- - Monday, January 13, 2014

Closing several lanes of traffic on the George Washington Bridge to “punish” the mayor of Fort Lee, N.J., was boneheaded, the sort of idea a junior aide suggests to catch the eye of the boss. Gov. Chris Christie’s critics, who hadn’t been able to lay a glove on the Teflon governor, finally had something to batter him about the head and shoulders with.

Mr. Christie handled himself well in a press conference last week, firing those he claimed were responsible, apologizing for what had happened and making a credible case that he knew nothing about it until he read about it in the newspapers. If he was telling the truth — and it’s difficult to imagine that he has deliberately set himself up for a monumental fall — the scandal will be but a bump in the road toward the White House.

“Bridgegate,” as the “wits” are calling it, isn’t in the same league with the Benghazi cover-up, the use of the Internal Revenue Service to intimidate or punish the president’s opponents, or the Justice Department’s harassment of his press critics, and it certainly isn’t within a mile of Watergate, the model would-be wordsmiths invoke every time there’s a scandal bigger than an unpaid parking ticket. But you wouldn’t have known that from the attention this one got on Sunday’s “news” shows. They all focused on the governor’s involvement, such as it may be, and its impact, if any, on his future. Only after milking it for the last ounce of blue john, they turned to more important topics, like former Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates’ scorn for President Obama’s Afghanistan policy and Hillary Clinton’s malingering in an hour of crisis.

Having weathered all that, Mr. Christie might have breathed a sigh of relief, figuring he could go back to being governor. But the Democratic politicians and dozens of reporters are vetting his every word to catch him in a lie, a fib, a stretcher, a misstatement or any discrepancy to enable them to cry “Gotcha!”

He’s fair game, and even unfair game, and his critics will be unrelenting. The feds have begun an investigation of the television commercials inviting everyone back to the Jersey shore after Hurricane Sandy, featuring who else but himself (he is the governor, after all) that cost $25 million, paid by the taxpayers (who would benefit, after all). Of course he would benefit, too, since he was running for re-election, but a television commercial starring the governor was calculated to attract more tourists to the Jersey shore than one featuring a clerk from Newark or even a mayor of Fort Lee. Politicians, being politicians, are always on the scout to be the first at road kill. Sen. Rand Paul, who doesn’t like Mr. Christie, anyway, and wants to be president himself, was part of the pile-on.

Mr. Paul had raised the issue last fall, calling the ads “offensive.” The Christie administration is accused of choosing a high bidder to make the television commercial. A losing bidder had proposed a series of commercials featuring someone other than the governor, and there were questions about who had ties to whom. But the governor’s aides said Monday that the White House approved the commercials, and the story threatened to spiral into a lot of “he said, they said, she said.”

Politics ain’t beanbag, as Mr. Dooley famously said. It’s actually a blood sport, and nobody plays with a helmet. Nobody is likely to remember a fumble for very long, to stretch the football metaphor to the breaking point, but Mr. Christie might usefully sleep with the football for a few nights. Many old coaches have used that as a teaching tool. Some swear it works.

The governor will probably escape actual damage, but he is being brought down to earth, perhaps for his own good, to be seen henceforth as just another talented politician rather than a leader who transcends politics and party. We’ve never had one of those, by the way.