Although the story seems nuttier every day -- just imagine, the very idea of closing lanes on the George Washington Bridge to retaliate against a local politician -- just how much "legs" the Governor Chris Christie story will have depends on email or texts, pure and simple. And whether Christie is a bully or not (as he proclaims), it looks like he will survive, at least as Governor, to face another day because if Christie was involved (and, as of this writing, there is no evidence of that), it appears he was smart enough not to have left his fingerprints on the back and forth. No emails or texts to or from him. Period. At least, none so far.
Yes, Christie will certainly have to deal with the reality that, rightly or wrongly, he is perceived by many as vindictive -- a politician who promoted a culture that might have led his underlings to believe that he would tolerate a retaliatory political act as long as his Administration didn't get caught (as it did here). But probably no one will be able to point a finger at a digital (or any other) document that says that the lane closings were Christie's idea, or that he even knew about it.
Simply put, Christie will likely have "digital deniability" -- even if an aide's email comes forth, as it certainly might, saying something like, "I spoke to 'the Big Guy,' and he's on board." As the late, legendarily corrupt mayor of Boston during the turn of the last century, James Michael Curley, famously said (and not suggesting that Christie is corrupt): "Never write if you can speak; never speak if you can nod; never nod if you can wink." Yet, despite his ethos, Curley, remarkably, went to jail twice! One can just imagine what Curley's advice would be to today's politicians about their almost blind dependence -- virtual dependence? -- on communicating digitally.
The "Bridgegate" story, after all, is simply a microcosm for all politicians, all public figures, all corporate figures -- indeed, everyone. And it's true, to be sure, that the culture now clings to digital communication in an irreversible way. More cautious public figures might follow Curley's principles when giving, shall we say, "questionable" direction -- pick up the phone (perhaps not as safe as it once was) or meet in person. Still, it would be virtually impossible for Christie, or anyone, to instruct a vast number of subordinates to refrain from emailing or texting in doing business, whether or not that "business" sits on the borderline of what one might not like to see the light of day. But when one listens to the news, or watches the "comedic"-news (Stewart or Colbert), one wonders, daily: "How can someone be so stupid as to commit that to writing (by email or text)?" And yet, such stories surface almost hourly.
The truth is that we can't stop emailing and texting, blind to the reality that once it is written, it can't be denied. The practice is too ingrained, except for old timers borne of a different code of conduct. And few politicians today are smart enough, or perhaps disciplined enough, to keep their typing digits in their holsters when matters of moment need to be discussed. All of us -- we need to work with the assumption that any email or text that we write might end up virally on the front page (and digital front page) of The New York Times (or even the Bergen Record, for that matter), to ultimately be seen by all the world.
Most of us, to be sure, needn't worry about the newspapers writing about our misfeasance, malfeasance or plain stupidity. Still, do we want anyone other than the recipient, and maybe not even the recipient, to read the kind of stuff we might be moved to email or text without thinking long enough and hard enough to conclude that common sense and judgment suggests aborting the email before it appears on the world stage?
These last years have brought us many cautionary tales: Eliot Spitzer, Anthony Weiner, David Petraeus and Mark Foley -- to name a few. The emails and texts published destroyed careers; yet apparently, they did not do the job. "Bridgegate," maybe, will be the teachable moment for email or texting abstinence. We're not saying here that we want public officials or anyone to skate by simply employing a Mayor Curley protocol. Nor are we saying that people can or should act badly, but rather that they should be smart enough to do it without the digital trail. While public officials make many totally lawful and ethical decisions, the complicated thought processes in the back and forth before they are reached are often best not reduced to writing.
But more broadly, shouldn't all of us stop and think before we hit "send"?