The Big Idea


It’s the most overrated virtue in politics.

Critics of appointing Hillary Clinton secretary of state have focused on the issue of whether she’ll be faithful to her new boss. The senator, we are reminded, has her own interests, which diverge from those of President-elect Obama’s, and a marked tendency to put her own ambitions first. Perhaps so, but 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.

The price was a surfeit of reliable hacks such as Alberto Gonzalez and outright incompetents such as Michael Brown (“Heckuvajob, Brownie”). My favorite illustration of the misguided notion of loyalty that ran rife through the Bush years was the testimony of White House Political Director Sara Taylor to the Senate committee investigating the firings of U.S. attorneys deemed insufficiently loyal. Declining to answer a question, Taylor said, “I took an oath to the president.”

“Did you mean, perhaps,” Leahy asked, “that you took an oath to the Constitution?”

Surrounding oneself with die-hard loyalists breeds insularity. Over time, the fixation with loyalty devolves toward a mafia view of politics that lends itself to abuse of power. The circle tightens, enemies are listed, paranoia blossoms. This happened in one way in LBJ’s White House, where the president’s mistrust of people tied to the Kennedys prevented him from hearing sound advice about Vietnam. It happened another way in the Nixon White House, where an obsession with national security leaks led to the reign of Haldeman and Erlichman. It happened in another way still in George W. Bush’s White House, where so little internal dissent was allowed that truth became disposable. While the elder George Bush could live with a continual ooze of self-serving leaks from his friend Baker, who (like the unfaithful Henry Kissinger) was a highly effective diplomat, his son gave full “you are dead to me” treatment to any official—John DiIulio, Paul O’Neill, Scott McClellan—who allowed a hint of daylight between himself and the official White House line.

Conversely, the most successful presidents generate loyalty without sweating it. Roosevelt brought nonsupporters including Herbert Hoover’s secretary of state, Henry Stimson, into his Cabinet. Even after his aide Raymond Moley broke publicly with him and became a Republican, FDR had Moley back to help with his 1936 convention speech. It’s hard to think of a bigger turncoat than David Stockman, who gave a series of interviews about why Ronald Reagan’s economic policies made no sense. But Reagan didn’t fire his budget director. He merely asked him to pretend he’d been given a tongue-lashing (the concocted “visit to the woodshed”). After Reagan decided on airstrikes against Hezbollah in retaliation for the Marine barracks bombing in Lebanon in 1983, his secretary of defense, Casper Weinberger, countermanded the order because he thought it was a bad idea. Reagan let that one go, too.

Or recall Bill Clinton, who was famously untrue to everyone, including loyal friends such as Lani Guinier, Jocelyn Elders, George Stephanopoulos, and Harold Ickes. Though his many political betrayals hardly cover him in glory, they point to an adaptability that was one of his strongest suits as a politician. Interestingly, Clinton’s unfaithfulness to staff and friends was seldom reciprocated. There is never any shortage of people ready to loyally serve the president.

One of the most developed loyalty-based political systems was the old Daley machine in Chicago, which gave us such terminology as rabbi for political sponsor and clout for unofficial authority. Both Obama and his designated chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel—who, ironically enough, was once demoted by Bill Clinton for a perceived act of disloyalty—saw the tail end of this system in Chicago. Though Emanuel sometimes plays the enforcer, neither of them aspires to revive it. Team Obama understands that political devotion can no longer be cultivated principally through threats and rewards. Instead, it depends on aides feeling that they’re advancing a set of shared goals. To put it a different way, a modern president can’t command loyalty. He has to earn it.