In Cabinet Picks, Loyalty Counts ; as Bush Assembles His Team, Trust and Personal Ties Are Proving to Be Paramount. Is It Too Much of a Good Thing?

By Abraham McLaughlin writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, December 29, 2000 | Go to article overview

In Cabinet Picks, Loyalty Counts ; as Bush Assembles His Team, Trust and Personal Ties Are Proving to Be Paramount. Is It Too Much of a Good Thing?


Abraham McLaughlin writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Loyalty. It's an epoxy-like ethic that binds together a team, a cause, a political party, or a nation.

For a new president assembling his team, it can be an important factor - a lesson Bill Clinton learned the hard way, as internal dissent led to battles between aides and a raft of kiss-and-tell books.

But for George W. Bush, it's more than a consideration. Indeed, as his Cabinet takes shape, loyalty is emerging as an overarching principle in the president elect's picks. As much as issues, or even ideas, a kind of fraternal code - albeit one that includes women and minorities - may guide his administration, much as it did his father's.

So far, Mr. Bush has chosen people he implicitly trusts - most have ties to the Bush family or Dick Cheney. And he has pushed them, even warned them, to stay loyal.

Yet some analysts warn that, in this case, it's possible to have too much of a good thing. Absolute loyalty in the West Wing can bring too many "yes sirs," as opposed to honest advice. In the past, it has led to stagnation, or even scandal (think Watergate).

"In the context of all the kiss-and-tell books from Clinton staffers, Bush would be foolish not to think about loyalty," says Richard Harwood, president of the Harwood Institute in Bethesda, Md. But, he adds, the question for Bush - and any leader - is: "When does making people prove their loyalty undermine the advice you need to get from them?"

Ultimately, he says, much depends on how Bush defines loyalty. Is someone loyal if they're "providing good and sound information that lets him make a solid decision" - or does loyalty mean kowtowing to Bush and his top staff's opinions?

Loyalty or kowtowing?

It's this kowtowing element that makes some argue loyalty is overrated. "In a democracy, loyalty isn't a big virtue," says Benjamin Barber, a Rutgers University political scientist and informal Clinton adviser. "You want independent, thinking people who take intelligent stands - not people who say 'My country, right or wrong' or 'My party, right or wrong.' "

Indeed, too much loyalty can lead to "a lack of honesty - and even a stale and uncreative … regime," says Professor Barber.

So far, Bush has enlisted a group likely to be quite loyal. His expected naming of longtime friend and Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson (R) as secretary of Health and Human Services, and chief campaign strategist Karl Rove to a top White House post, would continue that trend. But the effort to find a suitable Democrat in the name of bipartisanship is perhaps being flummoxed by loyalty considerations.

Past presidents have used the loyalties of different factions of aides in constructive ways. Franklin Roosevelt's staff, for instance, was known to be intensely loyal - and would go the direction he was leaning on an issue, says Christopher Arterton, a political scientist at George Washington University here.

Knowing this, Roosevelt would hint to competing groups of aides that he was on their side - and tell them to prepare their best arguments to help him win over the other group. …

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