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' 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.