According to a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll, 54 percent of Americans think President Bush values party loyalty and personal friendship over competence. The poll was prompted–as if you didn’t know–by Bush’s habit of appointing friends and retainers to major jobs in his administration. Some of these seem qualified enough–Condi Rice, Alberto Gonzales. Others seem more questionable, none more so than Michael Brown and Harriet Miers.
In one sense this is nothing new for Bush. From the start, his administration was marked by a web of family connections, and certain members of the press were quick to cry nepotism. But, perhaps coincidentally, since the ascendancy of Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid–himself the subject of a major nepotism expose in 2002–such talk has softly guttered out. Now it’s back in a new form–allegations of cronyism.
Dubya & the Dynasty
Nepotism and cronyism appear to be different things, but from a practical and ethical standpoint, the distinction is virtually meaningless. Only the modern liberal fetish with “blood ties” makes these acts appear different in kind. Both offend our public creed of meritocracy, and both are best understood as forms of family patronage. Which is to say, they are two faces of the same dynastic strategy.
You cannot understand George W. Bush without an understanding of his family, and dynastic families in general. Indeed, it might be said that Bush’s familial approach to politics has been his greatest strength and greatest weakness–his Achilles heel. Like Bonaparte, the same dynastic habits that brought him to power may bring him down again. They don’t teach a course in patronage and nepotism at Harvard Business School–but they should. Instead they pretend that it doesn’t exist. That does us all a disservice.
Dynastic families are not like yours and mine (unless your name is Bush or Kennedy). They are self-conscious, multigenerational enterprises displaying strong collective discipline and an innate, untutored grasp of certain perennial modes and orders that advance the family’s interest. All the great dynastic families in history have used these methods, though in our post-dynastic age they are most visibly preserved by the mafia. Indeed, those who compare the Bushes to the Corleone family are not far off the mark. Through a tangled web of marriage, adoption, instrumental friendship, and godparenthood, the typical mafia don creates a series of concentric rings around his family that extends his power deep into the countryside. Likewise, the Bushes have created an enormous social network based on their family. Like other large successful clans they prefer their own company and that of their relatives, friends, and retainers. Such families typically have their own compounds where they gather apart from the rest of society, and when someone useful swims into their view they adopt him as part of the family. This was the way the Bushes dealt with Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia, whom they christened “Bandar Bush.”
In short, dynastic families are nothing but socially sanctioned mafias based on nepotism and various forms of patronage. Now that we have a dynastic family in office, it is inevitable that this will be exposed to public view. Still, it is more than a little ironic for Bush’s opponents on both Left and Right to be crying foul as though cronyism is not a permanent feature of the American political landscape. As Rick Brookhiser points out, cronyism has a long history in American politics. And as Jonah Goldberg noted in his qualified defense of cronyism, it is the soul of all political machines.
Lincoln understood this very well, for while he himself was relatively free of nepotism (with the exception of some relatives of Mary Todd), his administration was heavily marked by cronyism. This stands to reason insofar as Lincoln, a man without family, rose to prominence through his talent for forming friendships. And friends delight in being useful to each other. It was Lincoln’s Illinois friends who fanned out like a phalanx and got him nominated for the presidency at the Chicago convention, and he left no friend behind when it was time to staff his first administration. (A wonderful book has been written giving chapter and verse on his appointments, called Lincoln and the Patronage.)
Lincoln, having been deeply involved in building the Illinois Republican party, understood that patronage–jobs for the boys–is the sine qua non of a political organization. Ideology is important, but patronage is the glue that holds it together. In the words of G. W. Plunkitt, “Men ain’t in politics for nothin’. They expect to get somethin’ out of it.” The lifeblood of politics is the undisclosed commerce in favors that goes on behind the scenes. It is a dance of reciprocity: You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. Patronage creates a web of obligations, a moral economy based on loyalty and gratitude. As Joseph P. Kennedy’s father P. J. Kennedy used to say–a great political boss in his day–”Be grateful and be loyal.”
This insight was not lost on FDR, who was arguably the greatest master of patronage in American history. The alphabet soup of federal agencies created by the New Deal was a patronage bonanza, creating over 100,000 new jobs which were listed for convenience in a little volume called the “Plum Book.” Somewhere in FDR’s correspondence is a brief note written to postmaster James A. Farley–the traditional chief of federal patronage–in regards to a particularly persistent and irritating office seeker: “For god’s sake, if you love me, find a place for this woman!”
All of this is very ancient and is essentially coeval with bureaucracy. We can leave out the ancient Chinese imperial civil service and skip ahead to the papal curia. Each cardinal had what was called a “familia”–a retinue of bureaucratic retainers who depended on him for their appointments and sinecures. Since one’s fortunes were permanently tied to those of your benefactor, considerable foresight was required in choosing the right patron. The pope’s familia was the highest and enjoyed the richest spoils. They also functioned as an engine of mobility in an otherwise static society: Many a priest of humble origin rose to the heights of power and wealth through the patronage of a high-ranking prince of the church, and many became cardinals and popes themselves.
An 18th-century general’s staff was likewise called his “military family.” The most famous in our history was Washington’s, which included the sons of many prominent Virginia families, as well as Alexander Hamilton, a nobody from nowhere who rose through Washington’s patronage to the heights of the American establishment. (Hamilton is a great study in nepotism and cronyism, since he started his New York legal practice by exploiting his father-in-law’s business connections–exactly as John Adams did.)
In all such cases, merit, and patronage were deeply intertwined, since (as I argue in my book on the subject) the informal and unwritten “rules of nepotism” require that patronage be bestowed with discretion on those who will not bring discredit on the patron. The same applies today in modern bureaucratic settings, though considerably modified by the meritocratic values of our technocratic age.
Which brings us to the Bushes. People have been trying to figure out what kind of bubble the Bushes live in for a long time. But it is not the cocoon of wealth that insulates them from reality and explains their frequent missteps and tone-deaf remarks, but that of family itself. The problem for W is that the ethic of friendship and loyalty that the Bushes cultivate and that brought him to power is threatening now to bring him down. He has made the common dynastic mistake of confusing loyalty and merit; in his eyes, the merit of people like Michael Brown and Harriet Miers consists in their being his friends. They are loyal to him, and their loyalty must be rewarded. Thus in Bush, the very loyalty that was a private virtue has become a public vice. His greatest failing is his inability to hold people accountable for their errors. Because they are his creatures, he seems unable to disown them or even to see their faults. This is an inexcusable failing in a democratic leader. As the Machiavellian FDR would be the first to acknowledge, aristocratic virtues have no place in the modern executive. For while Americans do love a prince, they want nothing to do with a king.
–Adam Bellow is executive editor at large for Doubleday and former literary editor of National Review. He is also the author of In Praise of Nepotism: A History of Family Enterprise from King David to George W. Bush.