The Problem with Demanding Loyalty

“I promise as a good American citizen to do my part for the NRA. I will buy only where the Blue Eagle flies.”


Yeah, that was the loyalty oath the kids chanted back in the Great Depression – you could look it up. There’s a whole history of such things. In the early fifties Joe McCarthy tried to whip everyone into a frenzy about all the communists high up in the government, and in Hollywood – paid secret agents of the Soviet Union out to destroy us all. Loyalty oaths became a big deal – you signed one, swearing that you were not secretly a card-carrying member of whatever. In most cases, if you didn’t sign the oath, you didn’t get the job – you couldn’t get any job, even in Hollywood, even just painting sets at Paramount, down on Melrose. This hit certain screenwriters – see Dalton Trumbo – but affected everyone in the industry. So you swore you were loyal, not one of those sneaky bastards who was always lying about who he really was and what he really intended to do.


No, wait – that makes no sense. If you actually were one of those sneaky bastards you’d certainly lie – you’d gladly sign the oath, just to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes. You couldn’t trust those communists. Sure, they’d swear they were loyal – but they’d say anything. But then that meant that there was no way to cull out the oaths where the bad guys just lied. So the good guys knew you were loyal to America, because you swore you were, unless you weren’t and signed the loyalty oath to fool them, in which case they didn’t know, and couldn’t know. You can imagine an anticommunist bureaucrat, worried sick about the damned Reds everywhere, but a bureaucrat with a basic grasp of simple logic, looking at the stack of signed loyalty oath on his desk, realizing they were all rather useless. No one would refuse to sign the thing. What would be the point?


But there was a way around that. You just had to imagine a nasty communist – out to overthrow the government, probably violently, and out steal state secrets and all that – being honest and upright and proudly announcing to the whole world that he, certainly, would never sign such a thing. You had to rely on that hypothetical – the sneaky bastard with a sense of honor, and a big mouth – even if it made no sense.


But of course the whole point of the oaths was something else entirely. It was a school spirit thing, like cheerleading before the big game against State – hoorah for our side, and everyone had better say that loud and proud. Insufficient enthusiasm made you a bit of a spoilsport, a useless dweeb, not one of the tribe, or something like that. The loyalty oaths actually were for everyone who gladly and sincerely signed them – they all smiled at each other, and felt really good.


Back in the McCarthy-Blacklist days of loyalty oaths out here, Ronald Reagan was in the middle of it all – yeah, he was a union guy back then, president of the Screen Actors Guild, but proudly anticommunist and willing to rat out anyone in Hollywood to Joe in DC. They kept reelecting him to the position as he kept Joe and the like off everyone’s back – he proved Hollywood was loyal and patriotic, and they could go back to just making movies. He was useful.


Of course when he subsequently became governor he kept it up. To this day the California state constitution still requires all state workers to sign a loyalty oath as a term of employment – don’t sign, you don’t get the job. And on February 28, 2008, the California State University, East Bay, fired one Marianne Kearney-Brown, a Quaker, for refusing to sign the oath – she wanted to insert a reservation that her defense of the state and country would be done “nonviolently.”


No dice. But she was reinstated a week later – she agreed to sign a specially modified oath, one accompanied by a document prepared by the university that included the clarification that “Signing the oath does not carry with it any obligation or requirement that public employees bear arms or otherwise engage in violence.” Read all about it here. It all worked out fine in the end. Murderous jihadist fanatics may be signing the oath and teaching who knows what to the kids, and building bombs in their basements late in the evening after all the papers are graded – but they clarified things with the Quaker. It’s a bit absurd.


But it’s a Republican thing – a fascination with loyalty. But it has morphed into more than loyalty to the country, or has moved away from that. You don’t so much have to be loyal to America, or these days to the constitution or the laws on the books – you have to be loyal to the president.


Steve Benen explains:


George W. Bush’s fascination with “loyalty” is practically legendary. The president considers it the single most important trait a person in public service can have, far exceeding competence and qualification. Bush, for example, picked Dick Cheney because he knew he’d be loyal (Cheney had no presidential ambitions of his own). Loyalty led to high-ranking posts for all kinds of people who had no business taking on their responsibilities — Alberto Gonzales, I’m looking in your direction — but who were rewarded for their personal devotion and fidelity to the man in the Oval Office.


Benen points to Slate’s Jacob Weisberg with this item. Weisberg argues “that loyalty is not only wildly overrated in presidential politics, but that truly successful presidents know that an obsession with loyalty is a waste of time and energy.” Well, that is Benen’s summary, but Weisberg puts it this way:


I doubt 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.


Loyalty is a wonderful human quality and a necessary political one. No president would think of moving into the White House without known and trusted advisers such as 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 presidents who fixated on personal allegiance, such as Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and George W. Bush, tended to perform far worse in office than those, such as Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton, who could tolerate strong, independent actors on their teams.


Here’s the deal:


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. The vast majority of public employees is protected by the Civil Service and can’t be vetted for loyalty. As the complexity of the government has increased, so, too, has the importance of expertise and experience.


Weisberg argues that Bush is 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 on loyalty was born from the experience of watching top aides to his dad such as James Baker and Richard Darman put their own careers and images first. When his turn came, the younger Bush made personal loyalty a threshold test – and even seemed to regard private, internal challenge to his ill-considered preferences as an indication of untrustworthiness.


Benen adds this:


The conventional wisdom has long suggested that Bush has shielded himself from dissent and competing ideas due to a lack of intellectual curiosity and mental acuity. But this underestimates the significance of loyalty in shaping Bush’s worldview.


Newsweek had a report a few years ago that noted, “It’s a standing joke among the president’s top aides: who gets to deliver the bad news? Warm and hearty in public, Bush can be cold and snappish in private, and aides sometimes cringe before the displeasure of the president of the United States… Bush can be petulant about dissent; he equates disagreement with disloyalty.” …


So Bush is ill-informed, but Benen argues, not because he’s delusional or incurious or stupid. It’s just that he got stuck on that loyalty thing:


If one “equates disagreement with disloyalty,” he/she necessarily creates an insular bubble where no one is allowed to stray from the party line, and everyone is expected to agree wholeheartedly with the president, regardless of merit. In this sense, Bush’s obsession with loyalty not only helps explain why incompetent, partisan hacks were promoted to critical government posts, it also helps highlight why he never paid attention to those whose opinions he should have taken seriously.


Benen then adds this – “It’s reassuring, then, that Obama expects to earn loyalty, not demand it.”


Well, he’s a Democrat – he just thinks that way. You got a whiff of that in the campaign – Michelle Obama said of something or other that it was the first time she had been really proud of America, and the Republicans were all over her, pointing out they were always proud of America, always had been, always would be. She was an angry black woman. She might be Angela Davis. Ah, you know the old joke – my mother, drunk or sober. Obama said that we needed to fix some things, tax policy, our international reputation, whatever – same deal, as you heard that, unlike him, Republicans never talked down American or said America was bad or wrong, ever. They were loyal. The Republicans were livid, or pretended to be, but it was just a different way of thinking.


And it points to two different management styles. Anyone who has ever managed an organization knows the two styles. You can be one of those Republican-style leaders – demand loyalty from your employees, insist they follow your orders, keep your ear to the ground in case they’re meeting on their own, behind your back, to figure new and different ways to solve this problem or that, and you might monitor their email and see who is leaving for lunch with whom. You want control. You want things to run as they should. You’re the boss – if things go south you’re the one who will take the fall, not them. So you know who to fire – and you fire someone now and then just to keep them worried – and you play them off against each other, so no power-group can coalesce. It’s exhausting, but it is a management style.


The other style is to assemble a team of people who, in most cases in the business world, know more than you know, people who aren’t afraid make suggestions or take control of this process or that – the kind of people who sometimes tell you you’re full of shit and here’s why, and here’s what we can do instead. You hired experts in their field, or the best you could find at something special. Your challenge is to contain the chaos and direct it toward the problem at hand. That takes an extremely strong hand, a lot of confidence, but not much ego – it’s like riding a runaway fire hose at full blast and trying to get it aimed at the fire that needs putting out. Everyone laughs a lot, but everyone pulls together – if you’ve framed the problem correctly. Loyalty isn’t much of an issue – just mutual trust. It’s just a different management style. Think of how it works in the military – they talk about leaders whose guys say they’d walk down the mouth of the cannon for their commander. He didn’t tell them they would, or should – they fragged that guy long ago. You earn loyalty – some don’t.


But Republicans have this thing with loyalty above all. Maybe it started back with Joe McCarthy and Ronald Reagan, but subordinates should be loyal and you, at the top, should never waver, much less change.


See George W. Bush on himself:


In an interview conducted earlier this month by his sister, Doro Bush Koch, Mr. Bush said he wanted to be remembered “as a person who, first and foremost, did not sell his soul in order to accommodate the political process.”


“I came to Washington with a set of values, and I’m leaving with the same set of values,” Mr. Bush said. “And I darn sure wasn’t going to sacrifice those values; that I was a President that had to make tough choices and was willing to make them. I surrounded myself with good people. I carefully considered the advice of smart, capable people and made tough decisions.”


See Matthew Yglesias with his yeah, right:


Unlike many things that come out of his mouth, this is basically true. Bush considered the advice of smart, capable people such as Colin Powell, Richard Clarke, Rand Beers, Paul O’Neal, Christie Todd Whitman, etc. and he chose to reject it. These were tough choices. The destinies of billions of people around the world were in one way or another effected. Hundreds of thousands of lives lay directly in the balance. And rather than taking the advice of smart, capable people Bush decided to take the advice of dumb, inept people. And he did it, as he says, because he was following his values – immoral values that he shared with the people on whose counsel he preferred to rely. The results have been disastrous and are plain to see.


The troublesome people – Powell, Clarke, Beers, O’Neal, Whitman – all gone early. The dumb, inept people were loyal, or said they were – close enough. The price of loyalty was high.


So now things change a bit – no loyalty oaths, no obsessing about who is plotting behind your back, and who, however incompetent, is loyal to you and must have a say in everything. An age is passing – Joe McCarthy can rest in peace now, as there’s no need for him to haunt us any longer.



About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in Bush and Loyalty, Bush's Management Style, Bush's Personality, Demanding Loyalty, Loyalty Oaths, Obama the Pragmatist, Obama's Management Style. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Problem with Demanding Loyalty

  1. Rick (from Atlanta) says:

    And lest we forget, there was one more “loyalty oath” that showed up in the recent unpleasantness that we refer to as the “presidential campaigns,” and that was in the form of that famous flag pin that, for a while at least, Barack Obama was spotted not wearing. I can’t remember what Obama specifically said afterward about this so-called “issue” — which I swear became one only after Fox News turned it into one — but I did get the feeling he didn’t say all he might have said, had he not been involved in a fight for votes.

    After all, I’m sure he and his advisers reasoned, even though it’s obvious that wearing that pin says nothing about you except that you’re one of those “flag-waving” patriots who don’t so much have love for their country as fear that someone will accuse them of not being a true patriot, there’s no use pointing that out, since the real patriots already know it, and are already voting for you, and the “flag-wavers” would only disregard your words except to take them and melt them down into bullets and shoot them back at you.

    And, of course, we’re not necessarily speaking figuratively here.


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