• U.S.

When Loyalty Trumps Truth

5 minute read
Joe Klein

As House Speaker Dennis Hastert twisted briefly in the hurricane-force winds of the Foley scandal last week, my thoughts turned to Mississippi Senator Trent Lott, the former leader of Senate Republicans. Lott, you may recall, found himself in a similar fix in December 2002, after he offered a rather too enthusiastic toast at Senator Strom Thurmond’s 100th birthday party, in which he suggested that if Thurmond’s segregationist presidential campaign had succeeded in 1948, “we wouldn’t have had all these problems over the years.” Lott was jettisoned posthaste, with an ample assist from President George W. Bush, who called Lott’s comments “offensive” and “wrong” and made it clear that he wanted Bill Frist of Tennessee to replace Lott as Senate majority leader, which Frist soon did.

By contrast, the President went all cuddly in his defense of Hastert, calling the ursine Speaker “a father, teacher, coach who cares about the children of this country.” This, despite the fact that Hastert’s inability to control the Foley fiasco–both before the Florida Congressman was outed as an antic pursuer of adolescent House pages and after the scandal broke–could well cost the Republicans control of the Congress. Why was the President so eager to dump Lott and protect Hastert? Because George W. Bush prizes loyalty over competence or accountability.

“White House officials said the President wanted to return the loyalty Mr. Hastert had shown the Administration,” the New York Times reported. But then, Lott had also been a loyal spear carrier for George W. Bush, shepherding the President’s legislative priorities through the Senate in 2001 and 2002. Lott’s problem was ancient history. He had been disloyal to Bush’s father, siding with Newt Gingrich against the tax increases that President George H.W. Bush proposed in 1990 and dissing Bush the Elder by participating in a noisy, Gingrichite call for tax cuts during the 1992 campaign. “You think W. doesn’t remember Trent knifing the old man during the Clinton campaign?” a Gingrichite reminded me as Lott went down. “It’s Bush-family omertà ,” he added, referring to the Mafia code of honor.

Loyalty is considered a paramount, honor-among-thieves virtue by political practitioners in both parties. It certainly trumps honesty or creativity. During the Clinton impeachment imbroglio, the Democratic consultant-entertainer James Carville wrote an entire book, titled Stickin’, celebrating those who stuck with the boss. But loyalty was a one-way street in the House of Clinton, a royal court where the King and Queen blithely discarded unwanted retainers like used Kleenex. Even Carville’s merry band of consultants was tossed after the 1994 congressional-election debacle. As a result, several of those discarded, like George Stephanopoulos, Robert Reich and Dick Morris, exacted their revenge in brutal memoirs.

The House of Bush is a more elaborate feudal operation. For one thing, it is intergenerational. There is a medieval quality to eternal advisers like Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Andrew Card, Karl Rove, Condoleezza Rice. You can picture them in velvet robes, whispering in the Prince’s ear, in a 15th century Venetian tableau. Their loyalty to the family is impeccable, which is what seems to matter most to the Prince–more than the national interest, in some cases.

We know, for example, that then National Security Adviser Rice was warned repeatedly in 2001 about an imminent al-Qaeda attack against the U.S., but, along with Cheney and Rumsfeld, she simply didn’t believe that a cave dweller like Osama bin Laden could be that much of a threat. She was warned by the outgoing Clintonite Sandy Berger, in January 2001. She was warned by the White House counterterrorism scold Richard Clarke. And now, with Bob Woodward’s new book, State of Denial, and subsequent Washington Post reports, we’ve been reminded that CIA Director George Tenet warned Rice on July 10, 2001, that “the system was blinking red,” meaning that there could be “multiple, simultaneous” al-Qaeda attacks on U.S. interests in the coming weeks or months. Rice has been a force for diplomatic sanity as Secretary of State in the second Bush term, but if there ever was a candidate for a Bush official to take the fall for the intelligence failure of 9/11–and, of course, none did–it was she.

And then there’s the strange case of Donald Rumsfeld. Here was a flaming exception to the Bush family code of honor. Rumsfeld was an ancient rival of Bush the Elder who became Secretary of Defense, Woodward implies, because of a mild Oedipal spasm: the Younger wanted to prove the Elder was wrong about the guy. How to explain the current President’s continuing, suicidal loyalty to the architect of the Iraq debacle, even after Laura Bush and then chief of staff Andrew Card lobbied Bush to replace Rumsfeld in 2004? It’s a perfect Freudian boggle: if he dumps Rumsfeld, isn’t George W. Bush tacitly admitting that his dad was right about a lot of other things too, like choosing not to overthrow Saddam Hussein in 1991? “The hilarious part is everyone in Washington now believes that the only way Bush will change course on Iraq is if Jimmy Baker’s [bipartisan] commission shows him the way out,” a prominent Republican told me. Former Secretary of State Baker was Bush the Elder’s longtime consigliere. This is a family psychodrama for the ages.

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