Opinion

The Great Debate

Christie: The scandal of hubris

The scandal involving New Jersey Republican Governor Chris Christie, whose aides virtually shut down Fort Lee by throttling its access to the George Washington Bridge into New York City, reportedly to punish the city’s mayor for not endorsing their boss, is so classic that you could put it in a textbook on how a politician can make a developing political scandal much, much worse.

The model goes like this: aides to a governor, a rising political star, are looking to hurt the governor’s enemy. They engage in behavior that is definitely low, likely illegal, and possibly criminal. People start pointing fingers in the direction of the State House.  The governor ridicules the critics. But the state legislature, controlled by the opposing party, launches an investigation and subpoenas high officials. The testimony is embarrassing. Key gubernatorial appointees quit suddenly, one labeling the evolving scandal a “distraction.”  Then — inevitably, it seems — a smoking gun surfaces.

The governor apologizes. He fires someone. But people accuse him of painting himself as a victim instead of taking full frontal responsibility for the mess. Debate begins on whether his political future is toast — nay, on whether he should step down from office.

This is both the generic description of a modern political scandal and a strikingly specific account of what happened to Christie. He wanted New Jersey’s Democratic elected officials to endorse his re-election bid in order to create a display of bipartisan appeal for the benefit of his fellow Republicans. The Democratic mayor of Fort Lee declined to accommodate.

Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie’s deputy chief of staff, contributed an e-mail that will certainly become part of the vocabulary of all scandal mavens: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”  Lanes were closed on the Fort Lee access to the bridge.  Traffic problems, predictably, ensued.

D.C. scandals: They had Nixon ‘to kick around’

President Richard Nixon at a White House press conference during the Watergate scandal. REUTERS/Courtesy Nixon Library

The profusion of scandals bedeviling the Obama administration has evoked many comparisons with other presidencies — particularly Richard M. Nixon. There is no evidence, however, of serious skulduggery by White House officials or members of the re-election campaign, as in the Nixon administration. More important, America’s over-excited and enticed puritanical conscience has not been mobilized to impute what Kafka called “nameless crimes” to the president as there was with Nixon.

There seems no national desire to tear President Barack Obama down. Not like with Nixon, who faced an atavistic desire to destroy a distinguished administration and scuttle its entire effort in Vietnam, in which 57,000 Americans died and hundreds of thousands were wounded. A near unanimity of national media has not suddenly formed to crucify (bloodlessly but no less effectively) the leader of the country, nor is there any pandemic of the tribal conviction that “the king must die.” These were distinctive characteristics of the Watergate and Vietnam crises.

America noir: The biggest ‘gate’ of all

ILLUSTRATION: Matt Mahurin

It is scandal time again in Washington, with a triple-header to boot – Benghazi-gate, IRS-gate and AP-gate. The “gate” being the obligatory suffix ever since the biggest “gate” of them all: Watergate. How do they rate? Well, Carl Bernstein, the reporter who helped break the Watergate story, has gone so far as to compare AP-gate to the transgressions of President Richard M. Nixon.

But no matter how much the media may froth over them, none of these scandals has the heft, the cultural, political and social weight of Watergate. These are all skirmishes in an age of “gotcha” polarization. Watergate was no skirmish, even if some Republicans at the time and even today characterize it as such. It was a vast, complex metaphor for a country in extremis – which is why it still dwarfs every other aspiring “gate.”

Metaphors function much like art, and you might consider Watergate not as a scandal but as a gigantic movie. Not just any movie blockbuster, either, but as America’s epic noir. Film noir was a genre that began in the late 1940s, when America was forced to confront the darkness within itself after World War II. “Film noir” translates into  “black film, and the noir movies of the time were literally and figuratively dark. They involved corruption, deceit, amorality and the potential rot of the American soul – capturing the anxiety of the Cold War era.

Party opinion usurps public opinion

We are witnessing the slow death of public opinion in this country.  It’s being displaced by party opinion.

These days, more and more Americans are inclined to judge issues from a partisan viewpoint.  In March, according to a Pew Research Center survey, twice as many Republicans (53 percent) as Democrats (27 percent) said the economy was poor.  Yet, from everything we know, Republicans are not suffering more economic deprivation than Democrats.

Elections today are less and less about persuasion and more and more about mobilization: You rally your supporters in order to beat back your opponents.  Republicans did that in 2004, when President George W. Bush got re-elected with 51 percent of the vote. Democrats did that in 2012, when President Barack Obama got re-elected with 51 percent of the vote.

Watergate: Are we there yet?

President Barack Obama at a news conference in the White House press briefing room in Washington, March 6, 2012. REUTERS/Jason Reed

O.K., you know the one about the old guys sitting in the diner:

“When I was a boy, I had to walk five miles to school in the snow.”

“Snow?  I had to walk five miles in the snow with just newspapers on my feet.”

“Feet?  You had feet?”

That’s what it feels like when you lived through Watergate and the scandal decades that followed it. I was in Washington — sentient, glued to the tube, writing about it all. And Leonard Garment, my husband and the special counsel to President Richard M. Nixon, was often the one in the center of the press mob, looking as if he wasn’t going to escape with his life. Then you read last weekend’s news reports about scandal politics “sweeping Washington.” Come on, people. Get a grip.

from For the Record:

Oscar special: Journalists on film

dean-150Dean Wright is Global Editor, Ethics, Innovation and News Standards. Any opinions are his own.

It’s Oscar time, and I’m again reminded of the debt Hollywood and journalists owe each other. Journalists supply Hollywood with great stories and Hollywood sometimes makes us look cool—or at least worth a couple of hours of time and the price of a ticket.

Put aside the fact that a number of Hollywood movies literally are made from the pages of journalism --“Saturday Night Fever,” “Dog Day Afternoon” and “Adaptation,” to name only a few, were all based on magazine stories. We journalists are also the very characters that Hollywood screenwriters sometimes love.

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