Overrated loyalty

OVERRATED LOYALTY…. George W. Bush’s fascination with “loyalty” is practically legendary. The president considers it the single most important trait a person in public service can have, far exceeding competence and qualification. Bush, for example, picked Dick Cheney because he knew he’d be loyal (Cheney had no presidential ambitions of his own). Loyalty led to high-ranking posts for all kinds of people who had no business taking on their responsibilities — Alberto Gonzales, I’m looking in your direction — but who were rewarded for their personal devotion and fidelity to the man in the Oval Office.

Slate’s Jacob Weisberg had a good piece today explaining that loyalty is not only wildly overrated in presidential politics, but that truly successful presidents know that an obsession with loyalty is a waste of time and energy.

…I doubt Obama will have much trouble with disloyalty in his administration, from Clinton or anyone else, for the same reason it wasn’t a problem in his campaign: He doesn’t spend a lot of time worrying about it.

Loyalty is a wonderful human quality and a necessary political one. No president would think of moving into the White House without known and trusted advisers such as David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett. At the same time, the recurrent presidential obsession with forms of disloyalty, including leaks, disobedience, and private agendas, is a marker for executive failure. Those presidents who fixated on personal allegiance, such as Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and George W. Bush, tended to perform far worse in office than those, such as Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton, who could tolerate strong, independent actors on their teams.

The demand for absolute loyalty is a relic from the age of patronage, when political appointments were tied to the delivery of votes for a sponsor. A modern media politician does not depend on this kind of machine for his existence and has political control over only a thin sliver of top-level government jobs. The vast majority of public employees is protected by the Civil Service and can’t be vetted for loyalty. As the complexity of the government has increased, so, too, has the importance of expertise and experience.

This is part of what has made George W. Bush’s loyalty obsession such a throwback. Bush’s first job in politics was as an “enforcer” for a father he thought was too nice to discipline traitors and freelancers. His own fixation on loyalty was born from the experience of watching top aides to his dad such as James Baker and Richard Darman put their own careers and images first. When his turn came, the younger Bush made personal loyalty a threshold test — and even seemed to regard private, internal challenge to his ill-considered preferences as an indication of untrustworthiness.

This is an interesting way to look at it. The conventional wisdom has long suggested that Bush has shielded himself from dissent and competing ideas due to a lack of intellectual curiosity and mental acuity. But this underestimates the significance of loyalty in shaping Bush’s worldview.

Newsweek had a report a few years ago that noted, “It’s a standing joke among the president’s top aides: who gets to deliver the bad news? Warm and hearty in public, Bush can be cold and snappish in private, and aides sometimes cringe before the displeasure of the president of the United States… Bush can be petulant about dissent; he equates disagreement with disloyalty.” (emphasis added)

If one “equates disagreement with disloyalty,” he/she necessarily creates an insular bubble where no one is allowed to stray from the party line, and everyone is expected to agree wholeheartedly with the president,regardless of merit. In this sense, Bush’s obsession with loyalty not only helps explain why incompetent, partisan hacks were promoted to critical government posts, it also helps highlight why never paid attention to those whose opinions he should have taken seriously.

It’s reassuring, then, that Obama expects to earn loyalty, not demand it.