Bridge Scandal Destroys Christie's 'Nice Jerk' Image

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in Union City, New Jersey on Jan. 7 Photograph by Mel Evans/AP Photo

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s strength as a politician has always been his bombast and temper. He rose to national prominence when videos of him berating those who dared challenge him at town hall meetings went viral on YouTube. He holds a powerful visceral appeal among Republicans obsessed with the standard litany of right-wing talk-radio bogeymen: union bosses, elitist college professors, entitled minorities, and namby-pamby liberals of every other stripe. Christie’s appeal is that he puts them firmly in their place, verbally smacking them down in a manner that most of his admirers would attempt only under a veil of anonymity in the comments section of a blog post. He’s a big, loud jerk—but he’s a nice jerk, and he’s on your side. That was Christie’s political appeal, until today.

This style always carried political risk. Berating women to their faces may not faze disgruntled talk-radio types, but it’s potentially off-putting to ordinary voters—especially the independents and Democrats whose support Christie had to attract to thrive in blue-state New Jersey (and whom he’ll presumably have to count on in open presidential primary states, such as New Hampshire). So in recent years, Christie had worked hard to soften his image, to telegraph that his bluntness and outspokenness were offered on behalf of voters, and to reassure everyone that he wasn’t a big, mean jerk. He was greatly aided in this project by his response to Hurricane Sandy, his highly public empathy for its victims, and his praise of President Obama in the closing days of the 2012 campaign.

That’s why this morning’s explosive news linking Christie to a New Jersey bridge-closing scandal is so damaging. According to e-mails released under a Freedom of Information Act request by the Bergen Record and just now published, Christie’s top deputies shut down lanes on the George Washington Bridge to retaliate against the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee who had declined to endorse Christie’s reelection bid.

“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Bridget Anne Kelly, one of Christie’s deputies, wrote to David Wildstein, a top Christie appointee at the Port Authority, on Aug. 14. “Got it,” was his reply. (You can view all the e-mails here.) What resulted was a week of traffic jams that held up emergency vehicles, buses filled with school children, and thousands of innocent commuters.
It gets worse. Somebody—the name is redacted, leaving it open to guessing—responded to the resulting mess with what is, shall we say, unpresidential glee:

“Is it wrong that I’m smiling,” the recipient of the text message responded to Wildstein. The person’s identity is not clear because the documents are partially redacted for unknown reasons.

“No,” Wildstein wrote in response.

“I feel badly about the kids,” the person replied to Wildstein. “I guess.”

“They are the children of Buono voters,” Wildstein wrote.

Until today, Christie had treated the bridge-closing scandal as a joke. Not anymore. As the Record puts it:

“The documents obtained by The Record raise serious doubts about months of claims by the Christie administration that the September closures of local access lanes to the George Washington Bridge were part of a traffic study initiated solely by the Port Authority. Instead, they show that one of the governor’s top aides was deeply involved in the decision to choke off the borough’s access to the bridge, and they provide the strongest indication yet that it was part of a politically motivated vendetta—a notion that Christie has publicly denied.”

What’s so damaging to Christie about these revelations is that they expose him and his brain trust as breathtakingly venal and vindictive. Respectable politicians don’t block ambulances to retaliate at political opponents (in the parlance of right-wing talk-radio hosts, that’s called “bare-knuckle Chicago politics” and is practiced only by Democrats). The messages also shatter Christie’s carefully constructed image as a “nice” jerk fighting for the little guy. They show that he is, in fact, an entirely different kind of jerk, and that the little guy can go to hell.

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