Credit Richard Perry/The New York Times
There are a few chief lessons that those who work in politics should remember:
Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer. Cater to the base, but donât neglect the swing vote. And never look a gift horse in the mouth, unless, of course, it has business before your office.
But there is one rule that often gets forgotten: Do not, under any circumstances, write a text message that could cause you, or your boss, shame if it suddenly appeared on the front page of a newspaper.
The most recent disremembering of this sort came to light this week in the George Washington Bridge scandal, in which former allies of the New Jersey governor, Chris Christie, have been accused of plotting to block traffic to the bridge. In court papers filed on Wednesday, it was revealed that one of Governor Christieâs aides, Christina Genovese Renna, had written a text to a colleague saying that if some of her bossâs emails were discovered they would prove that he had âflat-out liedâ about his role in the plot.
Though Ms. Renna was apparently aware of the delicate nature of the Republican governorâs private messages, she was, it seemed, oblivious that her own might at some point end up in federal court.
It is hard to fathom that any public servant has not yet figured out that there is no such thing any longer as a confidential text message. Back in the pre-Snapchat era of 2008, The Detroit Free Press obtained, by way of lawsuit, more than 14,000 text messages between the cityâs former mayor, Kwame M. Kilpatrick, a Democrat, and his then chief of staff, Christine Beatty, revealing that the two were having an affair.
Last year, the Missouri House speaker, John Diehl, a Republican, was forced to resign after trading sexual messages with a college student working as an intern. The list goes on: Stephen Crabb, a Welsh Conservative Party politician, who is currently under fire for having swapped explicit messages with a younger woman during the run-up to the âBrexitâ referendum; the San Francisco police officers who were caught this year exchanging racist messages; and former Representative Anthony D. Weiner of Brooklyn, a Democrat, who made a habit out of distributing pictures of his genitals by text.
The intersection of texting and politics can often be perilous because the person-to-person medium offers an illusion of intimacy when, in fact, such messages have increasingly become discoverable material in legal matters.
âIn criminal cases, the first thing lawyers do is say, âLetâs go to the electronics and see whatâs there,ââ said Jim Thomas, a lawyer who represented Mr. Kilpatrick during his ordeal. âYou can dance like no oneâs looking at you. But you better not text unless you want to see it in a deposition.â
Since text messages are often written on the run and while the writer is involved in other business â say, for instance, the business of the state â they tend to encourage a thoughtless form of communication, said La Trice Washington, the author of âPolitical Scandals: The Consequences of Temporary Gratification.â
âWhen a text comes in, the average person doesnât sit down, get their bearings and then respond,â said Dr. Washington, a professor of political science at Otterbein University. âWeâre usually oblivious because so much is coming at us and before you know it, you hit that button and have already sent out something youâre going to regret.â
This would seem especially true for a busy, multitasking governorâs aide.
Ms. Renna sent the texts in question on Dec. 13, 2013, as Mr. Christie was under pressure about what he knew about the scheme to tie up traffic on the Fort Lee, N.J., side of the George Washington Bridge. In recent months, his own cellphone has become a kind of issue. For weeks, the phone was missing, prompting shrugs of curiosity among the lawyers preparing for the Sept. 12 trial of two of his former allies for their roles in the alleged traffic plot. Then, last month, the mystery was solved: Mr. Christieâs lawyer had the phone the entire time.
Credit From left: Rebecca Cook/Associated Press; Karsten Moran for The New York Times; Oli Scarff/Agence France-Presse â Getty Images; Jeff Roberson/Associated Press
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York, a Democrat, has also been known to use text messages to interact with close aides and reporters â on some occasions sprinkled with emoji â but he has set up what seems to be a tighter operation when it comes to more official communications. He does not use email; he tends to communicate with his aides through untraceable BlackBerry messages.
Douglas Rushkoff, a media theorist and the author most recently of âPresent Shock,â said that, unlike in earlier eras when communications vanished, a fundamental aspect of the digital-media age was that every word a person typed on a cellphone or computer was permanently stored somewhere in a retrievable file.
âEverything we do is being remembered,â Mr. Rushkoff said. âEverything we do may as well be etched on the side of the Parthenon.â
But why, if everything is remembered, do certain politicians and their aides seem at times to forget that?
âWith every ability that we extend through media technology,â Mr. Rushkoff said, âthereâs a corresponding amputation in the human being.â In other words, he said, we do not remember that our devices remember. âPeople are pretty darn stupid in the end when it comes down to how they use these things.â