Old-school communications might have saved Chris Christie a lot of embarrassment

It took exactly one, tersely worded email to blow the lid off Chris Christie’s “Bridge-gate” scandal. The now infamous “Time for some traffic problems in Ft. Lee” email from Christie’s deputy chief-of-staff, Bridget Ann Kelly, to David Wildstein at the Port Authority set in motion the politically engineered traffic jam on the George Washington Bridge, the four-days of massive inconvenience to New Jersey citizens, and the potentially politically disastrous revelations about it.

Without that seven-word note [eight, if you count Ft. and Lee as two separate words], it’s likely that we’d know nothing about what happened behind the scenes.

So, why the hell did Bridget Kelly send that damning email?

To me, it’s all about old-school vs. new-school communications. In a previous world order, before email/Facebook/texting/Twitter, if you had something—especially something incriminating—that you wanted to tell a co-worker, you’d either pick up the phone and call his/her extension, or you’d walk across the hall to his or her office, or meet at an out-of-the-way café or bar or parking garage, and communicate face-to-face. (If you were an idiot, you might put your secret information in a memo and either send it through the office mail system, put a postage stamp [what’s that, again?] on it and drop it in a mailbox, or put it on your co-worker’s desk.)  But that’s old school, antiquated, quaint, slow—and, by the way, less traceable.

So, there it is: If Kelly and her co-conspirators had simply called each other, or had a secret meeting, or walked across the hall, the whole thing might have remained under the radar. It’s a lot harder to subpoena a phone conversation [unless, of course, you’re the NSA or the FBI or the FISA court, and I doubt that any of those organizations were giving a hoot—at the time– about the inner workings of Chris Christie’s office or of his politically vengeful mind.] Old-style incriminating memos—with no carbon copies [what are those?]—can be burned or otherwise destroyed, and with them—poof!—the evidence of conspiracy or other wrongdoings.

But new-school communications are the way it is. It’s easier. It’s faster, it’s freakin’ instantaneous. And that’s the way we like it—until something like Bridge-gate happens. I suspect that’s what occurred here.  Electronic communications are the default, the way most staffers like Bridget have been doing things since day one, and who can blame a generation raised on speedy, keystroke communications from using the technology that’s available?

Unfortunately, the need for speed makes it too easy to forget that technology is not always our friend: Richard Nixon fell in love with the idea of recording his conversations for posterity on an audiotaping system—state-of-the-art at the time—and look what happened to him.

But maybe there’s a lesson to be learned from all of this—even if you’re not doing something wrong. (One could speculate, of course, that Kelly et al didn’t think what they were doing was in any way nefarious or in need of concealment—maybe dirty tricks and political retribution were simply part of the atmosphere in the Christie administration—part of his no-nonsense, tough-guy cachet—and didn’t need to be hidden.) It might be helpful, even in seemingly innocent circumstances, to pause before sending and to consider whether what we’re about to say electronically might be better said face-to-face.

I’ll bet Bridget Ann Kelly is thinking that right now.