TCS Daily

Loyalty, Shmoyalty

By Michael Rosen - December 2, 2004 12:00 AM

A chorus of criticism greeted President Bush's nominees to cabinet-level positions. Commentators sneered that "loyalty, above all else, is a Bush trademark." The president's choice for secretary of state was, according to columnist Maureen Dowd, "in the bunker" with Vice President Cheney and the president's father during the Gulf War; this Bush family functionary was selected for reasons of loyalty. Together with Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, said Dowd, the trio "hail from the macho world of the Pentagon."

Other high-level appointees were chosen because of their perceived closeness to the Vice President, not their qualifications for the job.

And the whole enterprise, including Bush's election, centered around a restoration of the Bush dynasty and "Poppy's" policy, a vindication of his bitter defeat in his attempt at reelection.

Are these the musings of the present-day "commentariat"? Well, yes. But they're also the word-for-word wailings of four years ago when president-elect Bush began to name his cabinet. Then, as now, Bush's adversaries feared that loyalty to the boss and fealty to his father would trump effective performance and honest policy analysis.

At the same time, and somewhat inconsistently, they cautioned that Bush was an intellectual lightweight who, despite surrounding himself with able advisers, would not be able to choose among their recommendations.

But the critics were largely wrong on all accounts as putative lackeys like Colin Powell, Paul O'Neill, and Christine Todd Whitman parted ways with the White House because of sharp policy disagreements. In addition, after the September 11 attacks, Bush became a more confident commander-in-chief who steered rather than rode the administration's bus. And if the commentators were wrong then, we have every reason to be skeptical of their prediction that Condoleeza Rice (nominated for Secretary of State), Margaret Spellings (Education), and Alberto Gonzales (Justice) will sacrifice their integrity on the altar of unswerving devotion to the president.

The denigration of Bush's choices currently coursing through the media - "flunkies" (Andrew Sullivan), "toadies" (Dowd), "Soviet politburo" (Eric Alterman) -- has its parallel in the treatment his nominees received during his first administration.

The first major selection Bush made, that of Vice President Cheney, was by and large viewed as a safe, experienced choice, a man who would revive the legacy of his previous employer, Bush's father. This impression deepened when Bush tapped Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs under the first President Bush. The two were lumped together -- along with Rice, the National Security Adviser nominee who also served in the elder Bush's administration -- as "the Bush I players," in Dowd's parlance. Others described W. as "drawing on his father's White House" or trolling for retreads from earlier administrations.

The beat went on. Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen somewhat bizarrely depicted Christine Todd Whitman's Environmental Protection Agency as the "Taliban Arts Council of the Bush Administration." No less an authority than Paul Krugman described Bush's nominee for Treasury Secretary, Paul O'Neill, as "surprise! - an old colleague of Mr. Cheney's." Not to be outdone, Dowd surmised that "Dick Cheney, lately of Halliburton, and Paul O'Neill, lately of Alcoa, could...share inside tips about tax shelters, trust funds and stock option packages to defer income." In short, the Bush II players were good-ol'-boys (and girls) who put camaraderie before competence, devotion before diligence.

By now, Bush's disagreements with Whitman, Powell, and O'Neill have been well-documented. Their experiences do not reflect the administration's incubation of dissent so much as the natural tendency of the heads of bureaucratic departments to develop allegiances to their organizations. Powell, for instance, is said to have been "captured" by State's corps of career diplomats with their preference for collaboration over confrontation. More precisely, though, the secretary of state simply presented the president with State's viewpoint without necessarily adopting it as his own. Heading up Treasury and the EPA fostered similar tendencies in O'Neill and Whitman, respectively. Those who fear and loathe excessive loyalty can rest assured that the very dispatching from the White House of Gonzales, Rice, and Spellings will blunt their devotion to the president and inspire bureaucratic allegiance.

What's more, several of the president's latest choices reportedly espouse positions hostile to the conservative agenda, although one would never know it from mainstream news reports. Spellings has irked some on the right because of her opposition to school vouchers. Gonzales is a member of La Raza, a Mexican-American identity organization that supports loosening immigration controls far beyond anything the president has proposed. But instead of headlines reading "New Choices May Challenge Conservative Orthodoxy," we see "Bush Taps Loyalists for Cabinet Posts." The loyalty charge has not disappeared.

Likewise, the "restoration" criticism has been as enduring as it is wrong. Bush "43" has proven to be about as different as imaginable from his father, Bush "41." Most noticeably in the foreign arena -- but also in tax, environmental, and social policy -- Bush-the-younger's record contains hardly a trace of Bush-the-elder's influence. Brent Scowcroft, Bush 41's national security adviser, co-author, and consigliere, famously opposed the Iraq War for many of the reasons his boss declined to topple Saddam in 1991. Perhaps sealing the deal, on the eve of this year's election, Thomas Friedman went so far as to "endorse" Number 41 -- implying that the son had fundamentally parted ways with the father. While Dowd still refers to the Bush restoration, in her mind, the greatest threat to our country now derives from 43's Oedipal desire to surpass his father, not to imitate him. In any event, only in the most superficial, personal way can the present Bush administration be described as a restoration of the earlier one.

Another trope that critics frequently chanted in the early days of Bush's first administration was that the president represented an "empty suit" and that, while he may have surrounded himself with capable advisers, he would be flummoxed whenever he had to choose between differing opinions. James Lindsay, then at the Brookings Institution, presented this familiar gripe in May of 2001 during a CNN roundtable: "What is [President Bush] going to do when Colin Powell and Don Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice disagree? Who is he going to go with? What will he fall back on?" The clear implication was that the President had nothing to "fall back on," that the sum total of his pre-presidential foreign policy experience consisted of the odd trip to Mexico. Dowd speculated that decisions would be "made for him by Dick Cheney and Colin Powell and Poppy."

This trope, unlike the loyalty or restoration ones, has by necessity morphed in the second administration. After four years in office, the president has indisputably undergone a thorough education in international affairs. As one liberal observer admitted, as a result of 9/11 and the Iraq War Bush's foreign judgment has matured to the point where he can articulate a coherent and consistent course of action, albeit one lacking in unanimous public support. Thus, the "empty suit" strain has become the "simple-minded" reduction: Bush may have a sense of the course he wants to chart but that direction is dangerous and the product of a small mind incapable of appreciating nuance. Despite this morphing, and in the face of copious evidence to the contrary, the underlying message remains: the president is an incurious, wrong-headed boor.

In sum, the endurance among professional commentators of the loyalty, restoration, and stupidity myths nicely illustrates the cliché: "Plus ça change, plus ça la même chose."

Michael M. Rosen, a TCS contributor, taught in Harvard's Government Department from 2001-2003.


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