A Pre-Nup for the West Wing
Washington Post, December 6, 2008
How Barack Obama Can Put an End to Kiss-and-Tell Memoirs
o judge by the moans coming from Democratic lobbyists eager to serve in the next administration, Barack Obama's transition has struck a nerve with its new rules regarding conflicts of interest. But if the next president really wants to transform the culture of Washington, he'll go further and close down another revolving door: the ability of top aides to cash in by peddling tales of what they saw.
Scott McLellan and George Stephanopoulos are among the most notorious recent examples of this breed. No amount of money or media acclaim can erase the stain that comes from being a close presidential adviser who chooses to trade confidential conversations for dough while the president is still in office.
Yet, instead of generating outrage, the reaction to such betrayals increasingly has been one of resignation to the times. The speed of history is now faster, we're told, and book deals are so rich it would take superhuman will to resist. The few who blast the miscreants without caveat are written off as quaint, cranks or jealous.
Stephanopoulos's defense in his day was a diversion. His "test," he told the New York Times
, was to ask "was what I had to say relevant, fair and accurate?"
But this is the question a disinterested journalist asks. The right question for a presidential adviser was: Is this a breach of the trust that came with the position I was privileged to hold? To ask this question is to answer it, and Stephanopoulos and McLellan plainly calculated that the cash and career benefits outweighed any potential taint. The book tours, media fawning, and even the obligatory and publicity-generating (though fleeting) "debates" over their ethics all sent a message to aides on the make: There's no real price to pay for betrayal. It's all basically upside.
Remember, we're not talking about Peggy Noonan off in the basement rhapsodizing on the trivia of White House life. That's harmless. Nor is this the same as post-White House advocacy urging an administration to change policy directionsomething that I and other White House alums have done, and which has in some cases made sitting officials unhappy. In addition, there are rare but legitimate acts of conscience by officials that led them to resign and speak out (something that did not occur in McLellan's case, which rendered his appeals to duty unpersuasive).
No, when top presidential aides kiss and tell, it's uniquely troubling. And the fact that people as close in as Stephanopoulos or McLellan can pull this off and emerge relatively unscorned dooms presidents to seemingly awful choices. They can hide their true thoughts from their inner circles, a weird and self-defeating notion to say the least. They can stock this inner circle with people whose loyalty is truly beyond question, leaving us ruled by a brain trust of kindergarten pals like Mack McLarty and presidential spouses. Or, as conventional wisdom seems to suggest, presidents can simply accept that betrayal from intimates comes with the territory and helplessly await the knife.
Well, nonsense. Just as mergers and marriages that flourished on handshakes and vows had to turn to coarser arrangements once the stakes of break-up became high, the politician-aide relationship now needs its contract. In other words, it is time for the political prenuptial. Barack Obama should simply require key advisers and officials to sign a binding contract of confidentiality as a condition of employment. Aides should pledge not to disclose anything they see until, say, five years after their boss leaves office. The legitimate claims of history would thus be honored, along with the rightful expectations of presidents.
It's a shame, of course, that integrity has to be assured rather than assumed, but the political pre-nup is an idea whose time has come. Hollywood celebrities have required such contracts forever, from every cook, nanny and "personal assistant" they hire. Once President-elect Obama and his transition leaders think about this, they'll realize that there is no downside to a pre-nup and no shame in insisting on one. It lets the president-elect establish new standards for public service. It offers lawyers an area of public life where they can finally do something constructive. And it would make Barack Obama the first president to enter meetings secure in the knowledge that if any notes his aides are scribbling are destined to appear in print, it will be long after he has left the White House.