Two big cable news brouhahas yesterday — the Christie Bridgegate and the Gates memoir — offer opportunities to see the shallowness of the press corps in action, with a few bright spots dramatically in relief.
On the Christie matter, most commentary has stayed on the surface and has barely asked why Christie was not as upset about the skullduggery as being lied to and why he and his administration and appointees in the Port Authority seemed unconcerned with massive tie-ups in Ft Lee in the first place. But the main question that hasn’t made sense is what was the game in deliberately snarling the traffic in Ft. Lee. As Gov. Christie and the Ft. Lee Mayor both noted in the last day, the proportionality of this didn’t make much sense. Perhaps it was intended to warn other NJ politicians to stay in line? Was this about creating a reputation for willingness to retaliate all out of proportion, as deterrence theorists going back to Henry Kissinger and Tom Schelling have at times recommended? Rachel Maddow, who has been the primary voice raising Bridgegate to national attention, last night on her show raised the interesting possibility that the Ft. Lee retaliation had nothing to do with the Mayor’s endorsement, but instead based on Supreme Court reappointment politics in New Jersey — the background is that when he took office, Gov. Christie took the unprecedented action of refusing to reappoint a sitting Supreme Court Justice — who was the only African-American member of the court and who had been originally appointed by a Democrat. Senate Democrats refused to confirm any other appointees for that seat and seemed poised to refuse to confirm the reappointment of a Republican woman Justice who is married to a senior member of Christie’s administration. On the afternoon of August 12, an angry Christie announced that he was pulling the nomination so that this Justice would not have her reputation besmirched by what he called the “animals” in the state senate— early the next morning the now-fired Deputy Chief of Staff sent the email “time for traffic problems in Ft. Lee.” Maddow’s suggested connection other than the timing? Loretta Weinberg, the leader of the Democrats in the State Senate, represents Ft. Lee.
Kudos to Maddow and her team for the spadework in developing this connection as well as insisting on keeping a national focus on this story between September and now.
On the Gates memoir, it’s best to withhold judgment until one has read it — however one major theme has been reporting taking Gates’s excoriation of Joe Biden at face value without any of the background between the two men. Apart from a smart note by a Washington Post blogger — saying essentially that it’s a little rich for Gates to say Biden has gotten everything wrong since Gates was wrong about the biggest issue (Gorbachev’s reforms and the evolution of the Soviet Union) that he ever faced — there has been little questioning of the source and none of his motivation. According to one person who has read the book, Gates sprinkles snarky references Biden throughout the memoir. This is less surprising once one remembers that then Senator Biden opposed Mr. Gates confirmation to the CIA Director role in 1991, and that as a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in the 1980’s Senator Biden was very critical of the CIA’s role in Iran Contra, and that President Reagan had to back down in nominating Gates for CIA director in 1987. But other than some vague references to Gates having been a Republican there is no mention of any of this history among the commentariat.
More broadly, the Christie and Gates stories are connected by the proper role of a Chief Executive in relation to staff and of Executive staff in relation to line agencies. According to press coverage, Gates seems to take umbrage at both WH staff and Presidential questioning of military advice and seems to prefer the George W. Bush style of unquestioning non-interference to the Obama style of deliberative intensity and insistence on civilian control. In the Christie matter the core of what needs to be unravelled is the Chief Executive’s responsibility –whether by actual knowledge or by setting a tone — for malicious politically-motivated interference with the processes of a line agency (in this case the Port Authority).