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Courage, Loyality and How The Media Can Act as The Conscience of Us All

06/14/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In her May 31 Op Ed piece in the New York Times, Gail Collins shows how "the media" can act as the conscience of us all. She opened her piece, entitled, "What George Forgot" with a quote from one of the nation's would-be ethical icons, Bernard Kerick: "DISLOYAL, SICKENING, DESPICABLE..." he decried. Ex-chief Kerick was referring to Scott McClellan's character, fully revealed -- according to Kerick's lights -- by the recent publication of his tell-all book, What Happened. (It should be noted that Mr. Kerick made his observations in a widely circulated e-mail memo composed while he awaited his next meeting with attorneys assembled to clear up some "misunderstandings" about possible fraud, tax matters, and the like.)

Ms. Collins goes on to explore the question: is loyalty a political virtue? She concludes that it is not. "...he [Kerick] is a perfect example of what a worthless quality loyalty is in high government officials." She is right on the money.

An ethics professor I once had described loyalty (in nearly all circumstances) as "the favorite virtue of scoundrels". "How could I be disloyal?" said the VP explaining her reluctance to turn in the boss for embezzling $100 million. Loyalty is too often disconnected from anything that is truly virtuous. Kings have clung to tyrannical power on the basis of loyalty from sycophant subjects. Criminals go unpunished because of it. Governments violate the rights of their citizens supported only by loyal operatives and underlings. Richard Nixon hauled the nation through what President Ford later described as "our long national nightmare" because of it. John Dean, who finally put love of country before loyalty to his boss, has lead a life in semi-excommunication from some sectors of political society because of the "D" emblazoned on his chest -- DISLOYAL!

On the basis of McClellan's book, it can be argued that the present administration may well have been guilty of horrendous crimes -- crimes that could only have been committed because loyalty on the part of many individuals, who even today know the truth, kept quiet and, therefore, made themselves complicit in the disaster.

Loyalty is often confused with "faithfulness." They are not at all the same. Faithfulness, fidelity, implies that I will stick by a person through good times and bad. It says. "Even if you do screw up, I'll stick by you." But fidelity assumes that I acknowledge the facts, not join you in concealing them. Perhaps your friend did something very bad. Fidelity doesn't demand that you join in a cover-up. Rather, it says I'll stick with you through the nightmare of what the revelation of the truth might bring. I won't defend your misdeeds; I will, however, not abandon you in your quest to make things right.

Mr. McClellan's failure was actually rooted precisely in his sense of loyalty. What will lead him into virtue will be the practice of what actually is "the first virtue." Courage.

Courage comes before all virtuous actions. C.S. Lewis offered this thought on the matter: "Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point." At the point when love, hope, faith, truthfulness, selflessness are tested, there is courage. Courage, not loyalty, is what was needed when first Mr. McClellan confronted the administration's duplicity and, perhaps, treachery. Courage is what Congress and the American people will need to confront what is surely our common duty to investigate all the possible wrong-doing that seems to have been the strategic direction of the present administration - even from the earliest moments of their campaign for the White House.

For our country to regain its highest position of virtue in the world community, "loyalty" will need to be shelved and "courage" served up in large portions to us all.

Ms. Collins' piece on "loyalty," wherein she exercises both wit and wisdom, shows us how "the media" can act as "conscience" for the nation. We need much more of this.