A look at that recent report: In Wednesday morning’s New York Times, Kate Zernike reported on the way the Christie political team—
In truth, we aren’t entirely sure what she did report. To read her report, click here.
In an earlier post, we chuckled at the way Zernike included detailed floor plans for the New Jersey State House. Beyond that, we’ll have to admit that her piece struck us a mouse that hadn’t roared.
Others saw it differently. Chris Matthews frothed on Hardball that night. In a much more serious vein, Kevin Drum saw more than we did in Zernike’s piece.
We don’t know what will turn out to be true about the lane closings in Fort Lee. We could imagine it flat or imagine it round. In our view, investigations exist to answer such questions.
Drum seemed to think that Zernike moved the ball forward. We pretty much didn’t. Here’s why:
In his headline, Drum contrasts the lack of a smoking gun with the presence of a tightening noose. Colorful imagery to the side, this was his basic nugget:
“The story doesn't contain even a speck of proof that Christie had anything to do with the bridge closure. But it sure paints a suggestive picture.”
We agree with that—but in our view, Drum is describing two problems with the report. Having followed these dopes for the past sixteen years, we’re opposed to “suggestive pictures.”
That said, let’s consider the part of Drum’s post where he states his basic reactions to the piece. This is the passage he quotes from Zernike. We include his deletions and highlights:
ZERNIKE (1/29/14): Staff members in the governor’s office created tabbed and color-coded dossiers on the mayors of each town—who their friends and enemies were, the policies and projects that were dear to them—that were bound in notebooks for the governor to review in his S.U.V. between events.In that passage, Zernike is describing some of the ways the Christie political team tried to win votes around the state in last year’s re-election campaign. These were Drum’s reactions to that passage, which we largely don’t share:
....Officially known as “intergovernmental affairs,” the operation was a key element of the permanent campaign that allowed Mr. Christie to win twice in a largely Democratic state. It was led by Bill Stepien, his two-time campaign manager and deputy chief of staff, and then by Bridget Anne Kelly, who succeeded him in his role in the governor’s office.
....By many accounts, the person in the front office who handled most of the politics was Mr. Stepien.....He mapped out the list of mini-Ohios and mini-Floridas where Mr. Christie might win what they called “persuadable voters.”....Those 100 or so towns would receive special attention—state aid, help from the Port Authority, a town-hall-style session with Mr. Christie —in hopes that by the time the governor ran for a second term, he would have friends there; even if local officials did not endorse him, they would not be working for his Democratic opponent.
DRUM (continuing directly): The point of this piece is to demonstrate three things. First, winning votes in cities like Fort Lee really was important to the Christie team. Second, they were pretty ruthless about going after those votes. Third, Christie himself met regularly with his team to discuss their tactics in minute detail. The strong inference is that (a) Shutting down lanes on the George Washington Bridge to intimidate a mayor who wasn't playing ball was right up their alley, and (b) if they did this, Christie almost certainly knew about it.We don’t know what the probes will uncover. But we don’t think those three points were demonstrated. Here’s why:
Ruthlessness: It’s hard to know how we get to “pretty ruthless” from the conduct described in that passage from Zernike’s report. The probes may well uncover behavior that’s worse than ruthless. But we don’t see it there.
Plainly, holding town hall meetings isn’t “ruthless.” In and of themselves, neither is “state aid” or “help from the Port Authority,” unless it’s shown that inappropriate conduct was involved.
Zernike has no such examples in her report. The probes may uncover horrible conduct. Zernike didn’t describe any.
Cities or towns like Fort Lee: As Kevin notes, Zernike describes the way the Christie team pursued support from (her term) “100 or so towns,” towns the campaign called “The Top 100.” According to Zernike, these were “the swing towns [Christie] wanted to win as he prepared for a re-election campaign.”
Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with seeking support in 100 “swing towns.” But just for the record, Zernike never actually says that Fort Lee was one of those towns.
That was a striking omission. Perhaps it was just an oversight, but Times reporters are often on the hustle. From years of reading the Post’s Ceci Connolly, we learned that you often have to look for the things that don’t get said.
At one point, Zernike says that Christie aide Matt Mowers “sought the endorsement of” Fort Lee’s Mayor Sokolich. In his second version of what happened, Sokolich seemed to say that he was approached only once. He says he didn’t say yes and he didn’t say no, and the Christie team never checked back.
Is it possible that Fort Lee wasn’t one of the targeted towns? We have no way of knowing. But surely, Zernike must have asked the question in her research. And in a lengthy, detailed-clogged report, she never said that it was.
Christie would have known what they did: According to Kevin, Zernike wants you to think that, if they shut down the lanes to intimidate Sokolich, “Christie almost certainly knew about it.”
There’s nothing in the passage quoted by Kevin which would create that impression. Elsewhere, this is some of the piddle with which Zernike tries to do so:
ZERNIKE: By many accounts, the person in the front office who handled most of the politics was Mr. Stepien. He cut an intimidating figure, occasionally raising his voice. He had met Mr. DuHaime at a hockey rink in Bridgewater where he played in high school. Both worked on Mr. Giuliani's presidential campaign, along with Ms. Comella, and ran campaigns for Bill Baroni, a former state senator whom Mr. Christie installed as deputy executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey in 2010.In the course of many interviews, someone apparently used the term “enforcer,” so Zernike tossed it in. The word “intimidating” helps, although that word is hers.
One Republican campaign ally said of Mr. Stepien: ''Bill was the enforcer, both politically and legislatively.''
Mr. Stepien had come up with the strategy of holding the frequent town-hall-style meetings—more than 100 in four years—that helped to burnish Mr. Christie's reputation as a straight-talker.
He ran the political operation much the way he had run the campaign. He mapped out the list of mini-Ohios and mini-Floridas where Mr. Christie might win what they called ''persuadable voters.'' He obsessed over data on the towns, and outreach to local officials, typically Democrats. He shared with Mr. Christie the binders with information on the individual local officials' donors and projects.
Ditto for the claim that Stepien “obsessed over data.” That too is Zernike’s language.
Are we supposed to react to the fact that Stepien “occasionally rais[ed] his voice?” What follows, meanwhile, is pure unfettered bull:
ZERNIKE: ''With any governor, but especially with Chris Christie, it's impossible to separate politics from policy, but clearly Stepien was politics first, policy second,'' said David Pringle, the campaign director for New Jersey Environmental Federation, who served on the transition team after the organization endorsed Mr. Christie in 2009 but backed his Democratic opponent last year. The group has since accused Mr. Christie of abandoning his principles on the environment.The “suggestive picture” painted there is obvious. But given the way Pringle is described, how could he possibly know that Stepien never did anything significant without Christie being aware?
''There wasn't anything of significance that Stepien did without the governor being aware of it,'' Mr. Pringle said.
As his role is described, Pringle couldn’t know that. Why include such an assertion, except for “suggestive” purposes?
The investigation of Fort Lee may yield heinous results. But Zernike had nothing new when she wrote her lengthy report.
She didn’t even say that Fort Lee was one of the 100 swing towns. Surely, she must have asked.
Citizens ought to be very wary of politicians like Christie. They should also be wary of the slippery conduct which often occurs at the Times.
The probes have only just begun. Especially on cable, some of us liberals seem to want our pleasing results right now.