Politics & Policy

Cronies Here and There

In (qualified) defense of cronyism.

Washington is suddenly hung up on cronyism. According to a quick Lexis-Nexis search, roughly 1,000 stories have mentioned “cronyism” and “Bush” in the last two months alone. It was Michael Brown’s putatively dismal performance at FEMA that got the anti-crony buzz going and Bush’s selection of Harriet Miers that sent it into the stratosphere.

But President Bush has been setting the tinder for quite some time by so successfully keeping a tight inner circle of loyalists in the White House. When he was reelected, Bush made the strategically wise decision of dispatching these loyalists to run important Cabinet agencies, in particular the Department of Justice and the State Department. This was a smart move because in presidents’ second terms, Cabinet secretaries tend to start indulging their own political agendas rather than carry water for the lame duck. Putting friends at the controls, however, has kept these ships in the Bush armada.

Continuing my string of mixed metaphors, Miers kicked the issue into overdrive because Bush placed so much emphasis on her status as a “loyal friend”–perhaps because there wasn’t much else to go on. So now Miers is on a collision course with the Senate Judiciary Committee, and we will see if she is in fact the crash test dummy of the Bush White House.

I think the Miers pick was ill-conceived, but I’m remaining agnostic on her confirmation until those hearings. But I do think someone needs to say something in defense of cronyism.

It’s a word and concept much abused in recent months. The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank quoted me as saying Harriet Miers fits the dictionary definition of “crony,” as if it was a stinging rebuke of the White House. In reality, it was merely a factual statement. According to the dictionary, a crony is a longtime close friend or companion. Historically it didn’t have a negative connotation. It derives from the Greek chronos (time) and simply means someone you’ve known for a long while. The Oxford English Dictionary cites as the word’s first appearance an entry in Samuel Pepys’ diary in 1665: “Jack Cole, my old school-fellow … who was a great chrony of mine.” In America, the term has become politically negative, meaning favoritism for your buddies.

Thus it’s something of a departure for liberals to become particularly vexed over cronyism, given that cronyism is central to traditional Democratic machine politics. Recall Bill Clinton appointed his childhood friend Thomas “Mack” McLarty as his chief of staff and Bruce Lindsey as his counsel, and he criminally attacked the White House travel office so he could get his cronies in there.

My recently departed father always told me that the biggest corrupter in business was friendship. He didn’t mean criminal corruption, necessarily, but the milder sort of corruption that causes us to bend rules, look the other way, or to promote or hire above a person’s qualifications. Most businessmen, most journalists, and most politicians who would never dream of taking a cash bribe would almost immediately agree to do a favor for an old friend. How many members of the Greatest Generation got their first job through an “old war buddy”?

Friendship corrupts, or at least distorts, our judgment. We tend to think our friends are more qualified than they really are for all sorts of reasons. Egotism is surely one (“Of course my friends are all geniuses!”). A hopefulness about our friends’ prospects is surely another. We want good things for those we care about, and we tend to have an exaggerated view of their abilities because we are inclined to think the best of them. This is why cronyism isn’t always about deliberately giving jobs to the unqualified. Often, people hire longtime friends because they trust that their old friends are up to the task.

This seems to be the core of the argument on Miers’s behalf. Bush knows her. He trusts her. He would consider it a betrayal of some kind if she “grew” on the bench. Clearly, for many, Bush’s judgment isn’t enough.

But that’s a controversy for another column. The more relevant point is simply a reminder that what we call cronyism is a fixture of the human condition and therefore a permanent feature of politics, which is not always bad. Yes, friendship can corrupt in subtle, unseen ways. But it also facilitates solutions because friendships rely on trust. Old Washington warhorses get called “rainmakers” because they have so many ancient relationships they can rely on to cut through red tape and partisan rancor.

If we always went with the best resume and nothing else, there would be no political parties because demonstrated loyalty to the team, shared sacrifice, shared principles, and hard work wouldn’t count for anything. And without that, there’d be no politics at all.

(c) 2005 Tribune Media Services


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