Two millennia ago, the Mishna (Avot 2:3) taught, “Rabbi Gamliel, son of Rabbi Judah the Prince, said: Be wary of the politicians, for they only act close to a person for their own needs. They appear to be friends only when it is to their benefit but they do not stand up for a person when he is under pressure.” Gamliel came from a political family; he knew whereof he spoke.
Speaking of political families, President Bush is experiencing that phenomenon right now. Suddenly there is a spate of resignations and retirements of key administration staffers. The Number Twos and Threes in major agencies are evacuating, overnight rediscovering the importance of spending time with their kids. Nor is there a long line of qualified applicants panting to fill the vacancies. Working in this administration at this point in time is about as sought after as bubonic plague. All the eager beaver go-get-’em conservatives are showing themselves to be, in Tom Paine’s phrase, fair-weather friends and sunshine patriots.
Old Washington hands will tell you something like this happens in the penultimate year of every two-term Presidency. The Seven Year Itch on one hand and a desire for some real scratch on the other. Tired of long hours and short tempers, overworked, underpaid, overwhelmed and underappreciated. Make a joke in an e-mail and next thing you know you’re kissing Schumer’s ring at some stupid hearing. Time to get out into the private sector where a fella can write a memo without getting a subpoena.
Well, true enough, but if an administration is seen as successful overall, even if it has dragged for a few months, like Reagan after Iran-contra, you still get a pile of resumes on the Chief of Staff’s desk every time he announces an opening. Hungry youngsters hoping to get a leg up, lifer government guys who would always rather be in than out (read David Gergen), and has-been semi-retirees who prefer eating pizza pie in a West Wing office to humble pie at home with wifey (read David Gergen). This time folks are staying away because they think it is a sinking ship.
Which is sad, because the Bush presidency is not sinking, although it is foundering. The perception is that Iraq is the problem, but in historical terms Iraq may still be seen as this administration’s greatest achievement. The intermediate years, the occupation years, are always hectic and enervating. But if a workable government remains after we leave Iraq, history will view our incursion as a net victory, even a critical victory. Add a good economy to the credit side of the ledger and the main minus of eight years will be the gas prices — and the impassioning of Democrats.
Now is a time for loyalty. All hands on deck. One for all and all for one. No “I” in team. Prudence, patience, fortitude. Think back to Ben Hecht during WWII, working with the Irgun to save Jews from the Holocaust and help Israel in ways deemed too incendiary by polite company. Once he attended a Hollywood party and was left standing alone, shunned by the in-crowd. Ferenc Molnar, the Hungarian playwright, spotted him and crossed the room to greet him. He bowed to kiss Hecht’s hand theatrically and said, “Thank you for all you are doing.” Which side of that room would you rather be identified with?
President Bush, from his side, is unstintingly loyal. He sticks with his people through thick and thin. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is the most recent member of his team to be the target of very vocal criticism, including from the occasional weak-kneed Republican, but the Prez stands behind him like a rock. This conduct on his part actually transcends the typical pol described in the Mishna. He walks the extra mile for his people; it would be nice to see some walking the walk on their side too.
Even if self-interest is the order of the day, it behooves the forward-looking wonk to display outward fealty and stay on the job. The next potential employer, say Fred Thompson, will not be charmed by the tough guy who got going when the going got tough. So if loyalty to the other, loyalty to the boss, loyalty to the team is not enough, how about loyalty to the prospect of future employment?
The fact remains that although there is a great deal of discomfiture associated with the present condition of the administration, including the bane of low poll numbers, it may well be remembered for its good economy and courage in fighting terrorism. And history will treat kindly those whose word was their bond… not those who bail.