What's With Bush's Love of Loyalty?

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Now, that's loyalty: Don Corleone (Marlon Brando) gets advice in 'The Godfather'

When announcing his choices for Cabinet officers and top White House aides, the President-elect almost always uses the word "loyal" or "trust" somewhere in his announcement. "He is very loyal," Bush will say with extra earnestness, or, "She is someone I can trust."

A Nexis search reveals that the phrase "fiercely loyal" comes up dozens of times in describing Bush aides or nominees; this tired expression is not solely due to the prosaic imaginations of most daily journalists.

Loyalty and trust in a democracy is a tricky thing. The Bush family, it is said, has always placed a premium on loyalty, as though they were a royal dynasty that valued its own preservation and power above all else. This puts them in a similar league with the Kennedys, a family that has embraced a different political ideology but places the same value on fidelity.

Speaking of families, I can understand that loyalty is important in an organization like the Mafia, where all other values don't really exist. "Don't ever take sides with anyone against the family, ever," Michael Corleone told his brother Fredo in "The Godfather (Part 1)." (He offered far shrewder advice in Part II: "Keep your friends close but your enemies even closer.")

But loyalty and trust in a democracy is a different kind of thing. In a democracy, the loyalty of public servants is to the public, not the person who appointed them. Yes, a White House aide can say (as they tediously do on "The West Wing"), "I serve at the pleasure of the President," but that aide ultimately serves the people who pay his salary, not the president who appointed him.

In my own experience covering and being involved in politics, I noticed that those who rise highest in campaigns or political organizations tend to be — excuse the cliché — the fiercest loyalists. In politics, it is generally perceived to be disloyal if you disagree with the senator or governor. In terms of your continued employment, it is usually better to be loyal and wrong than correct and "disloyal." For most politicians, the right reply to any suggestion is "Brilliant, sir."

There is a fairly simple equation that governs loyalty in organizations: the more insecure the leader, the greater the emphasisis on loyalty. The sole criterion for being in Saddam Hussein's cabinet is loyalty. The more secure the leader — both politically and psychologically — the more he will prize disagreement. I spent nearly two years working with and for Nelson Mandela, and I can't tell you how many times I saw his colleagues vociferously disagree with him. Why was that? (1) Because he allowed them to; (2) because he knew that was how he would get the best advice, and (3) because he's the most secure man I've ever met.

The ancient Greek philosopher Isocrates said that the greatest loyalty any counselor could show a prince was to be frank and candid. It is more important for a prince, said Isocrates, to surround himself with those who disagree with him than it is to rely on those who echo his point of view. "Frankness is a virtue in a counselor," Isocrates wrote, "who must risk the ire of princes foolish enough to be offended when contradicted."

True loyalty is speaking truth to power. Especially unpleasant truths. And I hope I don't offend George W. when I say that.