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The Perils of Loyalty in Politics
We may like the idea that people should remain faithful to their friends. But ask a politician to be loyal? It may be both dumb politics and bad for the country. By Eric Felten
Comments () | Published June 13, 2011
When Barack Obama's pastor, Jeremiah Wright, made inflammatory comments, Obama said he couldn't disown him. Then he decided winning was more important than loyalty. Photo-illustration by John Ueland
In March 2008, when the nuttier ravings of Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama’s Chicago pastor, surfaced—among the reasons God should “damn America,” Wright said, was the government’s supposed invention of HIV “as a means of genocide against people of color”—Obama responded that although he disagreed with some of Wright’s remarks, he wouldn’t toss him under the bus.

“I can no more disown him than I can disown my white grandmother,” the presidential candidate declared.

Journalist Andrew Sullivan blogged: “I would think much, much less of [Obama] if he disowned a spiritual guide because of that man’s explicable if inexcusable resort to paranoia.” Sullivan added later: “I do not believe his refusal to disown Wright is a function of politics, but a function of human loyalty and love.”

We aren’t used to displays of loyalty in politics, and especially rare is when it’s exhibited by a leader. Followers are expected to fall on their swords for the boss, not the other way around. Thus the kudos that first greeted Obama’s assertion of unbreakable fidelity to his old friend and mentor. What a different sort of politician! How refreshing! But it didn’t last long. Soon Wright was at the National Press Club playing to the cameras and needling his prominent parishioner. Sullivan was done praising the virtues of loyalty and instead urged Obama to “irrevocably disown him and say in words that are clear and bright that Wright is now anathema.”

But what made Wright anathema? Was it his race-baiting remarks? Hardly. If anything, at the press club the old minister toned down the rhetoric. No, Wright’s new and unforgivable offense was his disloyalty to Obama—who had, days before, secretly met with the pastor to beg him not to put on a media circus. Wright went on with the show. He declared that his preaching had been within the tradition of the black church, which embraced “radical change” and the social transformation promised by “liberation theology.”

In other words, Wright proclaimed that his was a gospel of left-wing, race-based politics. This just as Obama was casting himself as a candidate of the political middle, a man who would transcend the old politics of race. Obama made his gesture of loyalty to Wright, and the pastor responded by kneecapping his protégé.

So the candidate finally disowned Jeremiah Wright. “He scarcely hesitated to cut his former friend loose,” wrote campaign biographer Richard Wolffe. And by doing that, Obama proved he was “cold-blooded enough to win.”

Next: The perils of mixing friends with politics


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Posted at 08:00 AM/ET, 06/13/2011 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Articles