How-are-the-mighty-fallen! dep’t: Bob McDonnell and the corruption that flows from inequality

The sad part about the McDonnell scandal is that the Governor of Virginia needed a Rolex as a status symbol.

I won’t pretend to be sad about the indictment of former VA Governor Bob McDonnell on corruption charges. If I have any compassion to spare, I’ll use it on the children of poor families in Virginia denied medical coverage by McDonnell’s refusal to accept Federal money to expand Medicaid. I hope McDonnell and Chris Christie share a prison cell and come out dedicated advocates for correctional reform.

But there’s one deeply, deeply twisted element to the story that ought to worry all of us. McDonnell was the Governor of Virginia, the successor of Jefferson. And he wanted a Rolex watch.

Now, I can understand a salesman who wants a Rolex to show that he’s a successful salesman. Money is how salespeople keep score, and without expensive wristwatches and suchlike how is anyone going to be able to tell a successful salesman from a wannabee? But if you’re the #$!@ing Governor of Virginia, what on earth do you need a Rolex for? As a status symbol? Isn’t t he title “Governor” pretty good status indicator?

One of the many problems that flows from increasing inequality of income and wealth is that the standards of the rich become the ruling standards. Mrs. McDonnell obviously felt that she would be disgraced if she appeared at her husband’s inaugural ball in the sort of dress an honest public servant’s wife could afford, when all the fundraisers’ wives – to say nothing of the female fundraisers – would be wearing a large fraction of the median annual household income. Does that excuse her committing extortion to get an Oscar de la Renta dress? Of course not. But it testifies to a corruption of manners that goes far deeper than corruption in office.

The extreme wealth of the rich is as great a public menace as the poverty of the poor, and great wealth is a greater problem than high income. Some of the way that money is made is destructive, and much of the way it is spent is even more destructive.

It would help if, at official functions such as inaugurations, our elected leaders and their families discouraged conspicuous waste among their guests and refrained from it themselves.

My $15 wristwatch from Target keeps excellent time, and – to my eye – looks pretty damned elegant.


But if I were a surgeon or an investment banker, I couldn’t afford to wear it. That, I submit, is a problem. And one part of the solution is for the President of the United States to wear, and let it be known that he wears, a cheap wristwatch. Not as important as restoring the estate tax, of course, but it’s a start, and it could be done tomorrow.

Update Lots of interesting ideas in comments. It’s certainly right that inequality increases the means of bribors as well as the vulnerability of bribees, but that’s a different point. It’s certainly wrong that status anxiety is simply “envy and spite,” though it might easily be a cause of envy and spite.

The most important point raised in commments that was missed in the original post is that one’s perceived need for display wealth depends strongly on one’s social group. If you hang out with rich folks, you look bad if you don’t have rich folks’ sort of stuff. The dominance of money in politics requires politicians to hang out with rich folks; otherwise they lose the “money primary” that filters the candidates in every election.

To apply this to my own case: If I were (which God forfend!) a dean rather than a professor, it would be professional malpractice for me not to drive a more expensive car and not to wear fancier clothes. And I doubt it would take long for my tastes to adjust to my behavior, to the point where I would feel ill-dressed in what I now regard as my go-to-meeting getup.

Yes, some people have tougher moral fiber than others: that’s a personal characteristic. How much strain is put on that fiber is a social question. Our current system increases the strain. That doesn’t keep me from disapproving of the McDonnells, but it does lead me to ask what we could do to decrease the pressures they felt and the pressures others similarly placed feel. That’s one reason the Clinton Global Foundation, for all its good works, creeps me out.

Journalism v. hackery

Is there anyone now saying that Christie might be innocent who wasn’t predicting a Romney win in Oct. 2012?

Steve Kornacki is a reporter.

Jennifer Rubin is a partisan hack. So is Stuart Rothenberg. So is Ruben Navarette. And of course Rich Lowry.

Query: Is there anyone telling us now that Christie is, or might be, innocent who wasn’t telling us in October 2012 that Mitt Romney was going to win or that the election was “too close to call”?

J. Edgar Hoover and the WASPocracy

The WASP aristocracy Joseph Epstein wants us to be nostalgic for never had the nerve to take on the FBI.

I’m chortling over the revelation that the mastermind of the group that burglarized the FBI office in Media, PA in 1971, stealing the documents that revealed the existence of COINTELPRO, was the late William Davidon, a Haverford professor of mathematical physics. I wasn’t close to Davidon, and I’m a little surprised that he had the capacity to organize and lead such an operation. I recall that there was some attempt to implicate him in supposed plot to kidnap Henry Kissinger, and at the time I thought it much more likely that Kissinger would have been involved in a plot to kidnap Davidon.
Continue reading “J. Edgar Hoover and the WASPocracy”

Twitter as political haiku: Christie presser

Greatest Tweets from the Christie presser. E.g.: Governor throws aide under bus. Bus stuck in bridge traffic.

Yes, the 140-character limit in Twitter can encourage superficiality. But Raw Story has a compilation of Tweets after this morning’s bout of histrionics, and some of them are pretty great. My favorites (lightly edited):

Steve Martin:

Governor throws aide under bus. Bus stuck in bridge traffic.

Bruce Arthur:

I do hope Chris Christie spends the rest of his life searching for the real traffic study.

Ben Jacobs:

If it’s a legitimate traffic study, the female body finds a way to shut the whole thing down.

Michael E. Cohen:

What do you call someone who dies because of a politically-inspired traffic jam? A “corpus Christie.”


Christie’s tangled web

Good performance. But it won’t wash.

Compare these two passages from Chris Christie’s cornered-rat press conference:

(1) Well, let me tell you, everybody, I was blindsided yesterday morning. I was done with my workout yesterday morning and got a call from my communications director at about 8:50, 8:55, informing me of this story that had just broken on the Bergen Record website. That was the first time I knew about this. That was the first time I had seen any of the documents that were revealed yesterday.

(2) And what does it make me ask about me? It makes me ask about me what did I do wrong to have these folks think it was OK to lie to me? And there’s a lot of soul-searching that goes around with this. You know, when you’re a leader of an organization — and I’ve had this happen to me before, where I’ve had folks not tell me the truth about something — not since I’ve been governor but in previous leadership positions — you always wonder about what you could do differently. And believe me, John (sp), I haven’t had a lot of sleep the last two nights, and I’ve been doing a lot of soul-searching. I’m sick over this. I’ve worked for the last 12 years in public life developing a reputation for honesty and directness and blunt talk, one that I think is well-deserved. But, you know, when something like this happens, it’s appropriate for you to question yourself, and certainly I am. And I am soul-searching on this.

[emphasis added]

Last time I counted, between “yesterday morning” and “now” there is only one night. What was keeping the Governor awake the night before he was given the bad news? Prescience?

Mike O’Hare notes below that Christie’s account of why he fired Bridget Anne Kelly suggests a certain lack of proportion: lying to him counts for more than putting citizens’ lives in danger. He also notes that Christie’s failure to talk to his staff to see if their stories matched was slightly odd behavior for someone with experience in conducting investigations.

But if that was slightly odd, how bizarre is this?

I have not had any conversation with Bridget Kelly since the email came out. And so she was not given the opportunity to explain to me why she lied because it was so obvious that she had. And I’m, quite frankly, not interested in the explanation at the moment.

Huh? Chris Christie, former prosecutor, wants to know what’s going on, but he’s so offended by having been lied to that he doesn’t call Kelly on the carpet and say, “OK, Bridget. You screwed up big time. Your job is on the line. Who the $#%* told you to pull this stupid %$#*ing stunt? Tell me the truth, tell me all the truth, tell me the truth right now, or you’re dead to me from this minute.” Srsly? Either he didn’t want to know what she would tell him, or he knew already and didn’t want to hear it.

And of course the same is true about Wildstein and Baroni. In working out their resignations, and before vouching for their innocence, did Christie really never ask them, “Who was behind this?” You can only disbelieve your suspenders for so long.

Christie gave (judging from the transcript) a great performance. But it just won’t wash. He has known for a month that the Executive Director of the Port Authority didn’t believe the “traffic study” story and considered the lane closure outrageous and probably criminal, and that Baroni, Christie’s $291,00o-a-year patronage appointee at the Port Authority, responded by saying “There can be no public discourse”: i.e., “We need to cover this up.” So Christie’s pretense that he only learned about the falsity of that fairytale this week is laughable.

Footnote Note to cynical political journalists:  Ordinary Americans are actually not OK with the blatant abuse of power. People in the heartland hate traffic jams as much as bicoastals do. And that old lady is still dead.


Christie lied. An old lady died.

Yes, there was a heart attack victim whose trip to the hospital was delayed by Chris Christie’s gridlock. She didn’t make it.

Turns out my earlier plea for someone to invest some shoe leather into finding people who were seriously damaged by Conegate has been answered.

Emergency responders were delayed in attending to four medical situations – including one in which a 91-year-old woman lay unconscious – due to traffic gridlock caused by unannounced closures of access lanes to the George Washington Bridge, according to the head of the borough’s EMS department. The woman later died, borough records show.

No, of course we can’t be sure she would have survived had she received prompt attention. But now that we know that the gridlock that caused the delay was deliberately caused as an act of political retribution, it seems to me that criminal charges would be fully justified, starting with reckless endangerment. (How is slowing emergency response time different from shooting a gun in the air? In each case, there’s a reckless risk that someone will be hurt or killed.)

And of course once the criminal charges start coming in, one of Christie’s cronies is going to finger him. He wasn’t stupid enough to send any emails, but they weren’t stupid enough to do this without his implicit approval.

As for Christie for President 2016, the technical term is “toast.”


“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee”

Tell me, Gov. Soprano: Is it wrong that I am smiling?

That was an email from Bridget Anne Kelly, Deputy Chief of Staff in Chris Christie’s office, to David Wildstein, Christie’s Port Authority patronage appointee, two weeks before Wildstein gridlocked Ft. Lee traffic for the first four days of the school year by shutting down two of the three access lanes from Ft. Lee to the George Washington Bridge.

Perhaps the most chilling exchange in the trove of emails someone handed to reporters is this one:

Wildstein: Is it wrong that I am smiling?

Kelly: No

W: I feel badly about the kids

K: They are the children of Buono voters

So tell me, Gov. Soprano: Is it wrong that I am smiling now?

Footnote My friend Stuart Levine emails: “The Republican field for 2016 just got materially lighter.”

Update More here, implicating more Christie cronies. Probability the Gov was out of the loop: epsilon. Both the Times nor the Bergen Record conceal the provenance of the emails behind the Mysterious Passive Voice: the records were “obtained by” both outlets, apparently immaculately. Anyone know the back-story here? [Updated update Apprently this is Wildstein’s redacted version of records he produced under subpoena.]

Second update As far as Memeorandum can find, there doesn’t seem to be anyone standing up for Christie. And the usual collection of “It’s-all-liberal-nonsense-and-what-about-Benghazi” comment trolls seems to be on vacation. (Maybe that’s because most of the trolls are Teahadis who hate Christie almost as much as they hate Obama.)

Christie’s henchmen lawyer up

Will Wildstein or Baroni “cooperate” with the government against Chris Christie?

The Chris Christie/Ft. Lee/George Washington Bridge lane closure scandal is now moving a warp speed. Now we’ve taken what may be the fatal next step, from “overblown,” “mistakes were made,” and “turning the page” – all markers of a simple scandal – to the point where the people directly implicated decide whether to save their own skins by selling out their bosses.

The Wall Street Journal reports that both David Wildstein and Bill Baroni have now “lawyered up.” If you’re Christie, that’s bad. The Journal also reports that they’ve both hired criminal defense lawyers. If you’re Christie, that’s worse.

Wildstein’s lawyer’s previous clients include Sharpe James, the appallingly corrupt Mayor of Newark replaced by Cory Booker; James wound up spending 18 months in a federal penitentiary. If you’re Christie, that’s just awful; Wildstein didn’t hire a top corruption-defense lawyer just to advise him on how to respond to subpoenas. He clearly thinks he’s in deep doo-doo, and probably in deep Federal doo-doo at that.

But the worst news – if you’re Christie – is that Baroni’s lawyer is a former Assistrant U.S. Attorney in New Jersey named Michael Himmel.

In 2009, Mr. Himmel also represented Solomon Dwek, a former real estate investor who pleaded guilty to bank fraud and money laundering charges. Mr. Dwek became an FBI informant in a case brought by Mr. Christie that implicated dozens of elected officials in a widespread corruption investigation.

So not only does Baroni think he needs serious criminal defense, he’s hired someone with a history of making deals in which his client gets a break in return for implicating everyone else in sight. (The technical term is “cooperation.”) And the only person above Baroni in the pecking order – the only one Baroni can hope to save himself by snitching on – is Gov. Soprano himself.

Now, it’s possible I’m being too optimistic about this. Perhaps Himmel is a Christie loyalist, who will be working to protect his ex-boss as well as his nominal client. But on the surface, this looks about as bad for Christie – which is to say, about as good for the future of the American Republic – as it possibly could.


Journalistic query: Who got hurt in Ft. Lee?

Who got hurt when Chris Christie decided to gridlock Ft. Lee as political payback?

When a politician calls a scandal involving himself “sensationalized,” you know he’s in deep yoghurt. When he says “mistakes were made,” the passive voice is a tell for near-panic. When he starts firing subordinates, that means he knows he’s near the edge of the cliff. And when he says he wants to “turn the page,” it’s a good bet the story is far from over.

The New York Times story on the Chris Christie/Ft. Lee gridlock story includes all four of those markers of a major affair in the making.

[For those of you joining us late, the background is that the Mayor of Ft. Lee, NJ, a Democrat refused to endorse Gov. Soprano for re-election, and suddenly, without warning, two of the three lanes on the on-ramp from Ft. Lee to the George Washington Bridge were closed during the first four days of school in September, gridlocking the city for four days. Fortnately, the mayor doesn’t seem to own a horse. See the scorching email from the Executive Director of the Port Authority to his subordinates unearthed by the Wall Street Journal.]

The punchline is that the Governor wants to know whether Ft. Lee should permanently lose access to the bridge, which seems to be a not-too-subtle way of telling Ft. Lee officials that even worse things could happen to them if they get too friendly with investigators.

What the story lacks so far is the voices of the victims. You can’t tie up traffic for four days in a town of 35,000 people without someone getting really and truly hosed. It’s not very likely that anyone actually died in an ambulance, or waiting for one (the death rate in a town that size is somewhere short of one per day), but I strongly suspect that there was more dramatic harm than kids being late for school and parents late for work. If I were running a journalist enterprise – or the DNC – I’d want to put a bunch of effort into shoe-leather reporting.

If you’re wondering how much damage this sort of story, properly exploited, can do to a national candidate, ask President Dukakis about Willie Horton, or the water quality in Boston Harbor.

Footnote The backstory about the first Port Authority official to resign is that he’s an old friend of the Governor’s who ran an anonymous political blog back when Christie was U.S. Attorney. The blog was, the Times reports, “noted for scoops from the United States attorney’s office.” I wonder whether the Inspector General of the Justice Department, or the Office of Professional Responsibility, has scanned those “scoops” for violations of Rule 6(e), which forbids the release of grand jury information?

Yes, Chris Christie is a thug

Chris Christie and the Ft. Lee lane closing: looks like a Soprano, sounds like a Soprano, acts like a Soprano. Lies about it.

Looks like Tony Soprano, sounds like Tony Soprano, acts like Tony Soprano.

When the Mayor of Fort Lee refused to endorse him for re-election, Christie had his henchman in the Port Authority close the on-ramp from Ft. Lee to the George Washington Bridge. Then he and his buddies lied about it.

If you think about it, that’s much nastier than garden-variety corruption of the kind Christie engage in as United States Attorney, when he used deferred prosecution agreements to funnel money from corporate lawbreakers to his buddies – including another prosecutor who had declined to indict Christie’s brother – in return for not pressing criminal charges.

Christie as the GOP nominee for 2016? Bring it on!