WASHINGTON — We have officially reached the take-a-step-back moment in the unfolding — or unraveling — of the Chris Christie alleged bridge/political retribution/Sandy funds political scandal.
It always happens in any story these days. News stampedes through the ether, trampling context and nuance, oblivious to potholes and fissures. And then corrections must be made.
This isn’t finger-pointing at my colleagues. Columnists have the luxury of taking their time with facts, while reporters are expected to update news by the minute, or less. In our amped-up, bloglodyte world, stories are chugging 5-hour Energy shots just to keep up with reporters and, it must be said, gossips.
Thus on Tuesday, Mika Brzezinski said the necessary on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe”: “Calm down.” Later, a guest on the show added, “People need to step back,” a sentiment with which all present were in accord.
For the past several days on most news shows, the dominant buzz has centered on a New York Times story, subsequently adjusted, that came close to accusing Christie of lying when he has insisted repeatedly that he knew nothing about the George Washington Bridge lane closings that resulted in a four-day traffic jam and that have been characterized as political retribution.
The Times story cited a letter from Alan L. Zegas, attorney for David Wildstein, the former Port Authority executive and one-time Christie ally who, after an infamous email exchange with Christie aide Bridget Anne Kelly (“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee”), ordered the lane closings.
In the Times story, Wildstein was said to have “had the evidence” to prove that Christie knew contemporaneously about the lane closings. Later, the Times story was tweaked to reflect what the letter actually said: that “evidence exists” that Christie knew at the time of the lane closings. Thank you for the clarification. What evidence? Whose? Where? The voice knows.
And then she heard it again, the same chilling voice whispering as the curtains fluttered on a still night. “It exists ... it exists ... it exists.”
But seriously, without confirmation or corroboration of such damning evidence, what, really, was this latest chapter?
The letter was essentially a plea to the Port Authority that it pay Wildstein’s legal expenses, which it previously had denied to do.
To be fair, the Times story was not without basis — the letter does exist and its contents are of interest. News. But it is also damning of Christie’s character without substantiation, otherwise known as one man’s word against another, and that’s not good for journalism.
Before you could say “heywaitaminute,” the Drudge Report led with the scurrilous headline “He Knew.” Though Drudge clearly isn’t a Christie fan (this must be terribly painful for the governor), the result has been a circling of conservative wagons by those who hate the media more than they dislike a moderate Republican, as foretold by a certain columnist weeks ago. Thus, Christie has been invited to speak at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference next month, where he was conspicuously not invited a year ago.
Meanwhile, Christie’s office has fired back, impugning Wildstein’s character, even going back to his high-school days and calling him “tumultuous.” One can only imagine his yearbook inscription: “Dude, stay as tumultuous as you are and bridges will fear you!”
In a parallel saga, CNN recently issued a report poking holes in Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer’s story claiming that Christie’s office threatened to withhold Hurricane Sandy recovery funds if she didn’t support a development project the governor favored.
CNN cited not only contradictions and discrepancies but evidence that Zimmer may have practiced the same tactics of which she has accused Christie. The executive director of the Hoboken Housing Authority had sued Zimmer, claiming that the mayor had “an unwritten policy of political patronage or ‘pay to play’ to reward ... political supporters.”
As the Christie scandal machine grinds on, his polling numbers un-shockingly are plummeting. Once in the lead in a fantasy presidential race, he now trails Hillary Clinton 39 percent to 55 percent. In the race for the GOP nomination, he trails Mike Huckabee and Rand Paul, tying with Jeb Bush.
But the night is young. It remains entirely possible that Christie is telling the truth. And evidence may or may not exist. Which means a new narrative must fill the void. It goes like this: Even if he’s telling the truth, Christie created the culture in which his people felt free to abuse power.
Stay tuned ... and stay calm.
Kathleen Parker is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group.