Scene from Gov. Christie’s morning staff meeting?
The pivotal moment from the classic 1957 film “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” in which British prisoner-of-war officer Alec Guinness comes face to face with his obsessive and misguided attempt to build his legacy on a bridge. The parallel to the current moment isn’t entirely perfect, other than the narrow one of the man in the middle standing back, looking at the foolishness that brought him to ruin and asking the existential question: What have I done? It’s one of the great films of all times and won seven Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Guinness.
I don’t know what it is that puts so many of our political scandals at, near or over a body of water. But this new one, more than any I can think of, bears a structural resemblance to Watergate.
Narrowly speaking, “Worse Than Watergate” refers to a 2004 book by former Nixon aide John Dean that reviews the George W. Bush administration and its obsessions with secrecy. In a larger sense, the phrase has become a tool used in order to magnify the seeming importance of any putative political scandal by likening it to the one we look back to as granddaddy of them. The phrase seems to emerge most often from the mouths of those who are trying to make a big deal out of nothing, as in Benghazi or Whitewater.
Last May, Mother Jones ran a useful little chart comparing the major political scandals of the last century according to two main metrics: how serious they were as violations of the public trust, and how large they loom in the public memory. Where does ChristieBridge fit it?
The ChristieBridge affair differs from these in the sense that it isn’t a Washington scandal. If we were creating a list of state and local scandals it would go on forever. But it belongs on a list like that because it plays into Chris Christie’s viability as a Republican presidential candidate—and from there to the likelihood of any moderate Republican emerging on the national stage who can plausibly lead the GOP away from the den of extremism where it currently dwells, and from there (most important) to the prospects for the rescue of our two-party democratic system as a contest between two viable, credible political movements.
Judging by all of these, one might argue that of all the scandals one might recall, ChristieBridge comes closer than any of them to resembling the Big One, the one by which we measure all the others, which is Watergate. Judging by what we know so far, it appears to be a cheesy little plot cooked up by characters uncomfortably close to a sitting chief executive in order to guarantee his reelection and ultimately turning was promising to be a runaway victory into a debacle, QED.
In the end, Watergate turned what could have been one of the memorable presidencies into the most shameful. Wonder how this is going to turn out for Christie.
Here’s the scene from an earlier bridge-related debacle in which the man in the middle of the mess looks at the wreckage and asks, What Have I Done?
Having said all that, here’s the great What Have I Done scene from “Bridge on the River Kwai” (props to the great Seamus McGraw for posting the clip on Facebook):
Oh, and by the way, Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, the man in the middle who could and should emerge as a national figure after this, apparently isn’t Jewish. He’s of Croatian and presumably Catholic origin.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).