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Bridgegate, Shakespeare, and plausible deniability

The recent developments of the Chris Christie bridge scandal -- dubbed “Bridgegate” by the Twitter community -- has shocked America. As a quick update for those who have not followed, late last year, several lanes that led from Fort Lee, N.J., to the George Washington Bridge (already a traffic hell) were closed. Only one was left open, and Mark Sokolich, the mayor of Fort Lee, was uninformed. He pleaded for them to be reopened, but no response for several days, and commuters were stuck in hours of brutal traffic. Children were late for school, workers were late for their jobs, and one person died when emergency services could not reach her in time.

It seems few people believe Christie's claim that he knew nothing about the Fort Lee lane closures. But so far, no document proves Christie's involvement. As long as your aides are the ones doing the dirty work, you're safe -- for now.
It seems few people believe Christie's claim that he knew nothing about the Fort Lee lane closures. But so far, no document proves Christie's involvement. As long as your aides are the ones doing the dirty work, you're safe -- for now.
Mel Evans/Associated Press

Well, what seemed like it might have been an innocent blunder turned darker when emails were leaked in which a top aid to New Jersey governor Chris Christie told an official, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” The suspicion is that the act was retribution against Sokolich for not endorsing Christie for re-election.

Christie fired the people implicated in the emails. He then gave a press conference repeatedly denying that he knew anything about what his aides were doing. Really, governor Christie? Your administration is known for its aggressiveness. You yourself repeatedly badger and attack reporters who dare to question you. Jon Stewart said it best when he suggested that the tone of your administration is “F-U Sharp.” So your claim that you did not know about the plans to close the bridge lanes has, by and large, been greeted with eye rolls and cries of, “Yeah, right.”

The whole scandal has been colloquially labeled “Bridgegate,” which is appropriate, given how many people have claimed that Christie’s foolishness is Nixonian. When your closest aide does something that is well within the tone of your own behavior, its only a matter of time before the proof comes out that you gave the order -- even if you blank out the tapes. And it will come out, given how many legal institutions are now investigating, and even trying, the people involved in Bridgegate. Not to mention Christie's "I am not a bully" in his presser reminds us of, "I am not a crook."

One person wrote about criminals keeping their distance from their crimes long before Nixon: Shakespeare. Just recently, I was working through Othello with my students (I'm an English teacher) and got to the scene in which Cassio -- pressured by Iago -- drinks and brawls with Montano. In a brief moment, as Cassio stumbles away, drunk, Iago tells Montano:

He is a soldier fit to stand by Caesar
And give direction: and do but see his vice;
'Tis to his virtue a just equinox,
The one as long as the other: 'tis pity of him.
I fear the trust Othello puts him in.
On some odd time of his infirmity,
Will shake this island.

In other words, he is a total drunk. (We have no idea how often Cassio drinks; we only know that he did not want to drink, until Iago pushed him into it.) Montano, concerned, says: "It were well / The general were put in mind of it." Montano wants to tell Cassio's boss about his alleged drinking.

Iago's response? "Not I, for this fair island. / I do love Cassio well; and would do much / To cure him of this evil."

So where am I going with all this? Well, if Montano tells Othello about Cassio's drinking, then there will be consequences for the lieutenant. But the man who made it happen -- Iago -- keeps his hands clean. As my students put it, Iago is getting Montano to do his dirty work. Montano does not end up telling Othello about Cassio's drinking (largely because he doesn't have to; Cassio's drunken stupor causes a riot anyway), but Iago's manipulations continue to have this effect -- while playing everyone like puppets, he gets others to commit acts for which they suffer the consequences, while he keeps his hands clean.

It isn't until the end that Iago wields a sword and begins to do his own dirty work. And moments later, he is found out. It is Shakespeare's commentary on power: The powerful don't act so much as get others to act, all while being able to deny it should they be called to account. Iago's machinations, in this way, are much like Bridgegate.

Shakespeare was fascinated by power relationships. Iago, however, unlike Christie, does not wield political power. Shakespeare shows us how one does not need an office to control others. But that said, Shakespeare does have his political authorities act like Christie. Consider Macbeth, for example, who learns his lesson about power. At first, he kills Duncan with his own hands, but blames his guards, who he then kills. Somewhat clumsy for the Thane of Cawdor, and suspicion abounds. Banquo tells us, about Macbeth: "Thou hast it now: king, Cawdor, Glamis, all / As the weird women promised, and, I fear / Thou play'dst most foully for't."

It is not long, then, when Macbeth wants Banquo dead, that he channels his inner Christie. He persuades two assassins that Banquo is their enemy.

So is he mine; and in such bloody distance,
That every minute of his being thrusts
Against my near'st of life: and though I could
With barefaced power sweep him from my sight
And bid my will avouch it, yet I must not,
For certain friends that are both his and mine,
Whose loves I may not drop, but wail his fall
Who I myself struck down.

In other words, "I need Banquo dead, but it would be bad, politically, for me to kill him. So I have to get you to do it, and then act upset when he dies. That way, nobody will suspect me." Plausible deniability.

You're in good company, Governor Christie. Your political scheming in Bridgegate is hardly new. But if history and Shakespeare teaches us anything, it is that the truth comes out. Macbeth, Iago, and Richard Nixon are all discovered for their lies, and we can rest assured that if Christie was responsible for Bridgegate, as is widely believed, we will soon know.