Judas, Brutus, and "A Senior Administration Official": Why We Have a Political Culture of Disloyalty

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Why we have a political culture of disloyalty

Clinton frequently railed against people in his own inner circle who he felt had betrayed him and presented the media with a false portrait of him and the way he made decisions. "Traitors on my staff," he called them to more than one intimate.

--Bob Woodward, The Choice

As betrayals go, Richard L. Berke's front-page story in the July 21 New York Times ("After Hours at White House, Brain Trust Turns to Politics") was penny-ante. Participants in the Clinton administration's top-secret weekly strategy meetings had provided Berke with details of the meetings, complete with the no-food rule and a seating chart. But the story's ostensible news--the administration's "exceptional integration of Government and politics"--wasn't really news at all; that Clinton melds politicking and policymaking is common knowledge.

The true message the story telegraphed was that no sanctum of the Clinton presidency is impenetrable. As Berke noted, this was the "first time that details [of the meeting] have been divulged." He quoted an insider calling it the one meeting that "has been unpenetrated." Berke's article was a meta-story, in which the reader experienced the reporting as much as the meeting. "As one participant who had grown nervous after talking about the sessions ... added before hanging up: `You never even spoke to me," Berke wrote. Several participants called back to say they had "grown increasingly nervous that the President would single them out for shattering the meetings' confidentiality.... After [a recent meeting], some participants reconvened to discuss what some viewed as a new political problem .... what to do about this article and how the President would react." We were privy not just to the fact that people were violating Clinton's trust, but to the process.

Talking about a confidential presidential meeting is hardly high treason. In fact, it's often pretty harmless. But the story did reflect the almost pathological compulsion to betray the President that has been this administration's hallmark. From the outset, there has been a constant dribble of leaks on matters substantive and picayune, from lamp-throwing to budget deliberations, from health care to haircuts. And there has been a stream of books--framed by Bob Woodward's The Agenda and The Choice--that purport to given a blow-by-blow account of the presidency, and a wart-by-wart description of the President. It's no wonder Clinton feels surrounded by traitors: He can't tell if the people on his team are playing for him or themselves.

Disloyal subordinates are nothing new, of course. Judas turned on Jesus; Brutus and Cassius on Caesar. For doing so, all three were written into Dante's innermost circle of hell. They're not even new to the American presidency: Clark Clifford, for example, earned Margaret Truman's undying resentment because she felt he had undermined her father to enhance his own reputation.

But what was once an occasional occurrence, and one widely frowned upon (when Chester Bowles let on to reporters that he had been against the Bay of Pigs invasion, Kennedy exiled him to India), has become a regular feature of the presidency, escalating under Presidents Reagan and Bush and reaching new heights under Clinton. It's both a reflection of and a prime contributor to the presidency's--and this president's--political emasculation. From switch-hitting political consultants to the decline in party loyalty, America now has a politics of anomie, and it is from that treacherous ground that any modern politician governs. Of course, our politics match the culture at large, where the ties that bind individuals to institutions--whether political parties, corporations, or sports teams--also have been eroding.

"Disloyalty," though, is merely a semantic umbrella for a complicated phenomenon. Cassius and Brutus were both disloyal, but they were not of one mind. …