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
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