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The Perils of Loyalty in Politics
Comments () | Published June 13, 2011
Disloyalty has become the norm for political professionals. Once upon a time, aides felt duty-bound to keep their bosses’ private conversations private. No more. We live in the age of the dishy memoir, a disloyal idiom as destructive of political relationships as it is of love and marriage. Former senator Bob Kerrey lamented that political loyalty has been crushed by an avalanche of cash available to ambitious advisers and aides eager to make themselves look good by making their old bosses look bad: “There’s money in being disloyal,” he said, whether in the form of a blabbing book deal or a retainer for TV punditry.

Given the well-documented hazards of political loyalty, shouldn’t the trend to abandon it prove to be a public good? Yes, too much loyalty—or at least too much of the wrong sort—ends up stifling the dissent necessary for a thorough discussion and consideration of the issues. A President surrounded by yes men is one who hears only the echo of his own views and misses the information and analysis he needs to make good decisions.

But too little loyalty is just as damaging to healthy debate. Who can be open and honest when he’s worried about how his every word will be parsed in the media? If you’ve ever known a compulsive blogger or tweeter, you have a sense of the candor-crushing nature of total disclosure. You wouldn’t speak freely to a friend who posts your unguarded comments online (or if you did, you’d learn not to do so again). The same goes quadruple for politicians. “We already don’t write things down for fear of having the documents subpoenaed,” Kerrey told the New York Times. “Now, in a meeting, you’ll have people staring at each other afraid to say anything—for fear that it’ll end up in a book.”

Kerrey is right about the problem, though maybe it isn’t as new a phenomenon as it might seem. Oscar Wilde observed more than a century before, “Every great man nowadays has his disciples, and it is always Judas who writes the biography.”

Is it any wonder politicians are now requiring staff to sign the sort of nondisclosure agreements that celebrities have long used to keep staff from selling secrets to the tabloids? Even politicians’ wives have resorted to such legalisms: When Rudy Giuliani was running for President, his wife got his aides together over dinner for some strategizing one evening and began the festivities by having her assistant give each of them a nondisclosure contract. It may seem paranoid or excessive, but can you blame her? After all, even with the contracts signed by all in attendance, someone later told every detail of that evening’s conversation to reporters working up a book on the campaign.

Nondisclosure agreements are “our new loyalty oaths,” writes journalist Christine Rosen—necessary, she laments, because “we trade our professional loyalties for a mess of published pottage.” What was once governed by a code of personal decency and loyalty now has to be governed by crass contractual obligation. There’s no room left for anything so quaint as reticence.

But what of those dilemmas when a leader expects his subordinates to subordinate their consciences? Where there are two objects of loyalty—(1) a person and (2) the Constitution—there are bound to be irreconcilable conflicts between competing obligations.

Take Jiggs Casey, the colonel played by Kirk Douglas in the political thriller Seven Days in May. He’s a loyal right-hand man to his mentor, Burt Lancaster’s General James Mattoon Scott. Lancaster counts on Douglas to back him in a military coup. When Douglas refuses—and exposes the plot—Lancaster is infuriated: “Do you know who Judas was?”

“Yes, I know who Judas was,” Douglas spits back. “He was a man I worked for and admired until he disgraced the four stars on his uniform.”

Dramatic as it may be, this conflict isn’t much of a dilemma. The conflict of competing loyalties Kirk Douglas’s character faces is easily resolved. Douglas is right to decide that his loyalty to Lancaster is null once Lancaster has proven himself disloyal to the country. That’s not because of some reverse–E.M. Forster maxim asserting that friends must always be betrayed before country. Rather, the conflict is easily resolved because there is no friendship to betray—theirs is a different sort of relationship, that of leader and subordinate. Lancaster’s mistake is to think that Douglas should be loyal to him on a personal level. But their relationship was established and shaped by the legal structure governing the military. Theirs is a bond forged through the giving and taking of orders, orders that have force because of the oath both men have sworn.

In the book and later the film The Caine Mutiny, a smart, sophisticated, and disgruntled junior Navy officer convinces his credulous comrades that their captain is cracked. Captain Queeg helps in that endeavor by being a bit of a wreck—there’s the nervous fumbling with those steel worry balls, the obsession with phantom strawberries, and the yellow-stained weakness under fire. We end up rooting for the men who take command of the ship in a storm. We find ourselves agreeing that Queeg didn’t deserve to command, and our sentiments are with the mutineers as they stand trial.

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But we’re wrong, and author Herman Wouk means for us to be startled into the realization we’re wrong. In the movie’s climax, the mutineers are celebrating their acquittal. Their lawyer, disgusted with having gotten them off, confronts them: “Queeg came to you guys for help, and you turned him down, didn’t you?” the lawyer says. “He wasn’t worthy of your loyalty. So you turned on him. You made up songs about him. If you’d given Queeg the loyalty he needed, do you suppose the whole issue would have come up in the typhoon?” He then hammers it home: “You don’t work with a captain because you like the way he parts his hair. You work with him because he’s got the job, or you’re no good.”

For all the twists and turns loyalty pretzels itself up with, that blunt statement rings true. We have a visceral response to the disloyal—they’re just no damn good. Still, we can’t escape our ambivalence. As much as we share in the judgment that the disloyal are no-goodniks, we don’t much trust loyalists. We’re leery of company men; and in the political world we deride those whom George Bernard Shaw called “good party people” as unimaginative hacks. They take their loyalty to be a virtue, and we dismiss them for it. We suspect Shaw was right in saying, “In politics there should be no loyalty except to the public good.” But when it comes to endeavors that require some coordinated effort, having everyone act on his own stubborn convictions may not do the public much good.

Whether the endeavor is a ship or the ship of state, there can be no effective leadership without some measure of loyalty. We may not like it—the pitfalls are obvious—but there’s no escaping it. “Leadership,” as political theorist Judith Shklar put it, “for better or worse involves fidelity.”

This article is adapted from Loyalty: The Vexing Virtue, copyright © 2011 by Eric Felten. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster in the May 2011 issue of The Washingtonian.

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