By James M. Perry
Benjamin Franklin famously said New Jersey was like a barrel, tapped at both ends, meaning New York to the north and Philadelphia to the south. That leaves the state's politicians plenty of room to play without anyone in normal times paying much attention.
These are not normal times in Jersey.
Governor Chris Christie, thought to be the front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016, held a 107-minute press conference Thursday to explain his role in one of the most bizarre political scandals in Garden State history. The portly governor said he was sad and humiliated that two of his closest political supporters had closed two of three access lanes from Fort Lee to the George Washington bridge, the world's busiest, to make life miserable for the town's mayor, a Democrat who had been reluctant to support his campaign for governor. The side effect, of course, was that thousands were tangled in the four-day backups.
The governor insisted he knew nothing about it until he read incriminating e-mail messages that showed up first in the Bergen Record. "I am a very sad person today," he told a room packed with reporters and TV cameras.
What happened in New Jersey isn't really the sort of everyday corruption the state is infamous for. No money changed hands. This was dirty politics.
Politicians do tend to stumble in New Jersey.
U.S. Senator Robert "the Torch" Torricelli was forced to call off his re-election campaign in 2002 after it was revealed he had accepted thousands of dollars in cash and gifts (a Rolex, a 52-inch TV, Italian suits) from a wealthy businessman. "I could not stand the pain if any failing on my part would do damage to the people I have fought for all my life," he told a room full of reporters and TV cameras. In the unlikely event Governor Christie should step down, those might be appropriate words for his going-away press conference.
Eleven public officials, including the mayors of Passaic and Orange, were busted in 2007 for taking bribes from insurance dealers and contractors in return for city contracts. That's the typical crime in New Jersey, repeated again and again.
Two prominent New Jersey politicians, Senator Harrison "Pete" Williams and Congressman Frank Thompson, were rounded up in an FBI sting called Abscam in the late 1970s. Both went to jail, although questions were raised about their complicity.
It was the Bergen Record, again, that broke the story that Christie's predecessor as governor, Jim McGreevey, was gay. He called a press conference to announce, "My truth is that I am a gay American." Even more damaging, perhaps, was his appointment of a friend he met in Israel as the state's homeland security director.
My city editor in Philadelphia told me years ago to cross the Delaware River into New Jersey and spend a couple of weeks writing about corruption in Camden. As a courtesy, I stopped by the offices of the local paper, the Courier-Post today, and told the editor what I was up to. Good luck, she said. "You know no one will notice," and they didn't.
James M. Perry, a prominent veteran political reporter, is contributing regular observations for post-gazette.com. Mr. Perry was the chief political correspondent of The Wall Street Journal until his retirement. Prior to that, he covered national politics for the Dow Jones weekly, The National Observer.