Many years ago I worked with a talented political organizer who made a very strange prayer request. After one of our meetings he told me that he regularly prayed that God would give him the spirit of the aggressive and feared Republican political organizer Lee Atwater. I thought that comment was strange, and I still do, yet it supports an observation made by a leading journalist last week about the thuggish bridge-closing affair that is dogging New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.
Commenting on the Christie scandal in which one of his staffers shut down several lanes of the George Washington Bridge to exact political revenge on the mayor of Fort Lee for not endorsing the governor in 2013, Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan noted that young staffers lack wisdom and are often motivated by seeking the admiration of their political bosses. Noonan, a former Reagan speechwriter, referenced the career of Lee Atwater as an illustration. Atwater, a kingpin in the Republican Party and chairman of George H.W. Bush’s successful 1988 presidential campaign, was a cunning campaign strategist known for dirty tricks.
Noonan wrote, “Lee Atwater … was a political guy who wanted to be appreciated as a significant player. … He just wanted respect, wanted people to understand political professionals are important.” Noonan also said that young political staffers “vie with each other for Most Loyal. They want to be admired by the boss. They want to be his confidantes. They want to be the one he trusts to get the job done. You can get into a lot of trouble like that. There’s an ethos of wise-guy toughness among these staffers and consultants, and they often try to out-tough each other. That’s how dirty tricks happen.” She continued, “A bit of this ethos is traceable to the late GOP operative Lee Atwater who worked in the Reagan and first Bush campaigns.”
So, Peggy Noonan speculates that Christie’s “Bridgegate” may have come about due to young staffers using Atwater-like tactics in order to win the boss’s admiration. How pathetic of these young folks, right? But how many of us have been guilty of working to seek the approval of a superior and committing a number of sins along the way? We may not have pulled a New Jersey bridge stunt and snarled traffic for days but my guess is that nearly everyone, including me, has made some regrettable mistakes in this vein. It’s just part of human nature–we want to do well, we want approval—and we’re fallible. That’s a potent formula for disaster. What’s the antidote?