"Never write if you can speak, never speak if you can nod, never nod if you can wink." That was how Martin Lomasney, a Boston street gang leader turned political boss, explained the importance of discretion to new politicians. Lomasney's talent for secrecy kept him out of prison despite his fondness for voter fraud, and let him prosper in the rough and tumble politics of early 20th century Boston.
Lomasney's maxim could have saved Governor Chris Christie a major headache over the politically-motivated lane closings on the George Washington Bridge. The closings were ostensibly for maintenance and caused long traffic jams for morning commuters. When Christie was accused of closing the lanes as payback against a Democratic mayor who endorsed Barbara Buono, Christie's opponent in the recent gubernatorial election, he denied it with characteristic outrage.
Democrats shed crocodile tears for the traffic-stricken commuters and vowed, with equal outrage, to get to the bottom of Christie's dirty tricks. They've received a gift from Christie's staff, who, like a teenager who brags about using drugs on Facebook, thought their communications would forever remain private. "Time for some traffic problems," was how Bridget Kelly, one of Christie's deputy chiefs of staff, put it in an email to a director for New York and New Jersey Port Authority. When one of Christie's aides was concerned about the children who were stuck in traffic on their way to school, another aide reminded him "they are children of Buono voters."
Luckily for Christie, few voters are paying attention to politics this far away from a national election, so the bridge-closing won't hurt his all-but-certain 2016 political campaign if Christie blames and fires some staffers, expresses outrage by their actions, and comes up with a credible sound bite to explain why he wasn't at fault.
The real scandal isn't the political maneuvering, but how badly it was carried out. Being a skilled political fighter is part of being a successful president. America's government isn't a technocratic utopia where high-minded experts get together and make rational decisions with only the public interest in mind. Instead, the government is made up of over 500 Congressmen and countless special interest groups who are concerned as much, if not more, with their own ambitions than the public good.
A successful president knows that sharp political elbows are required to get his legislative programs passed into law. Lyndon Johnson didn't pass civil rights legislation just through flattery and Southern charm. He also threatened recalcitrant legislators, threats which Congressmen knew he would carry out if they disobeyed, since he had a long history of ruining his political enemies through any means necessary.
Ever since the gross excesses of the Nixon administration, the American people have had little tolerance for aggressive political tactics, but such tactics have not become any less necessary. Instead, politicians need to hide the nastier part of their job behind a mask of public spiritedness. This was where Christie failed. It's unknown how much, if at all, he was personally involved with the lane closure, but that doesn't really matter. He chose aides who wrote when they could have winked, and if Christie and his people can't improve their performance, the next scandal will break when America is paying attention.