The Teachings of Texas on Political Payback

Chris Christie would never make it as a pol in Texas. He leaves too many fingerprints. Victims are not supposed to know who stuck the knife in them. They are just supposed to be bleeding and then dead. This lesson has already been taught, governor.

When Lt. Col. Oliver North testified before congress in 1987 about the Iran-Contra scheme to illegally supply weapons to Nicaraguans opposing the Sandinista government, he provided the public with more than just evidence the U.S. government and C.I.A. tend to frequently operate without citizen sanction. In nationally televised hearings, North told Americans about a C.I.A. conceived notion called "plausible deniability." Generally, the term means that senior people in an organization or institution are denied information so that, if things go to hell, they can, in turn, deny involvement or connection. The words were almost Manhattan ad agency marketing for a practice as old as American politics.

And now it is a form of art.

But it can also be bungled, especially in the era of the Internet. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is having his political flesh stripped over "Bridgegate" because it is believed a staffer, acting under his authority, slowed down traffic to exact political payback against the mayor of Fort Lee, who had refused to endorse the governor. But look closely and you will not find a single connection between Christie and his assistant's email suggesting it was "time for traffic problems."

Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Anne Kelly may have simply understood from conversations what Christie wanted to happen, or she was given an order, but students of politics will assume she did not act independently. The unspoken operational fact in the game of revenge is always that the boss needs protection through plausible deniability. Kelly may not have known the act was unlawful but she could not have had doubt she would be sacrificed on the political town square if the revenge backfired.

Which, of course, it did.

That is not, however, always the case. Scales frequently get tilted into balance by invisible hands. The finest acts of political revenge work a bit like dry ice: they freeze living tissue to death and then dissipate, leaving no evidence of a crime. Nonetheless, things can fall apart.

The most noticeable and egregious payback in recent years was the Bush administration's attack on former covert C.I.A agent Valerie Plame and her husband Ambassador Joseph Wilson. Bush's plan to invade Iraq over weapons of mass destruction was publicly attacked by Wilson. Subsequently, his wife's cover was blown through a leak of her name to reporters.

If FDR's axiom is true that "nothing happens by accident in politics," the bad actors in the Plame affair were at least connected to the White House. A president, however, must be protected. The leak plan was offloaded to the vice president's office to be administered by Lewis "Scooter" Libby, who was later convicted of obstruction of justice, giving false statements to federal agents, and perjury.

Plame's clandestine service career was ended along with Libby's long government tenure. The scheme, which was most probably conceived by Bush political strategist Karl Rove, was never tied directly to the White House. The president commuted Libby's prison term but left in place the felony conviction, forever keeping a distance between Bush and the political actor Libby, who exposed a C.I.A. agent to serve his president.

Nobody has more power to exact political revenge than a president. A simple executive order can unleash trouble. In 1972, after Richard Nixon had won reelection by an overwhelming margin in Texas, out of the states 254 counties there were only a half dozen on the Mexican border that did not vote for Nixon. Webb County, which had the only significant federal facility, appeared to have been punished when the president ordered the closure of Laredo Air Force Base shortly after he began his second term.


More runways than streets of Laredo (LAFB)

Nixon may have learned this tactic from his predecessor Lyndon Baines Johnson, who was unable to stomach the fact that Amarillo and surrounding counties voted for Barry Goldwater for president in 1964. Amarillo Air Force Base was ordered closed and most of the operations and personnel were transferred to Shepherd AFB in Wichita Falls, a heavily Democratic county.


Where once there was an Air Force base (Amarillo)

Johnson, though, had additional motive to act with impunity against Amarillo. His loudest critic, historian J. Evetts Haley, made his home in Randall County. Haley had published A Texan Looks at Lyndon: A Study in Illegitimate Power, which claimed LBJ conspired with West Texas swindler Billy Sol Estes to have murdered three men that might have connected the president to a huge agricultural scandal in the state. The potential witnesses all died mysteriously of carbon monoxide poisoning in their cars. The book was on sale during the presidential campaign and was said to have been outsold in Texas "only by the Holy Bible."


J. Evetts Haley

Johnson was hardly a politician to be trifled with, especially by writers and reporters. The first liberal intellectual LBJ hired to his senatorial staff was Billy Lee Brammer of Dallas. Brammer used his insider's access to build the characters and fuel the narrative of one of the greatest of all American novels, The Gay Place. The protagonist, a caricature of LBJ who was the governor of a Texas-like state, was known as Arthur "Goddamn" Finstermaker. Brammer left LBJ to return to journalism but his writing and creative genius, which had been powered by methamphetamine for years, had sent him racing toward oblivion. Johnson helped him along, though, after becoming president. Brammer became the only reporter banned from the White House during the LBJ administration. His writing and life declined into an overdose at age 48.


Billy Lee Brammer

Victims of political revenge hesitate to point fingers or assign blame, however. They are too easily dismissed as conspiracy theorists or paranoid fools. During the 2004 reelection campaign of George W. Bush, I published a book that focused on his dubious record in the Texas National Guard. The research caused great controversy for the campaign, but the president went back to the White House for a second term.

A few months later at the Austin airport, I discovered my extraordinarily mundane Anglo name had been placed on the No Fly Watch List, an unknown group of people the government watches travel. Almost eight years later, I am still on that roster. Was it simply a coincidence that I ended up on that list a few months after the National Guard book was released, or was it just finely crafted political revenge?

I have a suspicion.