The art of the great American political vendetta was born in New Jersey, just a short drive – barring heavy traffic – south of the George Washington Bridge. There, in the town of Weehawken, on a majestic cliff overlooking the Hudson River, the vice president of the United States, Aaron Burr, shot and killed his longtime political nemesis, the former secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, in 1804.
Burr blamed Hamilton for his loss in the New York gubernatorial election a few months earlier and decided it was time to extract revenge in the most direct way possible. Luckily, for members of today’s political class, political vendettas are decidedly less violent these days. But they seem no less passionate.
The scandal that has now overtaken New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has all the elements of an old-fashioned political vendetta — without firearms. The governor himself says he played no role in a reported plot to punish Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich for refusing to endorse his re-election campaign. But emails and text messages from the governor’s friends and his deputy chief of staff make it clear that they wished to extract political vengeance for this slight – and were willing to suffocate a city with traffic to do so.
The actions of Christie’s aides have been denounced as petty and thuggish. But another figure from New Jersey’s past would no doubt have been far less judgmental. Frank Hague was mayor of Jersey City, the state’s second-largest city, from 1917 to 1947. He ruled the city and surrounding Hudson County with an iron fist, once declaring, “I am the law.”
He wasn’t exaggerating. Critics and foes challenged Hague at their peril. Those who persisted found themselves on the wrong side of the law – Hague’s law.