Lee Atwater in 1988
Associated Press/Photo by Dennis Cook (file)
Lee Atwater in 1988

Bridgegate’s workplace lesson


Many years ago I worked with a talented political organizer who shared with me a very strange prayer request. He told me he regularly prayed that God would give him the spirit of the aggressive and feared Republican political strategist Lee Atwater. That odd petition goes along with an observation made by Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan about the thuggish bridge-closing affair that’s dogging New Jersey Gov. 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, N.J., for not endorsing the governor in the 2013 election, Noonan noted that young staffers tend to lack wisdom and are often motivated by seeking the admiration of their political bosses. Noonan, a former Reagan speechwriter, used the career of Atwater as an example. 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 his dirty tricks. He died in 1991 at age 40 after battling brain cancer, just one year before Bush’s failed reelection bid against Bill Clinton and Ross Peroit.

Noonan wrote, “Lee was a political guy who wanted to be appreciated as a significant player.” She added that young political staffers “want to be admired by the boss. … That’s how dirty tricks happen.”

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She speculates that Christie’s “Bridgegate” may have come about because young staffers decided to use Atwater-like tactics in order to win the boss’ favor. How pathetic, right? But how many of us have been guilty of working to seek the approval of a superior while committing a number of sins along the way? We may not have pulled a bridge stunt, but my guess is that nearly everyone, including me, has made some regrettable mistakes along those lines. 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. But what’s the antidote?

Years ago, a respected gentleman retiring from Grove City College told me that his primary motivation for his work was Colossians 3:23: “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men.” That verse could certainly change a worker and a workplace culture.

I had read the apostle Paul’s words many times, but when my colleague cited them I began to think more deeply about their implications. It meant that my primary motivation in the workplace should be to love God and love my neighbor as myself. Those are the things that my Eternal Boss requires. Is Colossians 3:23 a panacea? Well, no, because I’m still a sinner and I fall short. But this verse is certainly a powerful workplace commandment offering wisdom that produces peace in a variety of ways.

If Peggy Noonan is correct about the motivation of Gov. Christie’s staffers, they made a classic mistake that could have been avoided. She wrote, “The [political operatives] who are young lack judgment, but they don’t know they lack judgment because they’re not wise enough. So they don’t check themselves.” Colossians 3:23 is a good check for young and old.

Lee Wishing
Lee Wishing

Lee is the administrative director of The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.


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