The problems of New Jersey governor Chris Christie were a long time coming, though they came in an unforeseeable way. A tough, large, and very effective protagonist found himself sorely taxed in a skeptical press encounter, professing to be “embarrassed and humiliated” by the misconduct of senior underlings, of which he was blissfully ignorant. The idea that the senior officials of a governor of any state would judge it appropriate to resolve a disagreement with a mayor of a community within his state by inflicting terribly inconvenient traffic snarls on the residents of that community is shocking. These were the chosen collaborators of a man who came into office to clean up a state that has been misgoverned almost uninterruptedly since the single term of Woodrow Wilson as its governor ended in 1913.
Governor Christie did face down corrupt and overindulged public-service unions and, on his record, deserved to be reelected by a heavy majority, as he was. But he had also affronted the liberal sensibilities that usually prevail in New Jersey and that certainly are oppressively prevalent in the borough across the George Washington Bridge, to which access was restricted for the unoffending residents of Fort Lee, N.J. The governor’s entourage knew that their leader had a target on his back in the eyes of the liberal media who were everywhere about them and oozing through the doors and windows of the governor’s mansion in Trenton like green sludge. Any sane person would know what a shameful, abusive misuse of high office it would be to close down access to one of the busiest and most famous bridges in the world (and a magnificent bridge, on which a chauffeur in The Godfather executed a brilliant U-turn) to people living beside it and using it frequently for their livelihoods. They must have known how likely it would be that someone would reveal the fact.
Let us assume for a moment that the governor’s claims to have been completely ignorant of this initiative, so discordant to Madisonian and Wilsonian principles of good government, are absolutely true, and he deserves that presumption in the absence of stronger contrary evidence. It doesn’t speak flatteringly of his judgment that he employed such goons as close aides, and gave them the ability to dispose his authority arbitrarily. In denying any knowledge of these actions, the governor was not speaking under oath; he was just speaking to the press. But his opponents have the ability to require those who have been lumbered with responsibility for shutting access to the bridge from Fort Lee to testify under oath. Governor Christie was a U.S. attorney prior to his election as governor, and he knows better than almost anyone the arsenal of persuasive legalisms that are available to prosecutors and congressional and legislative committee counsels, to incentivize testimony damaging to the chief target in proceedings, starting with light treatment, moving on to immunity from charges of perjury, and ending with draconian penalties for failure to inculpate the target.
Former prosecutor Christie propelled himself into the governor’s chair by imposing these deformations of the plea-bargain process, which have made the American criminal-justice system the scandal and mockery that it is, in which 99.5 percent of prosecutions are successful, 97 percent without trial. It is much too early to speak of trials in this case, but there can be no doubt that the governor’s enemies, led by all the Democrats and joined by many of the Republicans, and encouraged by the energetic cheerleaders of the liberal media of New York City, local and national, will put such heat on the ostensible authors of this oppression of Fort Lee that they will be irresistibly encouraged by the familiar rites and foibles of American justice to suggest that their governor was more knowledgeable of this unconventional approach to interstate travel than he has admitted. If the almost unbroken experience of modern American jurisprudence, which has had few more ardent and successful practitioners than the governor in his previous occupation, is not suddenly to be consigned to the proverbial dustbin of history, they will soon be singing, like canaries flying backwards at three o’clock in the morning, that Governor Christie ordered the closing of access to the bridge. And they will rival each other in imputations to the governor of colorful orders to shut down access to the bridge from Fort Lee.
Chris Christie has been a good governor and may be innocent of any involvement in this episode, whose shabbiness is mitigated only by its absurdity, but it is a little hard to sympathize with a prosecutor who was so belligerent, so ruthlessly insouciant about the impact of his actions, so merciless in demanding that every suspect be convicted and over-sentenced. At least there is no suggestion of a crime (other than the sort of pseudo-crime that partisan prosecutors can confect out of self-righteous claptrap and a spurious interpretation of catchall criminal statutes). Christie will not be relying on the benignity of friends to avoid prosecution, as that monstrous and nastily mellifluent hypocrite Eliot Spitzer did. And there is nothing hypocritical about the Christie administration’s conduct in this matter: He is a hardball governor, and that was quite possibly what was required after Jon Corzine showed the dangers of throwing borrowed money at every category of claimant, with the profligate generosity of someone who came from modest, distant, rural circumstances to surf the wave of the velocity of Goldman Sachs’s deal-making. Easy come, easy go; a hardcore problem to be addressed by a tough guy.
At this point, there is no threat to Christie’s incumbency, but it is going to be very difficult for him to resuscitate himself as a front-running or adequately sympathetic presidential candidate. Tough guys are politically good, if they’re nice guys, like John Wayne or Clint Eastwood, or, best of all, equally tough and nice, like Ronald Reagan and even Dwight D. Eisenhower (the politician in a uniform, the five-star general in a golfing cap). If Christie can steer completely clear of this, he remains a viable candidate, but he is a beached whale before his enemies, who have only to intimidate or suborn one of the designated culprits with a mighty arsenal of sticks and carrots to turn on the governor to finish him as a presidential candidate, at least for 2016.
I object violently to guilt by association and insinuation, and it is a favorite practice of the American prosecution service. American prosecutors have an absolute immunity, after the infamous Thompson case — in which a man held 14 years on death row for a murder the prosecutors knew he did not commit (they withheld exculpatory evidence) was denied any legal recourse against his prosecutors. Lord Acton famously said that power corrupts and that absolute power corrupts absolutely. American prosecutors are as vulnerable as anyone to this phenomenon: Assisted by the immense proportion of trial judges who are ex-prosecutors and loyal alumni, psychologically, they operate a system that is profoundly corrupt, intellectually and professionally, if not financially (though there is inevitably some of that also). There is reason to doubt the fitness of any holder of the position of U.S. attorney for national office. The last presidential candidate with that background was Thomas E. Dewey, who made his name prosecuting organized-crime figures, and was a man of unquestionable integrity and judgment (and lost twice anyway).
Governor Christie does deserve the benefit of the doubt, but no one should underestimate the extent of the doubt generated by his previous occupation and his exercise of it. He got where he is precisely by the sort of conduct that shut the access of the people of Fort Lee to Manhattan. We are a long way from Tocqueville’s democracy, and some of Christie’s prominent backers for the White House in 2012 should have recognized the vagaries of the governor’s personality before the people of Fort Lee were forced by Christie’s entourage to accept that the contemporary Hudson River was as impassable as Bismarck’s Rhine.
— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, A Matter of Principle, and the recently published Flight of the Eagle: The Grand Strategies That Brought America from Colonial Dependence to World Leadership. He can be reached at [email protected].