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.