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In Cabinet picks, loyalty counts

As Bush assembles his team, trust and personal ties are proving to be paramount. Is it too much of a good thing?

Loyalty. It's an epoxy-like ethic that binds together a team, a cause, a political party, or a nation.

For a new president assembling his team, it can be an important factor - a lesson Bill Clinton learned the hard way, as internal dissent led to battles between aides and a raft of kiss-and-tell books.

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But for George W. Bush, it's more than a consideration. Indeed, as his Cabinet takes shape, loyalty is emerging as an overarching principle in the president elect's picks. As much as issues, or even ideas, a kind of fraternal code - albeit one that includes women and minorities - may guide his administration, much as it did his father's.

So far, Mr. Bush has chosen people he implicitly trusts - most have ties to the Bush family or Dick Cheney. And he has pushed them, even warned them, to stay loyal.

Yet some analysts warn that, in this case, it's possible to have too much of a good thing. Absolute loyalty in the West Wing can bring too many "yes sirs," as opposed to honest advice. In the past, it has led to stagnation, or even scandal (think Watergate).

"In the context of all the kiss-and-tell books from Clinton staffers, Bush would be foolish not to think about loyalty," says Richard Harwood, president of the Harwood Institute in Bethesda, Md. But, he adds, the question for Bush - and any leader - is: "When does making people prove their loyalty undermine the advice you need to get from them?"

Ultimately, he says, much depends on how Bush defines loyalty. Is someone loyal if they're "providing good and sound information that lets him make a solid decision" - or does loyalty mean kowtowing to Bush and his top staff's opinions?

Loyalty or kowtowing?

It's this kowtowing element that makes some argue loyalty is overrated. "In a democracy, loyalty isn't a big virtue," says Benjamin Barber, a Rutgers University political scientist and informal Clinton adviser. "You want independent, thinking people who take intelligent stands - not people who say 'My country, right or wrong' or 'My party, right or wrong.' "

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Indeed, too much loyalty can lead to "a lack of honesty - and even a stale and uncreative … regime," says Professor Barber.

So far, Bush has enlisted a group likely to be quite loyal. His expected naming of longtime friend and Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson (R) as secretary of Health and Human Services, and chief campaign strategist Karl Rove to a top White House post, would continue that trend. But the effort to find a suitable Democrat in the name of bipartisanship is perhaps being flummoxed by loyalty considerations.

Past presidents have used the loyalties of different factions of aides in constructive ways. Franklin Roosevelt's staff, for instance, was known to be intensely loyal - and would go the direction he was leaning on an issue, says Christopher Arterton, a political scientist at George Washington University here.

Knowing this, Roosevelt would hint to competing groups of aides that he was on their side - and tell them to prepare their best arguments to help him win over the other group. Thus both teams would work hard, "thinking they had the inside track," says Professor Arterton. Ultimately, Roosevelt got the best advice from both sides and could make a strong decision.

But this back-and-forth can be a long process. And some worry Bush's penchant for quick briefings with concise summaries could stifle vigorous internal discussions - and start to define loyalty as unthinking agreement with the boss. "Listening to opposing viewpoints takes time," cautions Mr. Harwood.

Indeed, lack of discussion devolving into unthinking loyalty can be dangerous. One cause of the Watergate scandal was top White House aides' unquestioned allegiance to President Nixon.

But for all loyalty's dangers, one reason for the increasing modern demand for it is the media's intense White House coverage. "In theory it's a good idea to have aides voice their dissents in an open and public way," says Arterton. "But then come the stories of 'An Administration in Chaos' and 'Which Faction Is Going to Win Out?' "

Bush is clearly trying to avoid such coverage.

Last week, in announcing Missouri Sen. John Ashcroft (R) as his choice for attorney general, Mr. Bush told reporters, almost defiantly, "When he gives me his legal advice, you won't know about it unless I tell you."

A two-way street

One lesson from the Clinton years, meanwhile, is that presidents must also return loyalty to their staffs.

After accusations of infidelity during the 1992 campaign, there was an implicit agreement between Clinton and his aides that such activities wouldn't be part of his presidency. By getting entangled with Monica Lewinsky, Arterton says, "to some extent there was disloyalty on the part of the president toward his aides."

That sense of betrayal may have led to a number of kiss-and-tell books by such former Clinton aides as Dick Morris, George Stephanopolous, and others.

Such books can hurt a president. "Power is driven by credibility," says Harwood, and those books "belittled" Clinton, sapping his credibility.

To be sure, Clinton did enjoy almost unprecedented loyalty from many on his staff. Cabinet secretaries, for instance, typically stay in office about 2-1/2 years. But fully four Clinton Cabinet members remained on board for the entire eight years.

Indeed, the key to having a loyal cabinet, says former Clinton Transportation Secretary Federico Pena, is making sure the president and the White House staff pay attention to the cabinet members. If they don't, he says, "you'll start hearing the underground backbiting and placing the blame on the White House staff because they're the gatekeepers."

But if the staff does "bring in the cabinet and make sure they're listened to," he says, "even if the president later overrules them, the cabinet members will maintain that loyalty."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society