The Trouble With Loyalty

It was a sparkling and unusual event, a dinner that was as interesting as a Democrat’s (the talk was culturally broad, if sober— “life is real and earnest”) and as handsomely done as a Republican’s (the flowers were white, crisp, so expertly arranged they seemed a natural outgrowth of the mirrored table. Life should be not only grumbled about but celebrated).

In New York, in the Second Gilded Age, the age of the thousand-dollar pizza, wealthy Democrats, when they entertain, seem careful not to have things too physically perfect. It might suggest they’re unserious, that their thoughts are not always focused on the oppressed. Wealthy Republicans, on the other hand, will go all out to make it lovely. “The oppressed? I make jobs for them!” As for being thought unserious, one senses it does not trouble them. They made money in the world; they correctly apprehended the lay of the land and moved. That serious enough for you?

We were marking a birthday. I was seated next to a politically experienced businessman, an acquaintance of many years. He kept talking about the presidential race. I asked who he’s supporting. He was surprised I had to ask. “Hillary,” he said.

I nodded. “Tell me why,” I said.

“I’ve known her for years,” he said. “I’m a loyal person.”

I waited for him to say more. But he didn’t.

“Your reason for backing her is that you’re loyal?”

“Yes,” he said.

As if that were enough.

I was puzzled. You’re loyal. So what? You have a virtue, good. But that doesn’t mean the person you’re loyal to should be my president. That’s not enough.

And I said this, in a more polite and less concise way.

Which made him defensive. “You should talk,” he said. “You were loyal to Reagan.”

“No, I wasn’t,” I said. “I agreed with him.” I didn’t know Reagan when I went to work with him; I only knew his views and philosophy and supported them. I wanted him to succeed because I wanted what he stood for to succeed. In time I came to feel personal loyalty. But agreement came first. And if, in his presidency, Reagan had turned into some surprising, weak, tax-raising, government-growing, soft-on-Soviets guy, I would have stopped backing him. I would have thought him very nice and a bit of a dope, like Jerry Ford. I wouldn’t feel I had to hold high his memory and meaning.

Loyalty has nothing to do with it, not if you’re serious.

Or rather personal loyalty has nothing to do with it.

*   *   *

But the loyal are all over the place this year. There is a blight of them, the old friends and colleagues and neighbors, the former roommates. They’re bundling from downtown to the Bronx. They’re leading the cheers in the audience.

The other night at a big Giuliani fund-raiser in midtown Manhattan, when he said, “and if I become the president—,” a woman standing in the middle of the audience jumped up and bellowed, “You will!” to great applause, and I thought: I bet she worked with him at Justice.

A few months ago I had coffee with a new acquaintance who’s a longtime friend of a Republican candidate. He wanted to tell me of his candidate’s virtues, offer insight. His guy was honest, a leader. They’d been young men together. He’d seen him up close.

I didn’t doubt his sincerity. But so far I didn’t see why the candidate’s virtues were dispositive.

Why, I asked, should he be president?

The man was surprised and said, “Well, he’s a great guy!”

What does he want to do as president? I asked. What exactly will he do?

The man blinked and looked away. “I want to think about that,” he said. He thanked me for bringing it up. In a half hour more of talk he never answered.

Why is the Personal Loyalty Blight a problem? One reason is the one Hannah Arendt pointed out, the obvious one. “Total loyalty is possible only when fidelity is emptied of all concrete content, from which changes of mind might naturally arise.”

MoneybagsBut another is that the personally loyal seem more powerful than ever. Money is more important than ever. A big war chest leaves a candidate able to intimidate and communicate. The war chest comes from money raisers. The money raisers are often the personally loyal. And the loyal are driven not by a seriousness about ideas, proposals or policies but by a seriousness about the candidate himself, and what the candidate will do for the contributor once he’s elected president. Ambassador Smith . . . No, FCC Chairman Smith . . . Smith, head of the American delegation told reporters . . .

It’s all human, and traditional, and understandable. But this year of all years it’s not enough. And it’s certainly not enough for the candidates. It’s never enough for them. There is the story of the politician who accused a follower of never being loyal. The follower was nonplussed. “But I always support you when I think you’re right,” he said. “Anyone can do that,” said the politician. “I want people who support me when I’m wrong.” They’re all like that. And they all have reason for being like that. They’re in a hard business.

*   *   *

In the past, personal loyalty has been more a Democratic thing than a Republican one. Democrats used to like politics more than Republicans, so it’s no surprise they’d like its practitioners more. Republicans used to be conservatives; conservatives think politics is a duty, not a joy.

Democrats took their leaders more seriously as personalities, as people. They emotionally invested more in them. FDR’s people gave themselves to the boss, and went on to write the wonderful compelling story: Franklin and Eleanor, he a flighty state rep, she a flutey-voiced duckling, both of them born to and comfortable in wealth, then illness, growth, personal drama; he gets sick and finds his strength, she becomes independent and finds her voice. How many books, films and made-for-TV movies have we seen of it? All written by Democrats, who were more eager to see the life as a reason for their loyalty.

Republicans used to be a cooler sort. They got excited by the philosophy, by what the guy would do in office. If he pleased them in these areas, they were more than happy to find he’d lived an interesting and inspiring life, and tell you about it in books.

It is better to see activists driven by philosophy than by personalities. Better to be faithful to the cause than to individuals with whom you merely have a history. Better to have fidelity to principles, and not to political figures, no matter how interesting or compelling they are.