In recent decades, the study of presidential character has been a bit of a cottage industry. We owe this in part to the endlessly fascinating grudges, insecurities and neuroses of Richard Nixon -- and to their devastating impact on his presidency and the nation.
Today we learned that we are unlikely ever to find out how New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's character would play out in the White House.
A report in the Bergen Record portrays Christie's top aides actively engaging in an act of sabotage against a political rival that combined pettiness and vindictiveness in doses usually relegated to the Facebook pages of Mean Girls. “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Christie aide Bridget Anne Kelly wrote to another Christie ally. Three access lanes to the George Washington Bridge into Manhattan were subsequently shut down without explanation or warning.
The attack appears to have been designed to punish Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, who refused to endorse Christie's reelection last fall. Lashing out at Sokolich won't kill Christie's essentially naked presidential ambitions. But the collateral damage very well might.
The Record report -- if you haven't read it, you most certainly should -- is based on texts and e-mails among Christie's inner circle. It reveals Christie aides displaying an astonishing contempt for the common woman and man of New Jersey -- otherwise known as "commuters."
The documents obtained by The Record raise serious doubts about months of claims by the Christie administration that the September closures of local access lanes to the George Washington Bridge were part of a traffic study initiated solely by the Port Authority. Instead, they show that one of the governor’s top aides was deeply involved in the decision to choke off the borough’s access to the bridge, and they provide the strongest indication yet that it was part of a politically-motivated vendetta -- a notion that Christie has publicly denied.
The Record report does not show Christie himself engineering the closures. But given Christie's public reputation as a vindictive bully, he will find little cover from a narrative that portrays his top staff as, well, vindictive bullies. And after New Jersey's Democratic state Senate majority gets through investigating the scandal, we will undoubtedly know much, much more.
The potential for criminal and civil charges is also interesting to contemplate. Some North Jersey commuters now know they languished in a traffic jam artificially created by Christie's staff -- as if commuting to the nation's largest city isn't hassle enough under normal circumstances. But what about a New Jersey citizen stuck in a Christie-engineered jam while trying to get to New York Presbyterian Hospital on the other side of the bridge? What if there were consequences -- even minor ones -- to that delay? How likely is it that the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee and his partisan allies in the legislature have not already begun seeking out such people?
New Jersey's biggest cities are not in New Jersey. They are New York and Philadelphia, where many New Jersey citizens work. If ever there was a commuter state, this is it. Unless Democrats in Trenton are political incompetents, this story is going to be unveiled in slow and excruciating detail over the next year. It is entirely conceivable that the purported front-runner for the Republican nomination for president will spend the most promising days of his nascent presidential campaign immobilized by heavy traffic.
(Francis Wilkinson is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)