Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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November 29, 2008

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.

Steve Benen 12:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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He equates dissent with disloyalty, to paraphrase what you said. That sounds pretty much correct: it is a sign of someone who is trying to enforce an image of himself that even he doesn't meet. In other words, a sign in insecurity. Bush the insecure. It goes hand in hand with his image of not really having a total grasp of details, but having been elevated to a position to which he really has no right.

Will peopel remember this the next time we see a Quayle, or a Palin, or a George W>?

Posted by: chris on November 29, 2008 at 12:50 PM | PERMALINK

Uh, this sounds more like submission, not loyalty. Dammed creepy. I wouldn't ever bow and scrape like that. That's the whole point of being free.

Posted by: Bob M on November 29, 2008 at 1:05 PM | PERMALINK

Loyalty derives from respect. It exists independently of the power to punish. For instance, it could be relatively easy for weak followers to remain silent under Bush, but once liberated from his administration, write a book or hit the air-waves with nasty comments.

But if the leader creates a space where he demands advice and shows that he is happy to get it, even when he disagrees, and even when he goes against that advice, he shows respect for the role of those working for him.

During the campaign Obama used the opposite of his ability to generate loyalty (to listen and respect) to really piss off his opponents causing them to lash out: he dismissed Bill Clinton, said Hillary was "nice enough", brushed stuff off his shoulders, etc. Bush just did this to everyone.

Posted by: tomj on November 29, 2008 at 1:06 PM | PERMALINK

Great way to get the best possible advice--surrounding yourself with toadies who only want to spout the party line. What other country does that sound like?

Add in the fact that the Bush administration seems to have put commissars at or near the top of each Department to enforce this loyalty and you can see the reasons it was such a feckless, disastrously incompetent Presidency.

Posted by: carwinrpc on November 29, 2008 at 1:09 PM | PERMALINK

Not to beat a lame horse, but explicit in Bush's fixation on loyalty - " he equates disagreement with disloyalty" - is the threat of authoritarianism. I know this is obvious, but it needs to be said again and again: given slightly different political, social, and economic circumstances, and given the entrenched xenophobic, nationalistic and expansionist elements in the American electorate and its representatives, the U.S. could easily have slid into an overtly fascistic state. Bush's emotionally truncated death grip on loyalty, for me, clarifies and emphasizes this nicely.

Posted by: Conrads Ghost on November 29, 2008 at 1:15 PM | PERMALINK

You could have gone further and pointed out that loyalty (omerta) is characteristic of criminal organizations. Members of these organizations feel obligation only to the group and form a united front against everyone else. Nixon seemed to admire The Godfather.

Bush's unitary presidency acknowledged no obligation to morality, law or anything else. It was a thoroughly predatory organization.

Posted by: John Emerson on November 29, 2008 at 1:19 PM | PERMALINK

Shorter loyalty determinant from George W Bush: "Would they testify against me"?

Posted by: jcricket on November 29, 2008 at 1:21 PM | PERMALINK

The motto of the Waffen SS was:

"Mine honour is called loyalty"

It ties nicely to the threat of authoritarianism noted above, without going all Godwin's law.

Posted by: jamie_2002 on November 29, 2008 at 1:22 PM | PERMALINK

Blind loyalty leads to coverups and corruption.

Posted by: Jet on November 29, 2008 at 1:22 PM | PERMALINK

GW Bush: Not only incompetent, but not even "the kind of guy you'd like to have a beer with" anyway. (That kind of guy, you can tell things ....) Yet so many of those redstater/dittohead types voted for him for the latter ostensible reaason. Now he is still rampaging around causing continued damamge. And, in boogerflicking at Gore and Kerry with false or irrelevant charges of dishonesty/woodenness/elitist etc, the MSM played right into his hands.

BTW, just why so hard to undo Bush's last minute adjustments? Why not for Obama to just declare things "undone" and see how far he can get?

Posted by: Neil B ☺ on November 29, 2008 at 1:26 PM | PERMALINK

Very interesting.

Combine that with reading "Angler" and it would appear that Cheney acquired to job of Vice President and his independence in office by convincing - even selling - Bush on his absolute loyalty to him. Of course, Cheney's ambition has been to implement his view of the Unitary Presidency and to "return" the power to the office of the Presidency that he felt was improperly stripped away during the post-Watergate era.

The result was that we have had Bush-in-a-bubble passively doing what he thinks government should do (nothing) getting all his information only from those of whose loyalty he is totally convinced. Meanwhile Cheney has been freelancing uncontrolled across the government in the areas of Intelligence, Foreign policy and military functions.

While Cheney was freelancing in his desired areas, Rove was similarly freelancing. His agenda was to use the entire federal government as a political tool to get Republicans across the nation elected to office. No doubt Rove also sold Bush on his loyalty to Bush.

This process worked in the first four years, but apparently fell apart early in the second term. Rove left, but nothing so drastic could be done with Cheney since he was independently elected to office.

I wonder where and how Bush was convinced that Rove and Cheney were no longer loyal? There's a story in that change.

The idea of Bush's view on loyalty could be an interesting unifying principle to hold together the story of the Bush administration and its principle triumvirate, Bush, Rove and Cheney.

I have the feeling that Bush also had an agenda for his Presidency, and elements of that agenda were presented during the 2000 election. Compassionate Conservatism and bring a tone of bipartisanship to Washington were, I think, examples of the agenda that Bush himself believed he could bring to Washington. But Bush's agenda crashed on the rocks of the combined agendas of Cheney and Rove. Bush's temperament of passivity, his dislike for the detail work of administration, and his inability to receive contradictory information because he considered the carrier of such information disloyal and as a result untrustworthy, left him powerless to compete with the individual agendas driven by the much less passive characters of Cheney and Rove.

Bush's strong demand for personal loyalty seems to me to provide an overall coherency to that story.

Posted by: Rick B on November 29, 2008 at 1:54 PM | PERMALINK

I have my doubts about Cheney's loyalty. We may never know, but I suspect that Bush was worked into a corner on many issues where he had very few options by the far better manipulator, Cheney. I wonder how many times Bush thought he had made a decision when the decision had already been made by Cheney's behind the scenes work that forced his options down to one. Bush may still think Cheney has been loyal, but has he?

Posted by: Th on November 29, 2008 at 1:54 PM | PERMALINK

OK, so let's say we have A = Obama doesn't care about loyalty and will tolerate strong actors.

And, we have B = Obama is not appointing liberals or progressives to his Cabinet, just centrists and rightists.

If we put A+B together, don't we arrive at C, which is that the strong centrists and rightists in the Obama Cabinet will steer a centrist and rightist course?

Because we remember, the President can't know every action taken, rule handed down or effort raised for policies taken by the Cabinet.

Posted by: AlphaLiberal on November 29, 2008 at 1:56 PM | PERMALINK

Machiavelli had a few things to say about it.

Posted by: supersaurus on November 29, 2008 at 1:56 PM | PERMALINK

Bush, for example, allowed Dick Cheney to choose himself


Posted by: Screamin' Demon on November 29, 2008 at 2:17 PM | PERMALINK

To John Emerson,

You are correct that personal loyalty is what holds criminal organizations together. That's because those organizations exist outside the normal social institutions like legal contracts enforceable by the courts and laws that prescribe and can be used to enforce the behavior of people inside legally established organizations.

Criminal organizations are held together by individual personalities and structures of loyalties to those individuals. So are ad hoc warrior bands. Feudalism grew up as those forms of loyalties to an individual were institutionalized and were enforced as rules prescribed by society.

I consider the English Glorious Revolution of 1688 as being one of the great steps in organizations, when the organization created by the King (Parliament) rose up, removed and replaced the King, and required the replacements, William and Mary, to be subject to the same kinds of laws and restrictions as their subordinates.

The conservative idea that executives need to be free of entangling rules and regulations in order to be successful is pushed by people who still are fighting against the results of the Glorious Revolution.

I might add that most businesses still operate on that personal loyalty to a leader until they get too large for that to hold the whole organization together. What actually holds large organizations together is routine and bureaucratic procedure, a fact that only becomes obvious when it prevents someone from doing something they want to do.

The executives enamored by the "cult of the executive" do not understand how to function effectively inside a large organization. They consider the executive to be a super individual who operates without outside assistance, which is the core justification for outsized executive salaries and bonuses. They also thrash around against the very bureaucratic procedure that allows their larger organizations to exist, and when trying to change things they slash away those processes that currently make things work first, then have to rebuild them later.

Posted by: Rick B on November 29, 2008 at 2:19 PM | PERMALINK

I wouldn't say Cheney had no presidential aspirations; his aspirations went beyond the Presidency. Cheney knew he could never be elected to anything again, and manipulated Bush's confidence in him and mania about loyalty to make himself arguably our first Dictator. (Jackson, Lincoln and Nixon are other cases for Dictatorship, and Adams I tried and failed, but that's for the history books. We had to live through this.)

Rove was also smart enough to put himself in a similar position. There's a question of how much he actually profited beyond the thrill of power (is he still marketable as a political manipulator and prophet?), but Cheney used his power to squirrel away billions for himself and more for his friends, all in a "blind" trust, of course.

And while we're talking about abuse of power and those who supported it, a special razz-out to Ruben Navarette of CNN who, while the whole Gonzalez mess was unravelling, kept up a steady drumbeat that Gonzalez was being discriminated against by the media because he was Hispanic. There should be a name for someone who misses the forest because he's concentrating on his one special tree. I mean besides "idiot."

Posted by: ericfree on November 29, 2008 at 2:22 PM | PERMALINK

We should not accept the authoritarian meme that "loyalty" and "obedience" are the same thing. Loyalty should be held to a higher definition, one centered around integrity and moral courage. Every leader needs to find subordinates who can be trusted, but trust that is based on commitment and devotion, not simply submission. The chief feature of loyalty - to a leader or to an ideal - is not just sticking to it, but sticking through thick and thin out of deeply-felt dedication. It's a bad sign for our culture that we can observe the outer signs, but cannot measure the depth of a feature.

Posted by: Brownell on November 29, 2008 at 2:24 PM | PERMALINK


The CEO doesn't have to know what every minion is doing. He presents a vision of where the organization is going and sets up procedures for measuring success by subordinates by comparing their efforts to those required to support the vision. Members of the organization then self-select to a large degree by whether they want to work to implement that vision. When they disagree with the vision, they leave the organization.

Those centrists you are whining about are technicians who understand how to operate inside a large organization. But their individual successes and failures will be judged by how well they forward Obama's vision. And they know that before they take the job.

That's exactly what Obama meant the other day when he told a questioner "I am the agent of change here." He provides the vision everyone is working towards, and he needs top flight technicians - executives to implement that vision - to get the organization moved in that direction. That's the executive function, one rarely seen practiced by most executives. I am impressed. Obama understands it.

The policy-making function, by the way, should be performed separately from the executive functions of actually implementing the policy. What we are watching as the administration is put together is the choices of who will execute the vision. Obama is creating the vision to be implemented outside of the view of the Press.

I'm a long time student of strategic management, and I want to tell you we are watching a true master at work as Obama takes over. He is also not making the mistake of substituting personalities and ideologies for the necessary job of policy-making. He does not want ideologues in executive positions. That's true of both right-wing and left-wing ideologues who consider violations of the ideology to be something akin to religious heresy. You wouldn't want either Norquist or Nadar inside an administration.

Bush is an example of what happens when a committed ideologue comes up against a problem either outside of his ideology, or as the current economic crisis demonstrates, one caused by the ideologue's ideology. Bush is frozen immobile in place, and Paulson is almost as bad.

Posted by: Rick B on November 29, 2008 at 2:43 PM | PERMALINK

I wonder where and how Bush was convinced that Rove and Cheney were no longer loyal? -- RickB, @13:54

Stalin had a fixation on loyalty, also. To begin with, he thought he got rid of all the "moles" and everything was sunshine. But, at some point, he must have realised that loyalty demanded and enforced wasn't worth anything. Only love is blind and freely given; loyalty, like respect, has to be earned.

That's when he started purging all of his erst-while best and most loyal friends and even family. A lot of it was paranoia of sorts but it certainly had solid underpinnings of reality; it's impossible to admire someone of whom you're scared rigid.

Posted by: exlibra on November 29, 2008 at 2:53 PM | PERMALINK

Seems like they all forgot about loyalty to Country and Constitution... such quaint anachronisms.

Posted by: Buford on November 29, 2008 at 3:03 PM | PERMALINK

Jacob Weisberg is wrong to think the loyalty demanded by recent national politicians like Hillary Clinton and George W. Bush is a relic of the age of patronage. It is rather a product of the imperatives of modern campaign politics.

Foremost among these imperatives is message discipline. A President, or Presidential candidate, whose message is muddled will have difficulty defining him or herself before the electorate. Threats to message clarity emanating from the President or candidate himself are difficult to deal with, but threats coming from supporters or subordinates are much easier.

Barack Obama himself was quick to distance himself during the campaign from associates quoted as saying things perceived as unhelpful to his campaign. Newly elected by a substantial margin, he now appears less interested in enforcing loyalty for much the same reason Reagan and Bill Clinton were -- he has greater confidence in his own position and talents as a politician than to fear mortal damage from subordinates straying off-message.

It is worth considering that the modern administrations most concerned about enforcing loyalty, or message discipline, from subordinate officials were those of Presidents insecure about their own ability to appeal to the electorate: Johnson, Nixon, and the two Bushes. Nixon, always convinced he was disliked by more Americans than was actually the case, made most of his own problems, but each of the three other Presidents in this group were well justified in thinking their hold on the top position of American politics was a tenuous one that required extra effort to support. The younger Bush in particular, elected by a fluke of the electoral college -- popular for a time only because of the historical accident that 9/11 happened on his watch, and heavily influenced during his first term by a Vice President consciously pursuing policies he knew had little popular support -- was not unjustified in thinking that his standing in the country was more fragile, and more vulnerable to message indiscipline by difficult subordinates than it appeared.

Hillary Clinton, too, a determined and disciplined candidate but not an especially appealing personality, demonstrated in her Presidential campaign a preference for personal loyalty in her staff over other qualities that might have served her better. The resulting drama -- ably documented in the Michele Cottle article still linked to in the left hand column on this site -- was more consequential for her than it would have been for politicians with greater confidence in their own abilities as candidates, people like Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

Posted by: Zathras on November 29, 2008 at 3:14 PM | PERMALINK

BTW, Cheney wasn't loyal to Bush in the first place! He had his own agenda and worked around (perhaps contemptuously) the barely cognizant Bush - that was his whole raison d'être , whatever Bush may have thought at first. I think that fits into the "Angler" story.

Posted by: Neil B ☺ on November 29, 2008 at 3:20 PM | PERMALINK

"What is it about George W. Bush that makes you want to serve him?"

"You are the best governor ever--deserving of great respect!"

"Honestly, I think we should just trust our president in every decision he makes and should just support that, you know, and be faithful in what happens."

Posted by: Winkandanod on November 29, 2008 at 3:20 PM | PERMALINK

To Rick B who said this:

Those centrists you are whining about

Look, you insulting jerk. I wasn't whining. I was raising a rational and wholly legitimate point. That centrists tend to rule like centrists. Screw you.

I'm ignoring the rest of your post, which is a regurgitation of Obama camp talking points.

And, to Obama backers like this, you're behaving like hypocrites. You denigrate liberals and progressives asking questions and raising valid points, without dealing with substance. THIS IS THE KIND OF POLITICS OBAMA RAN AGAINST.

A rational discussion is, apparently, not possible as Obama's most blindly loyal backers embrace ad hominem and distortion.

Posted by: AlphaLiberal on November 29, 2008 at 3:31 PM | PERMALINK

To AlphaLiberal

Touchy, aren't you?

A rational discussion with an emotional hothead who can't stand being disagreed with is quite impossible. Perhaps you might actually get a rational discussion if you tried to be rational. A thicker skin against anyone disagreeing with you would be a major step towards rationality. So would actually addressing my ideas rather than flying off the handle because you are insulted that I actually had the temerity to disagree with your perfect wisdom and superb ability to question what you clearly don't understand.

I originally supported any Democrat, on the clear understanding that the Republican Party has driven out all its sane members and is currently getting rid of the last of its near-sane ones. But I was an Edwards supporter before having to choose to vote between Clinton and Obama. My decision in that vote was based on my belief that Obama would have greater coattails here in Texas than Clinton would. I ignored my distrust of his Kumbaya politics. I was right about the coattails, by the way. Democrats here would not have turned out to vote for Clinton they way they did this year for Obama.

Since last March I have grown more impressed by Obama. I have spent a number of years studying management and Strategic management, and I have to say that of all the Presidents I have observed since Ike, none have shown the practical grasp of strategic management the way Obama has.

The way he is setting things in place to pass universal health care is quite amazing. He is setting the structure into place to do that. He is off into uncharted waters in dealing with the financial collapse and the resulting disaster that is growing in the real economy as Bush fiddles and as Paulson, limited by his ideology, tries to protect his beloved banks from their just desserts.

But Obama is not perfect. He is going to make mistakes, and probably already has. So far, though, his touch seems golden. He's not doing what I would do, but what he has done so far seems to work.

But I'm watching process, without applying a major test of ideology as you seem to be. So far, Obama's process-oriented approach seems to be working a lot better than Bill Clinton's more ideologically-oriented approach did 16 years ago.

It's sort of like watching an aikido match instead of brute force boxing. I still can't tell in advance where Obama's success comes from. There seems to be a lot of slow movement, a quick flurry of action by his opponents, and suddenly they are laid out and ready for pickup. It's like Obama is guiding his opponents to defeat themselves.

As for me spouting Obama talking points, well I think he has been telling us what he would do then he goes ahead and does it. It's just hard to see how it works. With your level of anger and frustration, you will never have a clue.

My sympathies. It's been a good show, and it will continue to be. It's a shame you can't enjoy it.

Posted by: Rick B on November 29, 2008 at 7:57 PM | PERMALINK

Rick B, @19:27,

Agree with your assessment of what's being done and how. The visuals of it (one picture, 1000 words category) have been captured nicely by the incomparable Toles:
or, tiny:

Posted by: exlibra on November 29, 2008 at 8:46 PM | PERMALINK

Bush, for example, picked Dick Cheney because he knew he'd be loyal (Cheney had no presidential ambitions of his own).


Good one, Steve...

Posted by: yam on November 30, 2008 at 12:48 AM | PERMALINK

I think you have to look a little deeper with anyone who won't hear advice that contradicts their own views, considers disagreement as disloyalty rather than honest help, and is obsessive about it.

A lot of how the idiot son behaves is removed from empathy either with broader society or for those closer to him. Some of his behavior seems at least sociopathic. He has used his position for a personal agenda and personal gratification rather than for the good of the country and its populace as a whole. He seems devoid of imagination or engagement except at the most trivial level.

Someone more qualified than myself might like to expand on these observations.

Posted by: notthere on November 30, 2008 at 3:06 AM | PERMALINK

The equation of dissent with disloyalty is very common in the corporate world. If you disagree with the ideas that come down from the corner office, you are "not a team player" who quickly gets marginalized.

Keep up this treacherous habit and you see the other side of the door.

Posted by: oswald krell on November 30, 2008 at 7:31 AM | PERMALINK

As George "I'm the Decider" Bush's disasterous presidency demonstrates, right wing authoritarians can be extremely dangerous in positions of authority.

They are characterized by unquestioning submissiveness to perceived leaders, and at the same time react with hostility and aggrssion to any perceived "other". They are dangerous because they easily resort to violence and never think through the consequences of their actions.

They are not fully cooked as human beings, never having developed logical and reasoning skills in adolescence. They are stuck in a childish, fearful world where lashing out is the first and only response to any perceived threat.

It's like Suskind wrote in "The One Percent Doctrine": even if there is only a one percent chance that something is a threat, Cheney and the rest of the neocons react as though the threat is a certainty. This may have been effective in a tribal setting, but in the modern world, this type of thinking is dangerous folly.

Posted by: esaund on November 30, 2008 at 8:19 AM | PERMALINK

The idea that Kennedy performed better than Johnson is laughable. Only somebody fixated on Vietnam, or who ignores Kennedy's contribution to furthering our involvement in that war, would think otherwise.

Posted by: None on November 30, 2008 at 11:31 AM | PERMALINK

Hey, Hitler had the same thing going. And it DID affect a lot of things over time, because no one was willing to incur his wrath.

...just another way - besides torture and invading countries that hadn't attacked ours - that BushCo was like the Nazis.

Posted by: SteveGinIL on December 1, 2008 at 1:27 AM | PERMALINK



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