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James A. White: Bridgegate, ideology and character

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Many attribute political operatives' purposeful disruption of traffic on the country's busiest bridge to the poor character of those involved. Such a conclusion, while perhaps partially accurate, is incomplete.

Callous indifference to the suffering of others is by definition antisocial and deviant behavior, and the participants in Bridgegate appear afflicted with that character flaw.

People like Bridget Anne Kelly, the governor's deputy chief of staff in New Jersey, who sent the email initiating the traffic disruption, who are willing to undertake and tolerate such action are unworthy for public employment; Gov. Chris Christie was right to fire her.

It strains credulity to believe that Ms. Kelly was the only person still on the New Jersey public payroll involved in this crass and harmful political stunt.

I don't know Ms. Kelly, but I know many people who have had similar educational and employment experiences. Like her, I grew up in New Jersey, went to Catholic school, got an undergraduate degree in political science from a sectarian institution, and worked as a political appointee for a Republican governor who won his second term by a landslide margin.

I'm confident that Ms. Kelly was not taught to behave in an antisocial manner at either Immaculate Heart Academy or Mount St. Mary's College. I think it's likely that her actions in this instance are not only embarrassing but also aberrational to her fundamental character. Public service is an unlikely career choice for those who seek to harm others. We all know that good people sometimes do bad things.

The particular impetus for the egregious behavior of Gov. Christie's appointees remains to be seen, but I think the true cause lies in an ideology that demeans government and those who work in public service. In my experience, people who regularly hear, believe -- and pretending to believe is likely at least as bad as truly believing -- and tell others that government is the source of our problems are more likely to behave coldheartedly when employed by the government.

That is, the fundamental problem is likely bigger, and harder to eliminate, than individual miscreants; the real problem is the increasingly popular ideology that less government is always better.

My experience in the 1980s working in constituent services for New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean taught me that such an ideology is mistaken. We had minimal direct contact with the governor himself, but I'm confident that his personal character and ideological outlook determined how we were told to do our jobs.

Our supervisors, high-level political appointees, stressed that we were employed to serve all the citizens of the state. We were told that we were lucky to have our jobs and that people more talented than us would gladly take our places for less pay.

We were expected to work hard, to be sensible and reasonable, to be thoughtful advocates for solutions that were both lawful and just, and to ignore politics. When we worked town-hall meetings, we were told to be courteous to all participants and to be available after the meeting to listen to constituents' problems and then provide them with our contact numbers. We were not to prescreen questions or to favor supporters with the microphone: First come, first served. Gov. Kean, we were told, believed that good government itself was good politics.

Politicians like Gov. Kean know that elections are intramural events; afterward, Democrats, Republicans, Independents and nonvoters alike are all on the same team. Those of us privileged to work in government, whether elected, appointed or hired, are paid to help solve shared problems, be they major and intractable adversaries such as disease, crime and ignorance or more common, and perhaps equally intractable minor ones like bureaucratic intransigence and indifference.

The vast majority of government employees I've met during my career in public service believe in and personify similar values. It is bitterly ironic and regrettable that many contemporary politicians, often posing as constitutional purists, seek personal advantage by undermining faith in our collective efforts "to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity."

Willfully snarling traffic threatens public safety and causes all manner of real hardships. The most lasting consequence of this cruel political stunt may be, however, to further erode faith in government itself rather than the flawed individuals who engaged in misdeeds.

If that outcome occurs, then, perversely, those who seek private gain at the expense of the public good will have actually profited from their transgressions. Gov. Christie is rightly concerned about his own reputation and his political future; a true statesman must be equally concerned with restoring public trust in collective action even at the expense of his own personal ambitions.

White is a professor of political science at Concord University.


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