When Is It OK To Betray a Friend?

There is something unseemly about former Clinton aides making large amounts of money for speaking out–in books, lectures, and on television–against their former boss. But it is not obvious what makes it objectionable. It cannot be the substance of their criticism, which is after all justified. If George Stephanopoulos, Dee Dee Myers, and Mike McCurry were out there defending Clinton against charges of lying and sexual misconduct, they would rightly be condemned (and not only by the Wall Street Journal) for an excess of loyalty, as mindless apologists for the shameful behavior of their former boss. But since they are not being apologists, they are accused of being traitors. Is this accusation just?

Well, not exactly. Who or what is being wrongly betrayed? There are two possibilities: One is that they are betraying the president. But for the betrayal of a person to be wrong, the person must be worthy of loyalty. By lying to the public, and to the aides and officials who defended him before the public, President Clinton did much to forfeit the loyalty he would otherwise be due. (It could still be argued, however, that aides who owe their prominence to Clinton owe him something for that, notwithstanding his own betrayals.)

The second possibility is that they are betraying the cause for which this administration stands, and for which their former colleagues in the White House continue to fight. The problem with this theory is that it is difficult to identify with this administration a cause sufficiently large and compelling to justify withholding legitimate criticism of the president. Reaching an agreement to secure the financing of Social Security would be a good thing. But it is not likely to be helped or hurt by tales out of school by former aides.

If the so-called “commentraitors” cannot be charged with outright betrayal, perhaps the objection consists in the commodification of their candor–the fact that they are profiting so handsomely for their frankness. This objection, I think, comes closer to the mark. It is not their fault, of course, that in our media-frenzied moment, spilling all sells well. But former officials have always faced the temptation to convert access into affluence. Traditionally, retiring White House aides cashed in on their contacts and status quietly–by selling access to corporate clients as lobbyists and lawyers. Today, they cash in more noisily–by selling exposure and revelation. Once, we worried about the revolving door between government and K Street; today we worry about the revolving door between government and Larry King Live.