Misplaced Loyalties

At the American Spectator blog, Quin Hillyer is praising Dick Cheney:

I spent eight years wishing that Dick Cheney had been president rather than George W. Bush. Here’s another example where Cheney was right and Bush was dead wrong: Cheney really fought to get Bush to pardon Scooter Libby. Libby wasn’t guilty of perjury. At worst, he had a bad memory. But based on Tim Russert’s own flagrant “memory lapses,” there is every reason to believe that it was Russert’s memory, not Libby’s, that was faulty. Either way, Libby deserved a pardon. Bush didn’t want to take the heat for such a pardon. Either that, or else his refusal to pardon was a passive-aggressive move to punish Cheney’s team for supposedly embarrassing Bush or at least causing unwanted controversy one too many times. Shame on Bush. Cheney was far more loyal to Bush than Bush was to Cheney. I sat in on two private lunches (about ten people at each lunch) with Cheney that had plenty of chances for off-the-record comments and at which Cheney was pressed, even off the record, to put some distance between himself and Bush — but Cheney wouldn’t do so.

On the record, two weeks before the end of the Bush administration, I asked Cheney directly what he thought about whether Libby should be pardoned. Even then, as he privately was pressing Bush to do so, he was circumspect, saying that he had a very high admiration for Libby. Then silence. Pressed, he would NOT go farther, would NOT be disloyal to Bush by publicly giving journalists sympathetic to Libby any fodder with which to further pressure Bush for a pardon.

Cheney is a good man who surrounded himself with strong people. Bush is a man who liked to be surrounded with sycophants. The result of the latter was that Bush was one of the most unsuccessful presidents in decades. The refusal to pardon Libby is symptomatic of a larger illness: Bush’s inability to reconsider original decisions.

Bush’s failure to issue the pardon was a disgrace.

I am glad that Dick Cheney wasn’t president, and I neither know nor care to argue about the merits of a Libby pardon, but let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that Quin Hillyer is right about the Libby case — that an innocent man is being punished for a crime he didn’t commit, and that Bush’s failure to issue a pardon amounts to an unjust disgrace. If all that is true, isn’t Dick Cheney’s silence on the matter, and failure to give pro-Libby forces helpful fodder, a mark against the former vice-president, rather than evidence that he is a good man?

In Quin Hillyer’s telling, Dick Cheney had to weigh competing loyalties: he could be loyal to his boss, and refrain from criticizing him or pressuring him publicly; or he could be loyal to his subordinate by doing everything in his power to agitate for justice and the reversal of a disgraceful injustice.

Doesn’t a good man choose the latter course?

To be fair, there are times when the national interest demands loyalty to the Office of the President. But Americans too often act as though presidential subordinates ought always to be loyal to the man, defining the obligation as personal rather than professional—as though it is akin to a friendship, or a pact with the Godfather.

Thus you see Colin Powell criticized for criticizing George W. Bush—as if a high level appointment is a favor to be repaid, rather than a mutually beneficial employment arrangement given to the most qualified candidate. An even more extreme and absurd example came when Hillary Clinton partisans insisted that because Bill Clinton appointed Bill Richardson to his cabinet during the early 1990s, the New Mexico governor somehow betrayed a patron by failing to support Clinton’s wife for the presidency more than a decade later (a standard that would mean Joe Biden is now obligated to endorse Michelle Obama for president should she run against Hillary Clinton in 2016).

Mr. Hillyer says himself that George W. Bush’s failings are largely due to having surrounded himself with sycophants. Thus he should share my desire for less personal loyalty to presidents, and my disdain for White House subordinates who put their personal relationship with their boss above their loyalty to his office and the American people, standing silent though they believe him to be engaged in gross injustices.

I don’t share Mr. Hillyer’s take on the Scooter Libby conviction. But if all were as he says, Dick Cheney’s public silence would be nothing to celebrate.