By Chuck Gallagher
Speaking and writing as I do on the topic of ethics and “second chances,” I must admit that the uproar over the so-called Bridgegate scandal took me by complete surprise.
Generally speaking, at the conclusion of my seminars I am usually asked one or two questions about popular topics of the day. After the recent scandal involving the Christie administration, I was inundated with questions. It is a very interesting ethical topic.
Let’s Get Neutral
Ethics are not political. I cannot comment on Chris Christie the “unethical Republican,” anymore than Hilary Clinton the “unethical Democrat.” Ethical behavior exists outside of political affiliation, religion, favorite bars or NFL football team of preference. A person is either ethical – or not.
Therefore, when I am asked a question such as: “Chuck, don’t you think that political party ‘A’ is more ethical than ‘B?’” I have no frame of reference. My files are filled with ethical missteps from both parties. I am only able to talk about the situation in a politically neutral sense. Let me address some questions from Bridgegate:
- What about this case is unethical?
To me, politicians should minimally uphold the public trust. I may not have elected the politician and therefore don’t agree with him or her politically, but I expect the politician will always have my best interest at heart. It means that if someone in the Christie administration closed down a bridge to get back at a political rival, they intentionally went out of their way to turn a political rivalry into a public vendetta. If, in fact, lives were lost or even threatened because the bridge had been intentionally closed down and emergency vehicles could not get through, that kind of result transcends all politics. More so, the case smacks of bureaucratic arrogance. Someone in the Christie administration had the opportunity to hurt and inconvenience the very people who elected them into office. What were these people thinking?
Have Governor Christie’s actions during this scandal been ethical?
I cannot get inside Governor Christie’s head or heart. For a person who has been characterized as an “office bully,” his actions since the scandal have been meek to the point of him becoming more passive than Mr. Gandhi on his most passive day. To his credit, Christie did apologize and he admitted his embarrassment. He expressed that he was not a bully in response to public perception. However, if ever there was a time for him to be belligerent, it was in that moment. When he found out, when the facts were fully laid out to him, in my opinion he should have ripped through the entire staff without mercy. Yes, he fired his top aide Brigitte Kelly and he will no longer consider his former campaign manager Bill Stepien for public office, but was that enough?
I can’t imagine the rest of his staff was clueless. Others on his staff; somebody, must have known something unethical was afoot. There is the lingering fear that Christie did what was satisfactory just to quiet his most ardent supporters but that he didn’t go far enough to satisfy all of his constituents.
- Is it ethical to use your power for political retaliation?
Power comes from the electorate; it does not come from the politician. It is an ethical point that is all too often lost in today’s society. Unfortunately, many Americans in believing their votes are meaningless or in remaining apolitical in these challenging times, are contributing to the problem. Regardless of political affiliation politicians must be held accountable. It is a two-way street though; if voters fail to engage in their own process, they too are contributing to the ethical failures of their leaders.
- Has the media coverage of this been ethical?
The media has covered Bridgegate in a predictable and I must say, superfluous manner. It goes back to my point that ethical issues should be devoid of political affiliation. Unfortunately, that did not happen. In the beginning, when the scandal and the commotion was at its peak, CNN and Fox News took expected and almost scripted positions which, in and of itself, is unethical.
Do we report factual news or political viewpoints? Fox News took its side and CNN their side. When the commotion began to subside, news coverage dropped to a trickle.
There are many important follow-up stories that need hard investigation. For example, I am very interested in knowing why Christie’s Port Authority appointee, David Wildstein – a man whose name appears on many emails to and from Christie staffers has agreed to testify in exchange for immunity. My question is this: Immunity from what? More bad ethics on top of bad ethics?
Can Governor Christie rebound in time for the 2016 Presidential election?
This is a question to which there is no answer in a political sense. From an ethical point of view is there a chance? Yes there is, but providing everything negative that can come out, has come out. If there are lingering scandals and unresolved elements that have not been addressed by the Governor, he has no chance. Second chances are possible providing there is accountability. The accountability must be sincere, personal and fully-disclosed.
I might end with two percentages from recent polls that fascinate and terrify me; 42 percent and 10 percent. 42 percent of Americans now call themselves independent voters and only 10 percent of Americans have confidence in Congress.
I wonder, in the case of the Congress number especially, if our politicians and attendant bureaucracy understand the festering anger America has for the people who claim to represent them. If independent voters become truly independent what will that mean for the politicians of the future?
Whether an elected dog-catcher, governor or president, America’s dissatisfaction with its electorate cannot and should not be overlooked. I am hopeful we elect our future leaders ethically and not politically.
The uproar over Bridgegate was, I believe, one of the first real salvos of the ethical era. Politicians should take note.