Opinion writer December 16, 2013

On Sept. 9, access lanes to the George Washington Bridge from New Jersey to New York were suddenly closed. No warning was given — nothing posted days before or announced on the radio. Traffic backed up to the outskirts of Omaha (an approximation), reasonable people went mad, children were appropriately traumatized and the residents of Fort Lee, the New Jersey town at the western end of the bridge, got the gift of air pollution of the type that will, studies have shown, strike them down in later years as they venture out for the Early Bird Special. Their last words, you can be almost certain, will be, “Damn you, Chris Christie.”

The New Jersey governor has asserted that he had nothing to do with the totally capricious lane closings. As for his aides who instigated the mayhem, they insisted they were not — as alleged — getting even with the mayor of Fort Lee, the Democrat Mark Sokolich, who had failed to endorse the Republican Christie’s reelection, as some 60 other Democratic officials had prudently done. They said the lane closings — which lasted four days — were imposed to conduct a traffic study that, oddly enough, no one knows anything about and, furthermore, cannot find. It might prove that if you close lanes, traffic will back up.

Richard Cohen writes a weekly political column for The Washington Post. View Archive

The bridge is run by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. The governors of both states make the necessary appointments. (It’s not entirely inconceivable that New York’s Andrew Cuomo will wind up facing Christie somewhere down the road.) Inside the authority, Christie’s guys were widely viewed as his political operatives. One of them was David Wildstein, the governor’s friend since high school and former mayor of their home town of Livingston, N.J. The governor parked Wildstein at the authority at $150,000 per year and apparently gave him a year’s supply of traffic cones.

Another Christie friend and political ally, Bill Baroni, was also placed at the authority. He is a former state senator and was given a salary of $290,000. In the wake of the lane closings, both he and Wildstein have resigned, apparently hoping to end the matter. But New Jersey Democrats, a creative bunch, have come to call the affair “Bridgegate” and, armed with subpoena power in the legislature, are determined — for strictly good-government reasons — to get to the bottom of this.

The suffix “-gate” has been much abused since 1972 when, in the dead of night, Republican operatives, in gloved hands, merely sought to find the truth at the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters. For instance, “-gate” was misapplied to the recent IRS scandal, which, a good deal of GOP hyperventilating notwithstanding, has gone nowhere. That’s because “-gate” implies that the scandal will lead to the top, as it eventually did with Richard Nixon. Few outside the House Republican caucus thought that Barack Obama had anything to do with inappropriate IRS investigations. In contrast, no one would put Bridgegate past Christie’s guys.

The governor has learned from history. Rather than wait for the legislature to lay a path of subpoenas to his door in Trenton and let the story build and build like Ravel’s “Bolero,” his aides swiftly resigned, even though it’s a hard market out there for gridlock-makers. Still, the damage has been done. Christie’s all-but-declared presidential campaign has taken a hit. His Joisey bona fides — a certain swagger and cocksureness — have been highlighted. (No one would cast Jimmy Stewart for this role.) Christie is a man of rare political ability, but he has a short temper and the affect of a bully. Worse, he unaccountably lacks affection for the media and sometimes shows it. Lots of politicians play hardball. Christie plays beanball.

Still, he would not be so reckless as to clog up a bridge but his aides — as in the mother of all gates — might be a different story. The facts remain that the lanes were indeed closed, no credible reason has been given and two Christie appointees left high-paying patronage posts for which their chief qualification apparently was friendship with the governor. This does not look good. It is, to say the least, not presidential.

The toll for the George Washington Bridge during peak hours is $11 for cars with an E-ZPass, but certain types of large trucks can pay as much as $84. That’s high, but it’s nothing compared to the toll Christie may pay for the lane closings. The traffic jam could keep him in New Jersey.

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