Weisberg: For Presidents, Loyalty Has a Price

Critics of Hillary Clinton's possible appointment as 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 and a tendency to put her own ambitions first. Perhaps so, but I doubt President 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.

No president would think of moving into the White House without known and trusted advisers like 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 who fixate on personal allegiance, like Johnson, Nixon and George W. Bush, tend to perform far worse in office than those, like FDR, Truman, JFK, Reagan and Clinton, who can 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. 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 with loyalty was born from the experience of watching James Baker and Richard Darman put their own careers ahead of his dad's. When his turn came, the younger Bush made personal loyalty a threshold test, and even came to regard private challenge as an indication of untrustworthiness.

The price was a surfeit of reliable hacks like Alberto Gonzales and outright incompetents like Heckofajob 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 to Bush. Declining to answer a question, Taylor said, "I took an oath to the president."

"Did you mean, perhaps," Patrick Leahy asked, "that you took an oath to the Constitution?"

Surrounding oneself with diehard 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 in another way in the Nixon White House, where an obsession with national-security leaks led to the reign of H. R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman. It happened in another way still in George W. Bush's White House, where so little internal dissent was allowed that truth became combustible. While the elder George Bush could live with a continual ooze of self-serving leaks from his friend Baker, who was a highly effective diplomat, his son gave full "you are dead to me" treatment to any official who allowed a hint of daylight between himself and the official White House line.

Conversely, the most successful presidents generate loyalty without sweating it. Franklin Roosevelt brought nonsupporters, including Herbert Hoover's secretary of state, Henry Stimson, into his cabinet. Even after Brain Truster Raymond Moley broke publicly with him and became a Republican, FDR had Moley back to help write 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.

Or recall Bill Clinton, who was untrue to many, including friends like Lani Guinier, Joycelyn 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 Clinton's strongest suits as a politician. Interestingly, Clinton's unfaithfulness to staff and friends was seldom reciprocated.

One of the most developed loyalty-based political systems was the old Daley machine, 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 was once demoted by Clinton for what the president believed to be an act of disloyalty, saw the tail end of this system in Chicago. Though Emanuel sometimes plays the enforcer, neither of them aspires to revive that older style of politics. 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 shared set of goals. To put it a different way, a modern president can't command loyalty. He has to earn it.

Weisberg: For Presidents, Loyalty Has a Price | U.S.