A year and a half before the Bush era comes to its merciful end, cataloging its failures and pathologies has become not merely a cottage industry but a kind of mass mobilization, a task so vast that it requires the combined efforts of thousands of writers, talkers, thinkers, activists, and ordinary citizens. Every new look at the last six and a half years yields new insight into how government should not operate, another object lesson for future administrations. And one of those lessons of the Bush years is surely that potential disaster lurks behind what we had previously assumed to be a grand virtue: loyalty.
In our daily lives, loyalty is a quality greatly prized. We admire those who are loyal to their spouses, their family, their friends, and their employers. We encourage others to be loyal to their school, their town, their state, and their country. We scorn the millionaire free agent casting off his old team for one with a fatter checkbook, and praise the ballplayer who spends a career with the team that drafted him.
Moreover, in most work situations, loyalty works to the advantage of the organization and those it serves. Loyalty to one's organization breeds work of higher quality and greater diligence, as one seeks to improve performance and outdo competitors. Loyalty to customers means better products and services.
So one might think that loyalty -- both giving it to others and, especially, inspiring it in them -- would be a quality we would seek in a president. If we found out that over his or her career a presidential candidate had been a ruthless backstabber, tossing friends and allies aside willy-nilly for convenience's sake, we would pause at giving that candidate our votes. But should loyalty really be a quality on which we place particular value in a president and his or her administration? Might it not actually be something we would want to avoid?
The answer may well be yes, because of the nature of not just the presidency, but government itself. For starters, in the vast majority of services it provides and tasks it undertakes, government doesn't have direct competitors. Unlike a business devoted to profit, government has many different goals -- and one administration's goals can differ dramatically from those of a previous administration. It is far from clear that loyalty to the president serves any of the broad goals of government -- say, securing prosperity, defending the country, or caring for society's vulnerable members.
The Bush family is, of course, famous for the premium it places on loyalty. Consider the man who may have displayed more loyalty to Bush in the face of competing demands than anyone, Alberto Gonzales. Bush made Gonzales his counsel as Texas governor, then the Secretary of State of Texas (an appointed position), then a justice on the Texas Supreme Court, then the White House counsel, and finally Attorney General (and his desire to place Gonzales on the Supreme Court was widely rumored). This succession of appointments reflected not so much Bush's loyalty to Gonzales as his rewarding of Gonzales' loyalty to him.
There may be others -- Karen Hughes, or Dan Bartlett -- who have spent more hours fiercely defending the president's inspiring perfection in all things, but no one can be said to have done so with a more zealous disregard for his or her other responsibilities than Gonzales. Given just how far this Attorney General has gone to subvert the mission of the Justice Department and rubber stamp each and every attempt by the administration to declare itself above the law, it's unfathomable that anyone, no matter how corrupt, could possibly have done a worse job.
Gonzales' unswerving fealty to whatever George Bush happens to want to do demonstrates one danger of loyalty, the fact that if its object is less than virtuous, the result is the inevitable corruption of the loyal subject. But loyalty is also the foundation on which cronyism rests.
It was loyalty to his old college buddy that led FEMA head Joe Allbaugh to recommend Michael Brown as his replacement (and loyalty that got Allbaugh, who managed Bush's 2000 White House run, his job in the first place). It was loyalty that led Rudy Giuliani to appoint Bernard Kerik -- who embodied a combination of corruption and incompetence that's tough to beat -- to an increasingly critical series of jobs, culminating in his recommendation to Bush that Kerik be nominated as Secretary of Homeland Security. And in one of the most blatant cases, Kyle Sampson, Gonzales's chief of staff, wrote in an email that all U.S. Attorneys who were not "loyal Bushies" should be shown the door. (Sampson went even further to suggest that firing all 93 U.S Attorneys -- and replacing them, presumably, with even-more-loyal Bushies -- would be a good idea "if Karl thinks there would be political will to do it.")
President Bush came to Washington with a cadre of Texas loyalists whose presence has always been viewed as a great political asset. These are people who owe their careers to him and will do anything to see him succeed, unlike the mercenaries who populated the campaigns of the two men he defeated, seemingly content to do a passable job then move happily on to the next campaign, their prospects for advancement no worse for wear. But once a campaign is over and they move into positions of actual governmental power, the loyalty of underlings does precisely nothing to help them serve the public.
So is what we want a government populated by public servants who feel no particular loyalty to the president, and a president who feels no particular loyalty to those who serve him or her? That might be going a bit far. And of course, no president can ensure that everyone in the executive branch will look toward the Oval Office with the same starry-eyed gaze. Bush's first Treasury Secretary, Paul O'Neill, couldn't abide the president's demand for devotion. "That's a false kind of loyalty," he told author Ron Suskind, "loyalty to a person and whatever they say or do, that's the opposite of real loyalty, which is loyalty based on inquiry, and telling someone what you really think and feel – your best estimation of the truth instead of what they want to hear."
But O'Neill's version of loyalty doesn't sound much like loyalty at all, unless we're simply talking about loyalty to the truth. Now there's a novel idea.
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