Bluto for President?
by Thomas Adcock
Copyright © 2014 – Thomas Adcock
NEW YORK, near New Jersey
Christopher James Christie, the bully-boy governor of New Jersey and potential Republican Tea Party presidential candidate built like a pink refrigerator that learned how to walk, is mired in a swamp of criminal suspicion that could land him in the Graybar Hotel for a number of years. Accordingly, Mr. Christie has retained a legendary Manhattan mouthpiece, about which I shall more to say herein.
Prior to current scandals on the front pages of virtually every newspaper in America every day—with the world press swiftly catching up—Mr. Christie’s prospects for White House occupancy, post-Obama, were reasonably bright. Now—not so much, though the governor’s egotism and amour-propre, the main requirements for political candidacy, remain intact.
And though he has new critics, it is unwise to dismiss the idea of a President Chris Christie come November 2016, never mind daily media insights into the man’s boorishness and bellicosity. These impolite traits—one specific being the governor’s habit of screaming into the faces of constituents with whom he disagrees—are inspiring to a significant bloc of voters, able to embrace their inner thug by admiring Mr. Christie’s rude impulses.
Heretofore, the yahoo contingent of Republican Tea Partiers believed Mr. Christie much too squishy; after all, the governor was photographed embracing the incumbent Democratic Party president—horrors, an African American!—as the two leaders toured storm-devastated communities in New Jersey in the wake of Hurricane Sandy in late 2012.
It is further unwise to overestimate the capacity for discernment among yahoos, who turn out in great force for the state-by-state preliminary elections to determine the Republican Tea Party presidential nominee. Such voters eschew facts and political complexity, accepting the gospel of tough-guy bravado and shallow locutions à la Sarah Palin: in short, the Christie brand. That liberal élites, so-called, have begun comparing Mr. Christie to “Bluto,” ruffian archetype of the “Popeye” cartoon series, burnishes the boorish brand.
Over the course of four days last September—including the twelfth anniversary of 9/11 terrorist bombings that destroyed the World Trade Center in New York, blew a hole in the Pentagon in Washington, and killed more than three thousand civilians—the Christie administration, along its appointees to a regional governmental authority, shut down most vehicle access lanes from the New Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge—from the town of Fort Lee to the borough of Manhattan in New York City. This created endless, monumental snarls of trucks and passenger cars approaching and transversing the world’s most heavily trafficked river span. This is no small matter. The GWB, as it is locally known, is presumed by the Central Intelligence Agency to be a prime target for future attacks by al-Qaeda; since 9/11, deep-water divers of the U.S. Navy make round-the-clock, submerged patrols of its Hudson River pilings.
Motives behind crippling the GWB and causing havoc for emergency vehicles—an ambulance was reportedly too late to prevent the death of at least one passenger during the shutdown—are spurious, and under intense investigation by state and federal government entities.
The most popular motivational theory involves the sort of petty politics that echo the disgraceful downfall of Richard Nixon back in 1973, when it became clear that the president was directly involved in plotting the ludicrous burglary of Democratic Party offices at the Watergate Hotel in Washington—then labored assiduously to cover his gummy footprints. Supposition in the Christie instance is as follows:
During his successful reëlection campaign last year, Mr. Christie coveted resounding victory in order to prove his supposed bipartisan appeal in advance of a presidential bid to commence one year hence. To that glorious end, he bullied Democratic mayors throughout the state to put aside partisan differences and endorse his gubernatorial candidacy as a Teapublican; as we are learning, persuasions involved alleged threats to withhold customary financial aid from the state capital in Trenton, as well as monies from Washington under his control—namely, recovery funds for communities deluged by Hurricane Sandy. Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich was among a distinguished group of Democrats that refused Mr. Christie’s exhortations. For this impertinence, a crony of the governor referred to Mr. Sokolich, in writing, as an “idiot” and “this little Serbian.” (Mayor Sokolich is of Croatian descent. He and Mr. Christie were classmates at Seaton Hall University School of Law.)
Although the Blutos, one fictive and the other all too real, have repeatedly demonstrated loutish bona fides, I subscribe to the runner-up in popular motivational theory. Which has to with large parcels of waterfront land in Fort Lee, undeveloped until the coming of Mr. Sokolich—the first mayor in decades to get the ball rolling toward commercial and residential usage of a sweet-as-fresh-concrete building site, which happens to lie adjacent to vehicular lanes leading up to the George Washington Bridge. (Some forty years ago, in the midst of the Watergate scandal, developers in New Jersey with clear links to the Mafia offered a cool half-million—in cash—to then-Mayor Burt Ross. In return, the mayor would green-light their acquisition of and construction plans for the forty-acre site. Mr. Ross, who lives now in California, reported the bribe attempt to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, mobsters were jailed, and the site went fallow.)
Given the odoriferous character of the real estate industry in New Jersey and New York—and Governor Bluto’s history of badgering down-ticket politicians in the interest of developers he favors for one reason or another—I would be unsurprised if the much ballyhooed political vengeance theory is proved correct. Like Mr. Baroni’s traffic study, it is probably meant as plausible distraction from the hush-hush business of ring-kissing and corporate partiality.
Either way, criminal charges will likely be brought against several of Mr. Christie’s flunkies in lieu of the wannabe president himself. At least one flunky was dismissed by Mr. Christie, others have been forced to flee; ultimately, many more heads will roll. Of this expanding group, some are bound to become talkative.
For example, let us consider the central rôles performed by those in the mugshots below:
Early on the Tuesday morning of August 13 last year, Bridget Anne Kelly shot an email to David Wildstein. Said Ms. Kelly, deputy chief of staff to Governor Christie, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” Moments later, Mr. Wildstein, a gubernatorial aide appointed by Mr. Christie to a nebulous executive position at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, replied, “Got it.” Less than a month later, at 6 o’clock on the Monday morning of September 9, Mr. Wildstein ordered closure of the Fort Lee lanes to the GWB—one of many structures owned by the Port Authority, an unelected body created in 1921 to build and manage major transit facilities in the region, with a current workforce of 7,000 and an annual budget of $7 billion (€5 billion).
According to lawyers attached to investigative units busily poring through hundreds more emails, the Kelly-Wildstein exchange is prima facie evidence of premeditated mischief. After all, the element of collusion is quite clear in the texts. Such mischief might well constitute felonious abuse of governmental authority: under New Jersey Statute 2C:43-6.5, malfeasance is punishable by a mandatory minimum sentence of five years’ confinement to a state penitentiary—for each and every individual involved.
Because Mr. Wildstein failed to inform the Fort Lee police department, the Fort Lee mayor, or the state police of imminent GWB chaos—let alone the motoring public—a logical reason for the lane shutdowns had to be found, what with news media squawking about the chaos. Enter William E. Baroni Jr., a former Republican Tea Party legislator in New Jersey, Mr. Wildstein’s boss, and a Christie appointee as deputy executive director of the Port Authority.
In November, in response to a storm of questions about the GWB imbroglio, Mr. Baroni testified before his former colleagues in the Legislature. He trotted out some official-looking charts and papers full of graph lines as documentation for his claim that a “secret” traffic study was the purpose for lane closures. But Mr. Baroni’s boss at the Port Authority, Executive Director Patrick Foye, said he was unaware of a traffic study. At the federal level, U.S. Senator Jay Rockefeller said he found “zero evidence” of a Port Authority traffic study, secret or otherwise; Mr. Baroni’s documentation was declared a contrivance, and possibly a civil violation of law.
Messrs. Wildstein and Baroni resigned their high-salaried positions, in disgrace. Ms. Kelly became the scandal’s first patsy: she was immediately dismissed when the Bergen Record newspaper of Fort Lee published the notorious Kelly-Wildstein emails. On reading the Record’s scoop, Governor Christie said he was shocked—shocked!—that anyone in his office was responsible for the horrible deed on the bridge, and that staffers allegedly lied to him when earlier asked if they had knowledge of said deed.
In firing her during a January 9 press conference, Mr. Christie referred to Ms. Kelly as deceitful and “abjectly stupid.” Curiously, he said he was utterly uninterested in interrogating Ms. Kelly as to why she did what she did—despite his six years of interrogation experience as U.S. Attorney for New Jersey, chief federal prosecutor for the state, per appointment by America’s all-time worst president, George W. Bush.
During a recent committee hearing of the New Jersey State Assembly, Mr. Wildstein declined to answer any and all questions in accordance, he claimed, with the U.S. Constitution’s Fifth Amendment guarantee against self-incrimination. The committee has moved to cite Mr. Wildstein with contempt, arguing that the Fifth Amendment does not apply to its request for unsworn testimony. In consideration of official probes to come, Mr. Wildstein’s lawyer is currently negotiating for immunity from prosecution—by relevant state and federal bodies—in exchange for his client’s spilling the beans.
Along with many others—though not, at this writing, Mr. Christie himself—Ms. Kelly and Mr. Baroni are under subpoena to testify before the New Jersey State Assembly’s Transportation Committee. They have until February 3 to produce all written and electronic records having anything whatsoever to do the GWB matter, dating back to September 2012. Personal cell phones of those under subpoena have been confiscated by committee staffers, as have appointment books and official diaries from Mr. Christie’s office in Trenton, the state capital.
As it is said in the movies, somebody’s going to turn canary and sing his or her heart out. Soloists may soon be overwhelmed by a choir.
But will Mr. Christie’s goose be cooked?
Certainly not with attorney Randy Mastro prepared to rescue Mr. Christie from the long arm of the law. And not if a cabal of the governor’s billionaire admirers have a say, per these mugs:
In the January 13 edition of the Los Angeles-based online journal TruthDig, columnist Chris Hedges wrote of Chris Christie, “Wall Street [wants] a real son of a bitch in power, someone with the moral compass of Al Capone. …[The governor] has a vicious temper, a propensity to bully and belittle those weaker than himself, an insatiable thirst for revenge against real or perceived enemies, and little respect for the law [or] the truth. He is gripped by a bottomless hedonism that includes a demand for private jets, exclusive hotels, lavish meals, and huge entourages.”
Indeed, when Mr. Christie drove across his state from Trenton to Fort Lee on January 9 to make a show of apologizing to Mayor Sokolich and the townsfolk for the GWB mess of last September, his substantial gubernatorial motorcade caused—guess what?—a huge traffic jam.
Last weekend, Mr. Christie made one of his increasingly rare public outings—this time in a tour of Florida, the sunshine state, to campaign for the reëlection of fellow Republican Tea Party Governor Rick Scott. (Prior to becoming Florida’s governor, Mr. Scott was chief executive of Columbia/HCA, a national chain of healthcare clinics. In the year 2000, under Mr. Scott’s stewardship, the corporation was obliged to pay $840 million, or €621 million, in criminal and civil damages to settle a lawsuit charging Columbia/HCA with multiple instances of defrauding government medical programs. It remains the largest such settlement of medical fraud in U.S. history.) The tour wound up at a mansion in ritzy Palm Beach, where local millionaires and billionaires arrived in Ferraris and Jaguars.
A reporter for the New York Times solicited curbside comment about the GWB scandal from mansion guests as they departed from the festivities. From a back window of his chauffeur-driven Bentley, prominent Republican Tea Party fundraiser Geoffrey Leigh downplayed the matter: It’s only “little flies on the wall, quite frankly,” said Mr. Leigh.
Rarely do purely innocent folks “lawyer up,” as mafiosi say, with Randy Mastro. Whether multi-national conglomerate or Trenton panjandrum, when in capital-B big trouble you should drop a dime to a guy in New York by name of Randy. The counselor with the friendly-sounding name is proud of press notices attesting to his fear-inspiring advocacy for powerful clients who merit some measure of public revulsion. Two of his favorites: Mr. Mastro is a “swaggering, steely-eyed gunslinger,” the sort of man “you really do not want to meet down a dark alley.” A further feather in Mr. Mastro’s cap is the encomium once bestowed by a colleague of the bar, now frequently echoed in the halls of what passes for justice: opposing Mr. Mastro in court is “like wrestling with an alligator.”
I have seen for myself the alligator in action, most recently in the New York U.S. District Court matter of Chevron v. Donziger, in which Mr. Mastro lodged criminal racketeering charges against a fellow Manhattan lawyer of his acquaintance who won a $9 billion (€6.7 billion) judgment against the widely despised Chevron Oil Company—found responsible by an Ecuadoran court of contaminating the principal fresh water supply for thousands of indigenous people of the Amazon rainforest. The dramatic highlight of the New York trial came with Mr. Mastro’s cross-examination of defendant Steven Donziger, an interrogation described by Bloomberg Business Week magazine as “blistering…one that Mastro, a former federal mob prosecutor, undertook with palpable relish.”
I concur. Moments before Mr. Donziger took the stand, Mr. Mastro greeted the defendant with a smile. “We meet again, Mr. Donziger,” said the alligator. “Good afternoon.” When the alligator concluded his examination, he smiled, and said again, “Good afternoon.” Mr. Donziger, who is himself no slouch in courtroom combatant, looked like a cuffed dog.
(The New York bar fully expects Mr. Mastro to prevail on behalf of Chevron. Closing arguments in the bench trial were heard on December 24. The judge has not yet rendered a verdict.)
Mr. Mastro is to juris prudence as Governor Christie is to politics. It is no mystery that the two are longtime friends. A man needs the power of his friends, and the power of his ego. Mr. Christie is rich in both.
As columnist Robert Fulford wrote in the National Post newspaper of Canada on January 18, Governor Bluto is “marinated in a thick sauce of self-esteem.”
Canadians, of course, are familiar with their very own Bluto—Rob Ford, the cartoonish mayor of Toronto who admits to smoking crack cocaine when in “one of my drunken stupors.” In the context of adiposity, Mayor Ford is Governor Christie’s match. And like the governor, the mayor has continuing political dreams. He has filed for reëlection in Toronto, for instance—where opinion polls suggest he has a good chance of winning—and has spoken of his ambition to become prime minister. This is an excellent lesson for Mr. Christie: hubris knows no bounds.
In his January 9 apologies, explanations, and belligerent insistence that he actually is not a bully—three things earning him “zero credibility,” according to the New York Times of January 10—the governor engaged in a momentary whiff of introspection. Responding to a reporter’s query as to why the governor’s inner circle would risk endangering the public by snarling GWB traffic, Mr. Christie said, “What [can] you ask yourself? They either thought this is what the boss wanted, or they were willing to go rogue and do this, and then try to cover it up.”
Mr. Christie, a Roman Catholic, also said he suffered many sleepless nights over the whole sorry matter. Reading is often palliative help for insomnia. Perhaps one of the governor’s aides might fetch him a copy of “Thómas saga Erkibyskups” (with English translation from the Icelandic), arguably the best biography of Thomas à Becket, archbishop of Canterbury from the years 1162 until his death in 1170—the capstone of his numerous and highly contentious disputes with King Henry II over the rights and privileges of the Catholic church.
In the book, the king is reported to have asked five trusted knights of his court, “Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?” Twenty-four hours later, the knights cornered the archbishop at Canterbury Cathedral, whereupon they took turns bashing his skull with the flats of their swords, after which they stomped on his neck until blood and brains oozed from the corpse of Thomas à Becket.
King Henry was shocked—shocked!—to learn that those from his inner circle could presume to do such a thing.
We have our doubts about Henry II, and Bluto. But in defense of Governor Chris Christie, this much is fairly said: at least he doesn’t smoke crack.
Thomas Adcock is America correspondent for CulturMag