Journalists Should Stop Exalting Loyalty Among Elites

Former cabinet secretaries owe allegiance to the American public and the truth, not the presidents who appointed them.

At the White House, the cabinet is perennially stocked with all the ingredients for memoirs that criticize the president. Take thousands of pounds of choice secretaries; stir in liberal dollops of internal disagreement; let simmer over the heat of life-and-death decisions; add three teaspoons of ego, a dash of hindsight, and six-figure book advances, and it's no wonder that Leon Panetta, former head of the CIA and the Pentagon, has become the latest in a long line of high-level aides to fillet a former boss as he spends his waning term as a lame duck at Pennsylvania Avenue.

The substance of Panetta's foreign-policy critique is arguably half-baked, for reasons outlined by Peter Beinart, Kevin Drum, and Daniel Larison. Panetta's reflexively hawkish assumptions strike me as unsupported and reckless. But if the man believes that President Obama is making poor decisions on matters as grave as war—and that his experience and expertise could inform a superior policy—he has a civic responsibility, in a representative democracy with co-equal branches, to speak up with what he regards to be the truth while his words still matter. One needn't presume that Washington memoirs are written with motives so lofty to see them as salutary so long as they are earnest, cogent, and timely.

The notion that America benefits when public figures participate honestly in public discourse is core to political journalism. The enterprise makes no sense without it.

For that reason, it is strange to see prominent journalists, notably Dana Milbank of The Washington Post, react to ostensibly forthright critiques of Obama's policies by expressing shock at the disloyalty of former administration officials, as if the highest loyalty they owe is to the president rather than their countrymen or the truth. Perhaps it is to be expected that the ruling elite would extol a self-serving variation on omertà. To see members of the press police that code is confounding. The matter at hand is the wisdom of U.S. policy in both Iraq and Syria. Milbank's curious focus: "Leon Panetta, other former Obama subordinates show stunning disloyalty." He goes on to write that "the lack of message discipline is puzzling, because Obama rewards and promotes loyalists. But he’s a cerebral leader, and he may lack the personal attachments that make aides want to charge the hill for him."

Why would a journalist lament a dearth of "message discipline," a euphemism for willful lying? And ponder the "charge the hill" metaphor. It implies an enemy shooting at the man charging up. In this case, the "enemy" would seem to be those who criticize Obama's foreign policy, whether other politicians or journalists. Would it make sense for Panetta to regard as enemies those whose critique he shares? Beneath the inapt metaphors, Milbank's position is exactly as incoherent and indefensible as one might expect from a reflexive embrace of insider norms.

David Brooks and Gail Collins are more cogent in making the case for loyalty among former aides:

David: What do you think of Panetta’s decision to publish a memoir while his administration is still in office? Bob Gates did it. Hillary did it. Now he has. I confess I disapprove. I do think there should be an unofficial rule. No memoirs until your president moves out. It’s important to protect internal deliberations.

Gail: I agree. I’d give Hillary a bit of a pass, given the fact that she went into the job as the most famous woman in the world, a former presidential candidate and a very likely candidate of the future. President Obama knew what he was getting.

But you don’t sign on to work in an administration and then go out and undermine the president while he’s still in office. And that’s what so many of them do. Leon Panetta goes on MSNBC promoting his book, and says: “Too often in my view the president relies on the logic of the law professor rather than the passion of a leader.” That may be true, but it’s not helping. Helping the administration’s foreign policy, I mean. Obviously writing about a sitting president helps sales.

Still, this is unpersuasive. Iraq and Syria policy are of grave consequence. Actors in the White House, members of Congress, and public opinion can all influence policy—and our system is built on the notion that they ought to influence policy, rather than the notion that the president ought to do what he will like some kind of king. As opinion journalists who often engage in constructive criticism of sitting leaders, it is bizarre that Brooks and Collins reflexively assume that constructive criticism from a former aide obviously harms rather than improves policy. And it is notable that they speak of "helping the administration's foreign policy" rather than helping the United States government to arrive at the best possible policy. The distinction may be subtle in an era of imperial presidents, but it matters.

(And when the reporters of the New York Times publish stories on the Obama administration's internal deliberations, as happens with great frequency, do Brooks and Collins believe their newspaper colleagues are doing America a disservice?)

Collins goes on to argue that Obama's critics "aren’t trying to correct history— they’re trying to separate themselves from failure. Which is another reason I agree with you about the unseemliness of publishing these memoirs while your old boss is still in office." Panetta may have unseemly motives for publishing his memoir, though I don't know what basis Collins has to assert that as fact. In any case, his motives are separate from the effect his critique has on public discourse. Aren't efforts to identify real failures a necessary and valuable public service? Isn't the drive to name them a salutary incentive rather than an unfortunate one? You'd think that a longtime employee of The New York Times would think so—researching and exposing official failures has always been central to the paper's mission.

"Would it kill guys like Panetta to at least wait until Obama is out of office before airing all their complaints?" Kevin Drum asks at Mother Jones. "Do they have even a smidgen of loyalty to their ex-boss?" For once, I'd like to see the implicit assumption in those questions forthrightly defended. When a person is appointed as a cabinet secretary, they owe loyalty to the president who gave them the plumb job for the rest of his term—and publicly voicing earnest disagreement with ongoing policies of great importance qualifies as an act of disloyalty.

Does Drum believe that? What I'd respect tremendously is a president who told outgoing cabinet members, "I appointed you on behalf of all American citizens because I thought you were the most qualified person to serve the public. You owe me nothing. Insofar as feelings of loyalty influence your actions, I implore you to be loyal to the public interest." The ruthlessness, ego, and moral compromises inevitable in those who reach the presidency all but guarantee such a message won't be delivered. I'd settle for journalists embracing its logic rather than the elite's self-serving code of allegiance, a norm that will unfortunately persist regardless.

Just look at how a former Obama spokesman has reacted to Panetta's book: "On Secretary Panetta, he is a guy who has had a long and storied career in Washington and has really served his country well. And it is kind of sad that in its twilight he's done such a dishonorable thing by—at a time—by going after the president that he served at a time of a lot of different instabilities around the world." During the Bush administration and its geopolitical instabilities, did this spokesman regard Senator Obama as harming the United States when he publicly dissented?

The norm that I'd encourage isn't mindless sniping from every former administration staffer, nor criticism that serves no purpose beyond one's aggrandizement. But there are, I'm quite sure, any number of former Clinton, Bush, and Obama hands quite aware that it is in their professional interest to keep mum even when frank criticism of bygone events would better inform their fellow citizens. Those people ought to feel shame and guilt over their silence, not satisfaction at having been assiduously loyal to the most powerful person in their rolodex. The first rule of elites is to avoid criticism of other elites. That is a bad thing.