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'Betray Me And You're Dead': How Loyalty Leached Out Of Politics

Those close to a powerful elected official, like a governor or the president, may owe their success to the boss. Yet there are times when the interests of the person on top and those who serve will diverge, and the outcome is predictable.

"When you're a staffer or consultant, at some level you have to understand that you're a bit like a milk carton and at some point you'll reach your expiration date," says Chris Lehane, a Democratic consultant. "There could always be a time when the principal is going to have to effectively throw you under the bus."

That happened recently to Bridget Anne Kelly, the longtime aide to New Jersey GOP Gov. Chris Christie. Christie fired her after emails were published revealing she was directly implicated in the bridge traffic tie-up scandal.

"For the leader, there is no such thing as loyalty," says Michael Genovese, director of the Institute for Leadership Studies at Loyola Marymount University. "Loyalty flows in one direction: up."

Silence may be golden for aides and appointees, as Genovese suggests, but they might not keep their mouths shut forever — as President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden found out with the recent publication of a critical memoir by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

And, if there's uncertainty about whether aides and elected officials can ever fully trust one another, there's also a large question regarding how politicians react to betrayals from outside their inner circles, which was raised anew by reports that Hillary Clinton maintained a "hit list" of people who failed to support her 2008 presidential run.

"In terms of hit lists and things like that, you have to let people know that if they do what you want, you are going to be rewarded, and if they don't, they are going to be punished," says David Lewis, a professor of political science and law at Vanderbilt University.

Et Tu, Brute?

Aides to top officials may be not only loyal but slavish and codependent, as with the "body man" played by Tony Hale on HBO's Veep.

"Remember," he said to the vice president during one episode, "'V.P.' stands for 'very precious.'"

In one striking real-life example, Andrew Young, an aide to former Democratic senator and presidential aspirant John Edwards, claimed for a time to be the father of Edwards' illegitimate child. But even Young soon turned on Edwards, writing a damning tell-all book.

As Lehane points out, the old-fashioned model of the aide who stays loyal to a politician throughout his or her entire career has largely been lost.

Instead, someone might work for a mayor in hopes of being able to make the leap over to a congressional campaign during the next election cycle, and onto a Senate race from there.

"They ladder up and go from one principal to another," Lehane says.

No Permanent Friends

Staff members don't have to be entirely loyal to a politician because, in an era when cable news outlets cover politics the way ESPN covers sports, consultants and campaign managers can become stars in their own right.

"I really distinguish between the people who have deep bonds going back and whose rise is completely tied to the [candidate], versus short-termers who did not rise through their connections to that person," says Bruce Miroff, a presidential scholar at the State University of New York at Albany.

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates promotes his new book during a visit to 'The Daily Show With Jon Stewart' on Jan. 15 in New York. In the book, Gates criticizes both his former boss, President Obama, and Vice President Joe Biden.
/ Landov
Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates promotes his new book during a visit to 'The Daily Show With Jon Stewart' on Jan. 15 in New York. In the book, Gates criticizes both his former boss, President Obama, and Vice President Joe Biden.

So do politicians. Elected officials are naturally inclined to surround themselves with people they know they can trust — President John F. Kennedy appointing his brother Robert to serve as attorney general, for instance.

But even a Kennedy lacks enough siblings to fill every position. Politicians have to reach outside their immediate circles to tap deeper reservoirs of talent.

"You want to bring in people who are really competent," says James Pfiffner, a public policy professor at George Mason University. "The problem with loyalists is people are not willing to give the president bad news."

Learning To Let Go

Beyond appointing people (and vetoing legislation), presidents and governors don't have a lot of formal powers. In order to get anything done, they have to get help from other players — both their own staff and outside forces.

"It all seems underhanded or in some ways dirty, but the truth is that to get something done, people have to fear what will happen to them if they don't toe the line, or know they'll be rewarded if they do," says Lewis, the Vanderbilt professor. "If governors and presidents didn't do this, they would get nothing done."

Political consultants dating back to Machiavelli have advised that it's better to be feared than loved. But it's important to remember that the person who crosses a politician today is someone whose cooperation they might need again.

Just as there are no permanently reliable friends, so do few people in politics remain eternal enemies.

That's why both Christie and Clinton ended up looking bad recently. All politicians know who was with them during the last campaign and who wasn't.

But there's a difference between knowing who your adversaries are and using your powers to strike back.

"It exudes a certain kind of toughness — 'if you cross me, you're dead forever,'" says political historian Lewis Gould. "But in politics, months later you might need that person's vote and you don't want to have severed all ties."

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