In Politics, Patience Isn't Overrated – But Loyalty Often Is

Jeff Jacoby
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Posted: Oct 23, 2014 1:44 PM
In Politics, Patience Isn't Overrated – But Loyalty Often Is

Over on the Metro page, my Boston Globe colleague Yvonne Abraham coaxed the Massachusetts gubernatorial hopefuls into taking the Proust Questionnaire, a survey of personality and values regularly featured in Vanity Fair magazine. The responses she received from Republican Charlie Baker, Democrat Martha Coakley, and independents Evan Falchuk and Jeff McCormick weren't as daring as those of some of the luminaries who have submitted to the questionnaire over the years, but they were more revealing than you might have expected from political candidates with an election scant weeks away.

The whole series is worth reading, but I was particularly struck by the fact that three of the candidates gave essentially identical answers to two important questions. Asked what they consider "the most overrated virtue," Baker, Coakley, and Falchuk all nominated patience. And when asked "what quality do you most value" in friends, all three replied: Loyalty. (McCormick's very different answers: Physical appearance is most overrated, and honesty is what he values most in others.)I wouldn't want to make too much of what candidates say in brief responses on questionnaires. Yet I can't help thinking that in singling out patience as the most overrated quality and loyalty as the most valuable, Baker, Coakley, and Falchuk get it exactly backward. At least in the realm of politics and public life, it seems to me that patience is a virtue in desperately short supply, whereas the loyalty of politicians to their friends — and the loyalty they expect in return — is prized altogether too highly.

Patience overrated? In today's political arena, it's more likely to be nonexistent. By "patience" I don't mean ignoring pressing problems or finding excuses for endless delay in rectifying injustice. I mean the willingness to hear out an opposing argument with an open mind, instead of instantly branding it racist or sexist or extremist. I mean the inclination to give the benefit of the doubt even to those you vehemently disagree with. I mean the forbearance not to treat every failing as a hanging offense.

On the campaign trail and in the halls of government, there is constant pressure not to patiently reflect and understand, but to instantly react — to fire off a press release, post a tweet, cut a campaign spot, deploy the "truth squad." The cut-and-thrust of politics is nothing new, but the digital and cable revolutions have placed an unhealthy premium on speed. Political attacks come faster and more intense than ever. A slip of the tongue at 10 a.m. is rocketing around the internet by noon — and featured in a new political ad or fundraising appeal before the day is out. The iron is always hot; it's always time to strike.

No, patience isn't an overrated virtue. But loyalty is a different story.

Of course we all want loyal friends and allies, but should that be the quality any of us most values in those we're close to? More than kindness? Than decency? Than integrity?

Loyalty is a fine quality in the abstract. But when a would-be governor — or president or senator or mayor, for that matter — puts loyalty first in his hierarchy of values, it's hard not to wonder how far that loyalty is expected to go. 

In "The Best and the Brightest," his 1972 account of the origins of the Vietnam War, David Halberstam quotes Lyndon Johnson's earthy formulation of what he expected in an aide. "I don't want loyalty. I wantloyalty! I want him to kiss my ass in Macy's window at high noon and tell me it smells like roses. I want his pecker in my pocket.""I did it for a friend," James Michael Curley defiantly explained in 1903, when it emerged that he had corruptly taken the Civil Service exam for an illiterate constituent who wanted a job in the Post Office. More than a century later, Massachusetts politicos are still corruptly pulling strings and dealing from the bottom of the deck to place friends and supporters in government jobs. The recent convictions in the Probation Department scandal are only a recent example of what happens when loyalty trumps integrity.

The desire to be surrounded by fervent loyalists is not unique to political figures, but they more than most should resist the temptation. It is too easy for those in high office to be drawn into vindictiveness and abuse of power, to treat constructive criticism as treachery — or to protect loyal but incompetent lieutenants long past the point when they ought to have been ejected.

Loyalty in friends is a splendid trait, but loyalty above all? That isn't the mark of good character, it's a danger sign. Candidates beware.