What George Forgot
“DISLOYAL, SICKENING AND DESPICABLE DISLOYAL, SICKENING AND DESPICABLE,” wrote Bernard Kerik in an e-mail that he was circulating around this week. Kerik, you may remember, was the former New York City police commissioner who George W. Bush once tried to make chief of Homeland Security. This was during Kerik’s happier, preindictment era.
Kerik’s outrage was directed at Scott McClellan, the former Bush press secretary whose much-discussed memoir, “What Happened,” reveals that the Bush White House put politics ahead of truth and openness with the American people.
I know it’s a shock, but try to be brave.
The administration’s defenders have not really attacked the book’s thesis — really, what could you say? But they’ve been frothing at the mouth over McClellan’s lack of loyalty. “This will stand as the epitome, the ultimate breach of that code of honor,” said Mary Matalin.
We’ve heard a lot about loyalty this year. Remember when Bill Richardson endorsed Barack Obama and James Carville compared Richardson to Judas Iscariot? And the whole Jeremiah Wright drama was mainly about Obama’s coming to grips with the sad fact that presidents do not have the luxury of being loyal to anybody outside of their immediate gene pool.
“Having been through all I have been through in the past four years, disloyalty and betrayal seem more prevalent today than ever before in my lifetime, and that in itself, to me, is sickening,” Kerik wrote in his e-mail, which also suggested that writing unflattering memoirs about working for the president “should be a crime.”
Currently under indictment for multiple counts of fraud, conspiracy and tax evasion, Kerik is not, at this point, a person the administration calls upon when it wants to be defended. But he is a perfect example of what a worthless quality loyalty is in high government officials.
Kerik is stupendously loyal, which is what endeared him to Rudy Giuliani, his great patron. The Bush administration, which also prizes loyalty, shipped him off to Iraq with the critical job of supervising the rebuilding of the Iraqi police. Kerik stayed only three months, during which he devoted himself to giving interviews and being gregarious, the two things he does very well. Management, however, turned out not to be a strong point.
Back home, Bush was embarrassed when Kerik’s Homeland Security nomination immediately ran aground on reports of his ethics issues. His downfall was a terrible blow to Giuliani’s presidential candidacy — although given Rudy’s multitudinous deficiencies as presidential timber, it’s hard to pick the one that made the difference.
Anyway, there’s the loyalty trade-off for you: On the one hand, Kerik did a terrible job in a critical assignment in Iraq, allowed himself to be nominated to a hugely important post for which he was ill qualified and showed a stupendous lack of interest in ethical considerations when he served in New York City.
On the plus side, he will never, ever write a tell-all memoir about any of the great men he has served.
Whoever the next president is, I hope he-she picks incredibly well-qualified people who are strong enough to speak their minds and cynical enough not to assume the chief executive knows what he-she is doing. Loyalty does not tend to be a great virtue in these types, and the goal should be to wring as much accomplishment as possible out of them before the inevitable betrayal.
My favorite moment in “What Happened” was from 1999 when George W. Bush was deeply irritated about questions from the press on his past drug use. “The media won’t let go of these ridiculous cocaine rumors,” the future president said. “You know, the truth is I honestly don’t remember whether I tried it or not.”
“I remember thinking to myself, How can that be? It didn’t make a lot of sense,” McClellan wrote.
While the bracing effects of being pushed out of his job have helped McClellan face reality, clarity might have come earlier if he’d just been more canny about personal relationships. His White House career could have been so different if, when Bush started babbling about W.M.D.’s in Iraq, McClellan reminded himself that this was coming from a guy who couldn’t remember what drugs he had ingested.
Even now, McClellan still appears to have trouble with the critical concept that deeds matter more than words.
“Waging an unnecessary war is a grave mistake,” he writes. “But in reflecting on all that happened during the Bush administration, I’ve come to believe that an even more fundamental mistake was made — a decision to turn away from candor and honesty when those qualities were most needed.”
Personally, I’m a huge fan of candor and honesty. But when it comes to fundamental mistakes, I’ll start with the unnecessary war.