Monday, February 3, 2014

Chris Christie and Pete Seeger: The Hammer, the River, and the Bridge

Chris Christie and Pete Seeger: The Hammer, the River and the Bridge

Pete Seeger passed away this last week.  He was 94 and had spent the entirety of his adult life singing, picking his guitar and his five-string banjo, and working for causes.   

My kids were raised on the Weavers, the group Pete co-founded.  By popular demand, we played our VCR of “The Weavers: Wasn’t That a Time” so often we wore it out.  When my daughter was barely talking, she would wait for the refrain in “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine” and squeak out “WINE!”  Much later, on a college trip, when the car radio had no reception, my son took out his IPod, put it on speaker, and we drove home to Pete, Tom Lehrer, and Allan Sherman.

Pete drew on a tremendous traditional songbook filled with the music of common people: folk and gospel, children’s songs, ones about miners and moonshiners.  With Lee Hays, he wrote The Hammer Song, later translated into dozens of languages, and transformed by Peter, Paul and Mary into a gigantic hit.  And he performed them all until the end, wearing a pair of hearing aids, his distinctive reedy “alto-tenor” worn and cracked, with his audience happily making up the difference.

You could love Pete’s music without embracing all his causes, and those causes didn’t always sit well with everyone. As a young man, he was a member of the Communist Party, and he, and the Weavers, were essentially blacklisted for over a decade. He was called in by the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955, and when he refused to testify, was indicted on ten counts of contempt of Congress.  He worked for labor when that was scary and the anti-war movement and civil rights movements when they were even scarier.  He was an environmentalist before (and after) it was cool.  In the late 1960’s he raised money for the sloop that would become the Clearwater.  It became the physical symbol of the effort to clean up the Hudson, the magnificent river that inspired a school of painting in the 1850s, and then became a dumping ground for sewage and industrial waste.  Take a train from Grand Central up the river past Pete’s home in Beacon, and you can see the fruits of his labors and those he supported.  

The Hudson begins at Henderson Lake in upstate New York, runs 315 miles, and empties into New York Harbor.  Just a few miles north is the George Washington Bridge, where an environmental disaster of another type seems be unfolding. Chris Christie is dealing with a rising tide of sludge that seems poised to jump the banks of the Hudson and make its way to Trenton.  That, apparently, would be a reverse of the flow of pollution that had emanated from his office last September.

Some of the basic facts are well known.  Governor Christie was gathering cross-party endorsements for his reelection campaign against State Senator Mary Buono.  The Christie team, with their eyes on 2016, wanted to cement the Governor’s reputation as a tough but bipartisan doer with cross-party appeal.  And they wanted to run up the score on Buono, showing they could win big in a Blue state that went for Obama twice. 

So, when Mark Sokolich, the Democratic Mayor of Fort Lee, balked at endorsing, Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie’s deputy chief of staff for legislative and intergovernmental affairs, decided to mete out some punishment.  On August 13, 2013, she sent an email to David Wildstein, one of Christie’s appointees at the Port Authority:  “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”  To which Wildstein responded (within a minute) “Got it.”

Clearly, Wildstein got it, as did Fort Lee.  As the school year opened in September, suddenly four access lanes between Fort Lee were funneled into one tollbooth, ostensibly to conduct a “traffic study.” Christie aides exulted in the chaos.  When the besieged Mayor asked for help because the kids were stranded on busses, one Christie aide had a momentary pang of guilt.  That was quickly quashed by a second, with the explanation, “They are the children of Buono voters.”  

The entire mess went on for four days, and the backups were epic—kids, first responders, people trying to get to their places of employment—everyone got caught up.  And when New York appointees to the Port Authority re-opened the lanes to try to alleviate the suffering, David Sampson, Port Authority Chairman and Christie appointee, expressed his displeasure.

The immediate reaction of the public was fascinating.  Democrats, needless to say, were suitably outraged (and perhaps a little gleeful.)  But Republicans were split.  Many defended Christie and claimed partisan witch-hunt, but the more conservative and Tea Party types piled on, seeing this as their best opportunity to derail a man they called a RINO and blamed for Obama’s reelection. 

Christie then held a one-hour plus press conference where he professed shock and dismay (at other people’s actions) with a promise to clean house and see justice done.  His supporters in the press then went into a swoon; what a man’s man Christie was and how very small his critics were! This is the way it’s done—unlike the effete present occupant of the White House! 

But the story had a little leg to it, and new and damaging information continued to dribble out, so the very same columnists pivoted to talking about what a positive good this might be for Christie and his ambitions. The new narrative: the bad old mainstream media, eager to take down a conservative stalwart, was unjustly hyping the story all out of proportion, and this would unite the various factions of the GOP.  The little people of Fort Lee were just collateral damage--Chris Christie was the true martyr of Bridgegate. 

And that’s kind of a pity, because this whole episode is so rotgut petty and mean that it reflects horribly on government in general.  Politics may not be beanbag, but the “violence” is supposed to be pol on pol, not pol on people.  That a nasty functionary could express her undying loyalty to her boss (and get her jollies) by inflicting pain on innocents, and that other political appointees could support her in this “quest” reinforces the conviction that it’s always all about power. 

In the end, however, I think this story is going to flicker out.  I doubt there is going to be hard evidence that Christie, enraged by a Mayor who was more nebbish than threat, would have raised his leonine head and bellowed, “Release the Kraken.”  Might we have suspicions that Christie is often an egotistic bully and that the culture of his office was take no prisoners?  Should we take that into account in considering his suitability for higher office? Yes, to both, of course.

That’s the thing about public figures like Pete Seeger and Chris Christie. Why do we choose to feel the way we do about them? We really don’t have any certainty about their inner lives—what kind of people they really are.  All we have to go by is what they do.

I suppose what we know is that Pete Seeger had a hammer, a bell, and a lot of songs, and he used them all.  His book is written, and it says that in his 94 energetic years he made plenty of mistakes but did plenty more good.

Chris Christie has chapters to go, but he’s a hammer in search of a nail. At 51, his ambition to be President is probably the most powerful thing in his life.  The bigger question for him (and us) is whether it’s the only thing in his life.  If that’s so, he might never realize that there are more important tools than just the sledge.  

Figure it out, Governor.

Rest easy, Pete. 

Michael Liss (MM)

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