5 Smoking Guns That Derailed Political Careers

What began as a local story about a New Jersey traffic jam has exploded into a national political scandal. Allegations had been swirling for months that, in a juvenile act of political retribution, Governor Chris Christie had intentionally created a traffic jam in the city of Fort Lee as payback against a mayor who didn’t support his reelection campaign. Christie denied it, there was a lot of smoke without fire, and the story didn’t gain much traction outside of liberal political blogs. But on Wednesday, emails surfaced showing that the order to logjam the city of Fort Lee came directly from Christie’s office.

“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Christie’s deputy chief of staff giddily exclaimed in one email. “Samson is helping us to retaliate,” a Christie appointee explains in another.

It’s pretty damning stuff. The governor claims his staff acted without his knowledge, which isn’t much of a defense, as it is an admission that he can’t control the people working under him. But Christie has already made two claims about the traffic jam that later turned out to be bogus: that the lane closure was the result of a “traffic study” (it wasn’t), and that his staff had nothing to do with it (they did). Two officials have already resigned over this — and that was before the emails leaked — so this probably isn’t going away any time soon.

Because this scandal has the capacity to single-handedly obliterate Christie’s presidential ambitions, we decided to take a look back on other smoking gun documents that derailed political careers.

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When Barack Obama ascended to the presidency, he left an empty Senate seat behind. The task of appointing a successor to temporarily fill it went to Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich. Unfortunately for the governor, the FBI had tapped his phone months prior, as he was currently being investigated for unrelated corruption charges, and on several phone calls, Blagojevich talked openly about trying to sell Obama’s Senate seat to the highest bidder.

Some choice excerpts:

  • This is a Senate seat we’re talking about. It’s worth a fuck of a lot more than appreciation.”
  • “I’ve got this thing and it’s fucking golden...I’m not giving it up for fucking nothing.”
  • “If I don’t get what I want and I’m not satisfied with it, then I’ll just take the Senate seat myself.”

Blagojevich was arrested in his home a month after the presidential election. The Illinois state legislature eventually impeached him, but not before he appointed Roland Burris, a cartoonish state official who was currently serving as comptroller, to the seat. Burris served out the remainder of Obama’s term; the highlight was undoubtedly when he composed and read a parody of “The Night Before Christmas” on the Senate floor, with the lyrics changed to condemn Republicans for opposing Obamacare.

Sadly, Burris didn’t run for reelection, and the seat was ultimately won by Republican Mark Kirk. Blagojevich is currently serving a 14-year prison sentence.

Mark Foley

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During his time in Congress, Florida Republican Mark Foley was fervently opposed to two things: child pornography and gay marriage. This made revelations that he’d repeatedly made sexual advances toward underage male pages in his office all the more disturbing. ABC posted chat transcripts between Foley and a 16-year-old who used to work in his office. They were disgusting enough to make Foley resign from Congress the day after their publication.

Evidence later emerged that Foley’s Republican colleagues had known he was a creep as far back as 2000 but didn’t do anything about it, because, you know, no rush.

Bob Packwood

In the early 1990s, 24 women accused Republican Senator Bob Packwood of Oregon of sexually harassing them. Most of the allegations involved Packwood abruptly grabbing a female campaign staffer by the waist and planting an unwanted kiss on her mouth, which was usually followed by the woman pushing him away and Packwood backing down. But he did sleep with a couple of staffers, and subsequently made the mistake of writing about it in his diary.

The Senate Ethics Committee launched an investigation into the allegations, which ultimately involved Packwood being forced to turn over his diaries. In addition to detailed accounts of several extramarital encounters he’d had with staffers, the diaries contained several blunt admissions of unrelated criminal activity, mostly involving illegal money transfers:

“[W]hat was said in the room would be enough to convict us all of something,” Packwood wrote in one. “God, there's Elaine and I sitting there. I think that's a felony, I'm not sure. This is an area of law I don't want to know.”

Packwood’s troubles continued when it was revealed that he’d edited his diaries after they were subpoenaed in an attempt to un-incriminate himself. It didn’t work, and he resigned in 1995, after the entirety of the Senate turned against him.

Jack Ryan

In 2004, businessman Jack Ryan won the Republican nomination for an open Senate seat in Illinois (yes, another scandal involving an Illinois Senate seat). During the campaign, court documents from Ryan’s divorce were made public, and in them, his ex-wife and actress Jeri Ryan) said that he’d taken her to a sex club and tried to get her into public sex. (He was unsuccessful.) This embarrassment was enough to sink Ryan’s chances in the race, and he soon withdrew his candidacy.

What’s fascinating about this case is what it ultimately led to. After Ryan ended his candidacy, Republicans were forced to find a last-minute replacement. They went with Alan Keyes, a joke candidate from out-of-state who didn’t have a prayer of winning. Keyes ultimately lost by a huge margin to the Democratic nominee — an obscure state senator named Barack Obama.

Yes, if Jack Ryan hadn’t tried to get down with his wife at a sex club, it’s possible that Barack Obama never would have become president. From that perspective, that one court document was one of the most consequential smoking guns in American history.

Richard Nixon

After burglars were caught breaking into the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters shortly before the 1972 presidential election, President Richard Nixon denied any knowledge or involvement in the burglary. To make a painfully protracted episode of American history a bit shorter ... he was lying.

The audio tape widely regarded as the smoking gun revealed Nixon and his aides plotting how to cover their tracks just days after the break-in. Their plan involved telling the FBI, which was investigating the scandal, that its inquiries were detrimental to national security, and that the agency should “stay the hell out of it.” This tape, when it was released, more or less eradicated the little political support Nixon had left, and he resigned soon thereafter.

The Watergate scandal is perhaps the most famous example of a smoking gun bringing down a powerful individual, as the individual in question was the President of the United States. But “smoking gun” is a bit of a misnomer; the Nixon tapes were filled with smoking guns, smoking cannons, smoking grenade launchers, and smoking land mines, any one of which could have destroyed a career or two. There was plenty of damning material on the tapes, much of which was blatantly racist.

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It’s too soon to say whether or not Bridgegate will bring about Christie’s downfall, but it’s worth noting that even conservative outlets like the Daily Caller see this as a serious threat to his political future. If the the shoes continue dropping, the GOP may have to find a new Next Big Thing.

Images: Getty Images; Wikimedia Commons