Loyalty to Presidents is Overrated -- Be Loyal to the People, Please

On CNN, sane talk radio host and erstwhile Culture11 Chairman of the Board Bill Bennett says this about Matt Latimer’s book:

Talk about way over your head. He’s way over [his] head. That’s the best job he’ll have ever. The guy is a worm. He’s a worm. He belongs under a rock next to Scott McClellan. This is so disgusting. I don’t know if Don Rumsfeld knows what he’s getting. I have been critical of the Bush administration, but I did not work for the George W. Bush administration. This kind of disloyalty is — you know, give me ten ultra liberal Paul Begalas for his integrity. [Latimer] needs to read his Dante. He probably hasn’t read “The Inferno.” The lowest circle of hell are for people who are disloyal in the way this guy is disloyal and the very lowest point Satan chews on their bodies. Maybe Scott McClellan will chew on this guy’s leg in the after life. So creepy and so disgusting. Why waste 15 minutes on this guy?

I’ve heard this argument before, and I never understand it. In an ideal world, presidents would hire the most qualified people to work in the West Wing the job wouldn’t be a favor that confers an obligation of future loyalty, but a meritocratic appointment.

Of course, insofar as an administration must work as a team toward common ends, its employees should be loyal so long as they are working under the president. But once their job ends — and especially once the president leaves office — maintaining loyalty for its own sake does nothing for the country, whereas forthrightly giving a behind-the-scenes account serves two ends: 1) it affords history a fuller picture of a president’s tenure; 2) it reveals mistakes and shortcomings that can be avoided by future administrations that learn from the past. Why would anyone value the loyalty that is supposedly owed a former boss over those significant public goods?

Would Mr. Bennett really want one of President Obama’s aids to forgo writing a memoir that sheds light on mistakes made by the present administration? I can’t imagine he would, nor do I believe that Mr. Bennett believes, as a general proposition, that those who write critical books about administrations wherein they served are bound for the lowest circles of hell. I certainly don’t think, for example, that my former Culture11 boss David Kuo is hell-bound for penning Tempting Faith, and I can’t believe Mr. Bennett does either, since few chairmen of boards willingly appoint CEOs who they regard as Satan’s future companions.

Whether we’re talking about Mr. Kuo, Mr. Latimer, Mr. Safire, Mr. McClellan, or some Obama Administration official whose name we don’t yet know, Peggy Noonan offers appropriate counsel:

Leave him alone. He wrote a book. It is true or untrue, accurately reported or not. If not, this will no doubt be revealed. It is honestly meant and presented, or not. Look to the assertions, argue them, weigh and ponder.
That’s my first thought. My second goes back to something William Safire, himself a memoirist of the Nixon years, said to me, a future memoirist of the Reagan years: “The one thing history needs more of is first-person testimony.” History needs data, detail, portraits, information; it needs eyewitness. “I was there, this is what I saw.” History will sift through, consider and try in its own way to produce something approximating truth.
In that sense one should always say of memoirs of those who hold or have held power: More, please.