here?— a summary…
Last September, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey closed all but one lane of the George Washington Bridge , horrifically tangling commuter transportation in Fort Lee, New Jersey, just across bridge from Manhattan. The lane closures delayed emergency responders to four calls, and may have resulted in at least one death. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s office had attributed the lane closures to a traffic study. But smoking gun e-mails emerged proving beyond the shadow of a doubt that the bridge closing was far more sinister: top Christie aides engineered the gridlock specifically to cause problems for Fort Lee, whose mayor had angered the Governor by refusing to endorse him for re-election. It was political payback of a particularly brutal and Machiavellian sort.
“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” wrote Bridget Anne Kelly, a deputy chief of staff to Christie, in an email on Aug. 13 to David Wildstein, Christie’s appointee at the Port Authority. Wildstein resigned in December after news of the scandal first broke; he has since refused to answer questions in a hearing on the matter, citing the Fifth Amendment. Christie fired Kelly yesterday, and in a long and emotional press conference, profusely apologized while insisting that he knew nothing of the plot, but accepted responsibility for the actions of his staff. The incident is attracting national interest because Christie, a Republican, is an intriguing and controversial potential candidate for a 2016 Presidential run.
- This is bad, and there is no defense for it. Government power should never be abused like this, by anyone. Distorting one’s duties to the public to harm members of the public out of such motives as spite, revenge, retribution, intimidation or personal and political gain is the moral equivalent of a crime.
- In fact, it should be a crime. It can’t be, because the problem is that some degree of such distortions of the duty to act in the public’s best interest are essential political tools that cannot be jettisoned without undermining effective leadership as well. Politics works through the carrot and the stick, and the stick virtually always causes collateral damage. At every level of government, refusing to do what a powerful leader wants must have negative consequences, or nobody will do what the leader wants, and he or she will no longer be effective. That, in the end, hurts the public too–presumably more seriously than the short-term harm from political payback.
- This is the ugly and confounding side of politics as sausage-making, and there are literally no effective leaders who would not appear to be ruthless and vindictive if their most egregious instances of brutal stick-wielding came to light. Most of the time, they don’t come to light. Part of the duty of an effective leader is to make certain they don’t come to light, because another duty of leaders is to engender trust. Such episodes of power abuse engender fear and hate instead.
- Obviously there is a spectrum, ranging from the legitimate use of the stick to achieve important results that benefit the public far beyond any collateral damage, over to the mid-point where the tactic stops being a legitimate leadership tool, then to the side where it is merely petty, personal, and imperious, to outright, unforgivable abuse of power. Defining the spectrum is an important ethics exercise, but a difficult and lengthy one; we need not do that now. The bridge closing is far beyond any point of debate. It constituted an outrageous and arrogant abuse of power by any legitimate standard.
- News media and punditry are full of various comparisons of Christie’s crisis to various Obama Administration scandals of recent vintage. To the extent that these are used by partisan warriors to either minimize Christie’s accountability or shift focus to President Obama’s inadequacies, or to obsess about news media biases in covering them all, the comparisons are based in rationalizations, specifically Ethics Alarms Rationalizations 1, 2, 6, 18, 21, and 25: “Everybody Does It!,” “They’re Just as Bad,” “Judge Not, Lest Ye Be Judged,” “Nobody’s Perfect,” It’s Not the Worst Thing!” and “The Favorite Child Excuse.”
- To the extent that such comparisons help clarify “what’s going on,” and setting the bridge closing along the spectrum, comparisons can be useful. Here are some to consider:
1. Obama’s closing of the National Parks, monuments, memorials and White House tours to make the GOP’s government shutdown as painful as possible, and the similar actions in the wake of the sequester. I have already written that these were abuses of power, but they also had legitimate, if debatable, political goals. The bridge closing did not, but was an example of punishing an individual by harming his city.
2. The I.R.S. scandal. This comparison focuses on the problem of ethical culture, resulting in subordinates taking unethical actions on their own in response to what they sense are their leader’s wishes (assuming that was really the case in either scandal.) That comparison is valid (see below). Anyone who argues, however, that one incident of a vengeful bridge closing represents anything close to the abuse of power represented by partisan interference with political expression in advance of a national election is incapable of objectivity.
3. Benghazi, the N.S.A., the Affordable Care Act website and the I.R.S. scandal, as comparable examples where a leader claims not to know about important workings within the government he manages, when it can be argued that he either should have, or must have known. The transgression is the same, but the perspectives is different. The issue with President Obama is that this lack of oversight, management and interest is a pattern, and indicts his leadership ability. The issue the bridge closing raises for Christie, whose reputation has been built on a record of hands-on competence, is whether this was a one -time error, or is indicative of more general deficits in skill, practice or character.
4. Honesty. Were Obama and Christie lying when they insisted that these events occurred without their knowledge or direction? In this area, the question is identical for both.
5. Nixon. This variety of spiteful and underhanded dirty trick can fairly be called Nixonian, and that comparison is useful to show the danger inherent in allowing people to wield governmental power who think this is acceptable conduct.
- An area where a comparison is valid is this: President Obama has come close to being a text-book model of incompetent national leadership. Any signs that Gov. Christie possesses the same leadership deficits as Obama has exhibited need to be viewed with alarm and seriousness by everyone. The U.S. does not need and can not risk yet another inattentive and irresponsible Chief Executive.
- Christie immediately fired the staff member responsible, and has made sure that two other individuals involved, including his campaign manager, were removed from their posts as well. Good. He deserves credit for doing this quickly and without vague statements about future investigations. If it is true that he did not direct their actions, the contrast with President Obama reflects well on him. The President does not fire anybody, and accountability for failure and misconduct in the Obama Administration is entirely, shockingly, embarrassingly absent.
- The hypocrisy of any Democrat or major media pundit (but I repeat myself) coming down hard on Christie for the actions of his staff while making excuses for President Obama’s handling of the NSA, Obamacare and I.R.S. fiascos should be noted and remembered. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Democratic Part chair who long ago became a walking satire of the transparently dishonest spin addict, actually had this to say when CNN’s Don Lemon asked her how she could insist that Christie knew about the bridge closing plot while maintaining that President Obama was blameless in those matters.
“The difference is the issue that President Obama said he didn’t know about were policy issues, this is a scandal.”
Well, nat…wait, WHAT? It’s fine for a President not to know about how his own policies are being administered? That’s not a scandal? Using the taxing power to cripple political adversaries isn’t a scandal? Secretly spying on Americans isn’t a scandal? That statement by Wasserman Schultz has no valid meaning or honesty in the English language. She should be banned from newscasts, as an inherently dishonest and unreliable source. As in the case of the Republicans and its past dishonest and similarly absurd chair Michael Steele, if the Democrats are willing to be represented in public and the media by such a flagrantly dishonest and ridiculous woman, what does this say about the Party? And its respect for the public?
- On the Apology Scale, Christie’s long mea culpa yesterday has to be ranked a #1, a complete, sincere acceptance of responsibility with regret and remorse….unless he was lying through his teeth.
- For his part, the aggrieved and unjustly punished Mayor of Fort Lee, Mark Sokolich, also behaved ethically and with grace, accepting Christie’s apology.
The bottom line ethically, however, is this. Whether or not Chris Christie personally ordered the vindictive closing, the fact that close aides and subordinates under his leadership thought that it was appropriate to do so demonstrates serious flaws in the ethical culture of the Christie administration, exactly as the I.R.S. debacle shows that unethical acts are nourished, encouraged and tolerated in the Obama administration. Such scandals literally do not happen if the right message is being sent, consistently and powerfully, from the top. It is not enough for a leader to say “I didn’t know” and “These weren’t my orders.” Why did you trust aides capable of doing something like this? Why did they have the impression that what they did would meet with your approval? What have you done or said, or not done or said, to encourage such abuses of power? How can we be sure that this won’t happen again? What are you going to do to repair and improve the ethical culture in the organization you lead, and restore trust that you are worthy of the power over their lives voters have given you?
Chris Christie has an opportunity to show that he, unlike Barack Obama, is capable of responding rapidly, effectively and responsibly to the challenges these questions raise for his leadership. If he can do that, and it is far from easy, then this humiliating episode will be a boon to his prospects of national leadership, and not the death knell that some critics have prematurely predicted.
Facts: LA Times
Sources: NY Times 1,2,3, 4, Mediaite
Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work or property was used in any way without proper attribution, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at email@example.com.
30 thoughts on “Ethics Observations On Sticks, Leadership, And Chris Christie’s Vindictive Bridge Closing Scandal”
With regards to the question of if he knew or not: I think it’s plausible, although rather unlikely, that he had no idea what was going on. If nothing else, the cover story for the closure was a nonexistent “traffic study.” It seems like that should have rang some alarm bells, or at least made him say “So, heinous traffic jam there, what study is going on exactly?” However, my gut instinct is that he probably had an inkling of what happened and chose to ignore it and maintain plausible deniability.
The huge contrast with Obama is that this is a single event, with an at-least-plausible deniability factor. I was willing to give O the benefit of the doubt a time or two- politics is a dirty game, I can credit an overzealous staffer wanting to score some points and a leader paying inadequate attention to the details. However, Obama just. kept. saying it. Over and over, every time something went wrong we heard the refrain “I didn’t know! I wasn’t aware! I’m surprised too!” He’s carried it to a level of absurdity, reducing his plausible deniability factor to either being a complete liar, or a complete incompetent with no idea what goes on under his roof.
If Christie did know, or worse, directed it, his complete denial yesterday would be complete and total ruin, political suicide. Since he’s pretty savvy, and he knows everyone will be subpoenaed, I have to believe that this was just an unfortunate lapse. Note that he did not say, “What difference does it make WHY the lanes were closed? The point is, an old lady died! That’s what I care about!”
Bush did way worse after Saddam didn’t endorse him for his candidacy in ’00
I agree- I didn’t mean to suggest he actually KNEW, but I do find it hard to believe he had no idea whatsoever. He seems like a canny enough person that I bet he had his suspicions.
Note that he did not say, “What difference does it make WHY the lanes were closed?
Jack, I have to respectfully disagree.
His “apology” went no further than claiming that because people report to him, he’s “responsible.” The rest of it was all about how others were to blame.
A real apology would have acknowledged his befuddlement (which I bleivee to be genuine) that people HE hired, that HE trusted, that HE backed publicly, that HE put into his senior administration and that HE deelegated significant work to (according to him), SOMEHOW did the wrong thing.
The real meaning of “responsibility” would be for him to declare his pursut of what the hell kind of climate he has created that found people doing this. Does he not understand his impact on others? Does he not compethend the messages he’s sending? Is he a horrible judge of character?
What does it say about his fitness to be a President if he creates an environment where this can happen – and thinks that because he personally didn’t know about it, every thing was OK?
(I agree completely with you about the uselesness of comparinbg himn and Obama, though you do spend a lot of words on it). And for what it’s worth, I don’t doubt that he’s telling the truth. I just think that the truth he thinks is important is not the truth that is really important.
My commentary on it in “It Depends On What the Meaning of the Word ‘REsonsible’ Is:
Yeesh. Outside of saying he ordered it when he didn’t (IF he didn’t), I don’t know that he left any of that out. He said he was betrayed by someone he trusted—that’s certainly true. That also implies that he trusted someone unworthy of trust. Surely its accurate to blame a rogue employee….if, again, that’s the case. He apologized, said he was sorry, said he was embarrassed, said he was sad and angry. I don’t think he is obligated to say “obviously I’ve sent the wrong message around here and our ethics culture stinks”–Has anyone ever said that in public?—I think he’s obligated to fix it.
I saw and heard no suggestion that because he was unaware of it, everything was OK.
Some quotes from the transcript:
I mean really–you find this inadequate? I thought I was tough!
Go back and re-read all those extensive quotes. You’ll find that all of them have to do with the particular incident in case – none have to do with his responsibility for setting up an environment where someone in his “circle of trust” was able to so surprise him.
This is exactly like Nixon insisting that he’s not a crook because he didn’t burgle an office. Nobody’s arguing that Christie did anything wrong himself (I’d be amazed if he’s lying about that, I sincerely doubt it). Bu that’s not the point.
The only situation he got to the bottom of was the GW Bridge fiasco. All that talk is only about how the GW thing happened, is there anything more to it, etc. As far as him being betrayed, hurt, etc., fine – I should hope so, And who cares!
This is exactly like Rupert Murdoch’s role vis a vis the World News phone hacking scandal. The fact the Rupert never hacked a phone himself shouldn’t isolate him from his responabilityt for having created an environment where his key aides felt it was OK to do it. Then of course Murdoch threw his deputies under the bus, so he could claim, “Who, me? I was ill served by these scoundrels!” Yeah, right. And Christie’s saying the same thing
What should he have said? Something like:
“I am deeply concerned not only that this happened, but that I was blindsided by it. In addition to the obvious investigation that I’ve already mounted about the facts in this situation, I intend to go back and quietly re-examine my approach to recruiting and vetting; to have a private heart-to-heart discussion with my entire direct staff about the values we espouse and their consonance or lack thereof with the values we act out; and to ascertain whether this was a single wackadoodle who made a serious error in judgment, or whether her decision was in any sense a product of the environment as she perceived it. To do any less in pursuit of preventing the next scandal would be dereliction of my duty to the people of this state.”
And as to few other people ever having said such a thing in a situation like this, well you are the master of pointing out the fallacy of the “Johnny did it too!” defense.
I agree that your text is better. But realistically, who ever, in their right mind, argues that a scandal is worse than what he’s being accused of? I think that’s asking way too much—pragmatic politics have to be taken into consideration to a rational extent. I also think that everything he did say includes what you want to be said explicitly implicitly. Saying that he pledges to fix the problem included the problem you correctly identify. Moreover, it is still unclear that this wasn’t a rogue employee whom everyone assumed was speaking for her boss.
I’ve seen hypocrisy from both Republicans and Democrats on this issue over the last week — in fact, it was the subject of lively debate among friends just last night at my kitchen table. To the extent we want to hold our leaders responsible for the inappropriate and sometimes illegal actions of their subordinates, I am fine with that as long as we are applying it consistently.
That being said ….. I find it plausible that Obama had no idea what a mid-level supervisor was doing in a Cincinnati IRS office, and let me add, I hope he doesn’t trouble himself to know — absent a red flag being raised that something is wrong — because he has better things to do than personally manage every single office of every single agency. That doesn’t mean that he shouldn’t be held responsible of course. On the other hand, I find it highly unlikely that Christie didn’t know about this because we are talking about his Deputy Chief of Staff here, and Christie is a career savvy politician. (Similarly, we should immediately attribute all of Hillary’s actions to Obama given that she was in the inner circle.) But even if Christie didn’t know, someone that close is acting in a manner consistent with what he would want — i.e., this tells us that Christie hires vindictive sociopaths into high positions. So far, I’ve seen evidence of monumental incompetence on Obama’s part, but no evidence of sociopaths in his cabinet.
As for politics as usual … I have to agree, but not to rationalize or excuse it. More to say that this is further evidence of why good people do not become politicians, or evidence of how good people go into politics either with good intentions and get pushed out (because you need to be ruthless to survive) or become corrupted by the process itself. It’s gotten to the point where I have no trust for any elected official, even if there is zero evidence of wrongdoing.
I wonder if criminal charges could be brought against the Deputy Chief of Staff to the extent that it did result in a death that could have been avoided. And, of course, a myriad of tort actions leap to mind from various parties and businesses for lost revenue. And I bet you some clever prosecutor is investigating whether RICO charges can be brought against all the conspirators…..
Beth, PLEASE update yourself re: the IRS. All the available information, including direct statements from the IRS staff in Cincy, shows that this was ordered from DC, and that Lois Lerner, and others, were lying her head off. The fact that you could still cite that Cincinnati cover-up story months after it had been completely discredited shows how totally the media and White House spin has buried truth and avoided accountability. Unbelievable. I am distraught.
What are you talking about? If someone in Obama’s inner circle knew about the IRS practice AND approved it, then fine — Obama’s awful for that too. I am not Obama’s supporter so I don’t feel the need to defend him here. This is entirely consistent with what I wrote above. And I don’t feel the need to examine every new piece of damning evidence concerning Obama, I am not his supporter and lost all respect for him years ago. Don’t lump me in with the liberal media here.
The Christie story is new and is thus interesting. Obama’s incompetence became old news years ago.
What? I’m talking about THIS: “I find it plausible that Obama had no idea what a mid-level supervisor was doing in a Cincinnati IRS office..”. That’s a flagrant misrepresentation of what Obama claims he didn’t know. he didn’t know what was going on at high levels, in DC, at the Treasury Dept., AND he didn’t know that the IRS targeting of conservative groups was being investigated. That’s like saying, “I find it plausible Chris Christie had no idea what they were doing in the Port Authority lunch room”
You’re right — that’s EXACTLY the same. My bad.
I honestly have no idea if you are really agreeing, or being snarky. Either is fine, but I would like to know.
I’m being snarky. I agree with your premise above — I think it made that clear. Leaders should be responsible for their subordinates — whether or not they were aware of the conduct. But there are zones of direct communication. Your example with Obama involves a flow chart, mine with Christie involves a direct hire on his part. Obama still is responsible for any and all IRS shenanigans/crimes, but he did not hire the person in question who committed the bad behavior and didn’t have a cup of coffee with her every day. And even if the bad behavior was communicated up the chain to Obama’s cabinet, it still is quite different.
Beth, the President’s chief of staff AND White House counsel intentionally (we are told) kept him in the dark about the IRS scandal.
You forgot to include that AG Holder has finally appointed a fairly large financial donor to the DNC and the President to investigate this matter just days ago. Even if the career lawyer can be impartial and perform a thorough investigation, the optics of this appointment will not settle the issue if no wrongdoing is found. While the Justice Department has a legal duty not to investigate the political leanings of its staff when making appointments to an investigation one must wonder why the appointee did not recuse herself knowing that her prior cash contributions to the Obama campaign would make her impartiality suspect; especially in light of the fact that this case centers on creating roadblocks to oppositional forces who seek to raise money to promote a counter agenda.
Ironically, the lanes to tax exempt status were blocked for far longer than 4 days by the actions of the never fired Ms. Lerner or the White House Counsel who advised her
The lanes analogy! Brilliant! Is that original?
I’m not quite ready to damn the “ethical culture” of Governor Christie’s administration based on this one incident alone.
Whether inside or outside government, it can be tough to spot the difference between conspiracy and incompetence. Given the same circumstances, and the word of a trusted long-time subordinate in a position to know the truth, I too may well have assumed Port Authority incompetence until proven otherwise.
But I don’t know Governor Christie’s history in office. Is the GW Bridge affair an isolated incident of lack of ethics by the Governor or his staff, or is it part of an ongoing pattern of behavior?
I’m not ready to damn it, but close aides typically don’t fly off the rails without some kind of encouragement, tacit of otherwise. Certainly the media, which is desperate to knock off Hillary’s presumed strongest challenger, is playing the culture care hard (as is the far right media, which doesn’t thing Christie is red enough.). Peggy Noonan has a perceptive take:
I must be missing something. This was supposed to be an act of retribution/vengeance against the mayor of Fort Lee. How? He was not responsible for the mess – he has no control over the Port Authority. Or was it: make the motorists angry because they’ll assume it was the Mayor, etc..?
I think the ethical implications of this action are inextricably tied to the role Gov. Christie himself had in the bridge-closing. If he really didn’t know what his closest aides were doing, this is, now, the best response he could make.
But if he directed the operation, throwing his subordinates under the proverbial bus is an act of unethical desperation, and should certainly not be praised.
In between, there’s an expansive grey area of plausible deniability and politics as usual. Does the underling commit the act in the belief that it will be rewarded? Or because the superior is too ethical to approve of it, and it is better to ask for forgiveness than for permission? Has the inferior even contemplated the possibility of being made the scapegoat if the plot is uncovered?
I’m reminded of Pompey in Antony and Cleopatra (II.vii):
Menas’s response, as an aside, is also instructive:
These aren’t new ideas, in other words. Would Chris Christie be a legitimately ethical supervisor, or would he be Pompey, or would he be the guy Menas thought Pompey was? Or did he say something in exasperation that was taken literally by an irony-challenged underling?
I don’t know. I could construct a probability chart, based on what I’ve seen of Christie, but the extent to which my impression is based on evidence as opposed to confirmation bias is uncertain.
I think Christie is smart, and the bridge closing thuggery was stupid in the extreme. But Nixon was smart, and Clinton was smart. So the jury is out. I agree.
The Shakespeare reference is right on. (So, by the way, is Anouilh’s Becket – “will no one rid me of this priest!”?).
And so is the Nixon reference you raise, Jack. I think hardly anyone ever thought Nixon himself would burgle. And very few people thought that a sitting President would be aware of, much less condone, such activities.
But of course as testimony emerged, and the tapes in particular came out, the wheels came off. Ultimately it was terribly clear that this was exactly the kind of paranoid, petty, tactical atmosphere that could and would lead, almost inevitably, to cartoon-character bungling burglars.
The culture predicted it.
As you say, it’s too soon to be sure that’s the case with Christie. But it’s worth remembering, there were probably fewer people suspicious of Nixon back then than there are suspicious of Christie now. Anything could happen.
Meantime: what is unfortunate is that the incident keeps getting cast in the narrowest of terms: whether or not Christie was directly involved in a stupid decision. I don’t think anyone expects that to be the case – but that’s not the point.
Someone once said, “The fish rots from the head down.” It’s too soon to tell if this is headrot, or just a random bad smell.
You are in top form, Charles!
Possibly related, possibly not, depending on who’s telling the truth:
Detroit blackout, ordered to “send a strong message”:
Or, less strident but more dependent on official sources,
Pat Sajak said it best on twitter…
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