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Giving Cronyism a Bad Name


For better or worse, the Bush White House has come to be known as the most crony-packed administration in living memory. One has to go back to the days of Jimmy Carter’s “Georgia Mafia”-think Bert Lance-to find an administration stocked with so many hangers-on, bosom buddies, fundraisers, jock sniffers and henchmen. This does not automatically put George Bush in a class with Ulysses S. Grant or Warren Harding-cronyism gone berserk-but it is definitely a cause for concern. And the reason it is a cause for concern is not because of cronyism per se, but because our national standards of acceptable cronyism have so dramatically declined. Cronies have always been part of politics, just as they have always been part of baseball and movies, and for the most part the public doesn’t get too worked up. Telling the public that politics is rife with cronyism and expecting people to be outraged is like telling people that organized crime is involved with the drug trade. Do tell. For the most part, the public takes the position that cronyism is no worse and no less inevitable than nepotism, elitism or favoritism. In other words, the boss will always create a job for his buddies; the coach will always find a place on the staff for his son; and somebody named Fonda will always find work somewhere. The one constant is that the relevant cronies will always insist that they landed their jobs on their own merits. This is because cronies are completely delusional, have developed an extraordinarily wry sense of humor or simply have no shame.


The only time cronyism arouses genuine outrage is when it starts to cost money. Alas, this is what is happening now. Appointing a reject from the equine industry to run the Federal Emergency Management Agency has done irreparable damage to the American economy, not because Mike Brown was a crony, but because he was a hapless crony. The same is true of other dodgy Bush appointments; had the intellectual bantamweight Harriet Miers been appointed to the Supreme Court, it could have damaged this country for decades to come. Nobody minds if the President appoints a crony to be director of the Bureau of Labor Statistics because that appointee is in no position to cause any real damage. Disaster relief and the federal judiciary are another kettle of fish.


The strangest thing about the rampant cronyism of the Bush Administration is that it occurs at a time when American corporations are under massive pressure to purge good ole boys from corporate boards. Scandals resulting at least in part from supine, crony-infested boards have motivated businesses to steer away from the usual yes-men, factotums and ambulatory cadavers that have been a fixture of many boards in the past. Thus, at a time when chief executives seem to be trying to purge boards of the bad habits of the past, politicians seem to be harking back to the glorious 19th century Tammany Hall tradition of putting every faithful old bone-fetcher on the payroll.


Hollywood, which loathes the Bush Administration, is, quite ironically, a mirror image of it. Why do nonentities like Jon Lovitz and David Spade get to make one horrendous motion picture after another? Because they’re part of the system, because they’re hooked up to old cronies of the powers- that-be who’ll always give them a payday. Sadly, the same can be said of journalism; if you ever worked for the Harvard Crimson, there’ll always be a job waiting for you somewhere, no matter how much of a bum you are. That’s one reason I’m happy my daughter is at Harvard and has taken a few photosfor the Crimson; if she ever decides to be a bum, she can always get one of her old Cambridge cronies to give her a high-paying job.


The real issue we need to pay attention to here is not cronyism, which can never be eliminated because politicians, executives, film producers, baseball managers and editors will always want to be surrounded by loyalists. What we need to worry about is bad cronyism. In other words, if you absolutely, positively must staff a top-level job with a crony, at least get a talented crony, not a zero like Mike Brown. Bobby Kennedy, whatever his faults, was a talented crony. Alberto Gonzalez is a talented crony. The Clinton and Reagan Administrations were filled with top-flight cronies who did yeoman work for this nation.


There is nothing morally wrong with being a crony, and nothing ethically wrong with hiring cronies, as long as they are cronies with a couple of brain cells to rub together. This is the tragedy of the Bush Administration. Brand X cronies like Mike Brown are giving cronyism a bad name. And it already had a bad name.



About Joe Queenan

Joe Queenan is a regular contributor on business issues, corporate culture, and financial follies to Barron's and The Wall Street Journal.