The Bush administration prized loyalty over competence. The next White House team will do the oppositeby David Frum / July 26, 2008 / Leave a comment
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Almost nobody in the US has a good word to say for Scott McClellan, Bush’s former press secretary turned critic. The right condemned the disloyalty of his memoir, What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and What’s Wrong with Washington (PublicAffairs). The left complained that McClellan’s change of heart arrived too late. The old Washington hands shook their heads at a press secretary writing a book at all: FDR’s and Eisenhower’s men took their secrets to their graves—why can’t today’s whippersnappers do the same?
Yet there is something sad and sympathetic about McClellan and his bitter, accusatory memoir. If you ever watched McClellan’s televised confrontations with the savage White House press corps, you probably thought: this is terrible! The man has no business being up there. He looks like a schoolboy trying to retrieve his mittens from a gang of bullies.
McClellan was not alone in being deficient at his job. George W Bush brought most of his core first-term White House team with him from Texas. Except for Karl Rove, these Texans were a strikingly inadequate bunch. Harriet Miers, Alberto Gonzales, Karen Hughes, Al Hawkins, Andy Card (the last not a Texan, but a lifelong Bush family retainer) were more like characters from The Office than the people one would expect to find at the pinnacle of the world’s most powerful nation.
That early team was recruited with one paramount consideration in mind: loyalty. Theoretically, it should be possible to combine loyalty with talent, but that did not happen often with the Bush team. Bush demanded loyalty not to a cause or an idea, but to himself personally. He tested that loyalty with constant petty teasing, sometimes verging on the demeaning. (The journalist Robert Draper tells the story of a 1999 campaign strategy meeting at which Bush shut Rove up by ordering him to “hang up my jacket.” The room fell silent in shock—but Rove did it.)
These little abuses would often be followed by unexpected acts of generosity. Yet the combination of the demand for personal loyalty, the bullying and compensatory love-bombing was to weed out strong personalities and to build an inner circle defined by a willingness to accept subordination to the fluctuating needs of a tense, irascible and unpredictable chief.
Had Bush been a more active manager, these subordinated personalities might have done him less harm. But…