When Is It OK To Betray a Friend?

When Is It OK To Betray a Friend?

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
March 11 1999 10:00 PM

When Is It OK To Betray a Friend?

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There is something unseemly about former Clinton aides making large amounts of money for speaking out--in books, lectures, and on television--against their former boss. But it is not obvious what makes it objectionable. It cannot be the substance of their criticism, which is after all justified. If George Stephanopoulos, Dee Dee Myers, and Mike McCurry were out there defending Clinton against charges of lying and sexual misconduct, they would rightly be condemned (and not only by the Wall Street Journal) for an excess of loyalty, as mindless apologists for the shameful behavior of their former boss. But since they are not being apologists, they are accused of being traitors. Is this accusation just?

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Well, not exactly. Who or what is being wrongly betrayed? There are two possibilities: One is that they are betraying the president. But for the betrayal of a person to be wrong, the person must be worthy of loyalty. By lying to the public, and to the aides and officials who defended him before the public, President Clinton did much to forfeit the loyalty he would otherwise be due. (It could still be argued, however, that aides who owe their prominence to Clinton owe him something for that, notwithstanding his own betrayals.)

The second possibility is that they are betraying the cause for which this administration stands, and for which their former colleagues in the White House continue to fight. The problem with this theory is that it is difficult to identify with this administration a cause sufficiently large and compelling to justify withholding legitimate criticism of the president. Reaching an agreement to secure the financing of Social Security would be a good thing. But it is not likely to be helped or hurt by tales out of school by former aides.

If the so-called "commentraitors" cannot be charged with outright betrayal, perhaps the objection consists in the commodification of their candor--the fact that they are profiting so handsomely for their frankness. This objection, I think, comes closer to the mark. It is not their fault, of course, that in our media-frenzied moment, spilling all sells well. But former officials have always faced the temptation to convert access into affluence. Traditionally, retiring White House aides cashed in on their contacts and status quietly--by selling access to corporate clients as lobbyists and lawyers. Today, they cash in more noisily--by selling exposure and revelation. Once, we worried about the revolving door between government and K Street; today we worry about the revolving door between government and Larry King Live.

Christopher Buckley is a novelist and editor of Forbes FYI magazine. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children and dog, Duck. Michael Sandel is a professor of government at Harvard University, where he teaches political philosophy.  He is the author ofDemocracy's Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy.

When is it OK to betray a friend? The news these days offers many case studies. Linda Tripp taped her girl-talk with Monica for the special prosecutor. Christopher Hitchens swore an affidavit that fingered his friend Sid Blumenthal for possible perjury. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is giving a Lifetime Achievement Oscar to Elia Kazan, who famously "named names" to the House Committee on Un-American Activities during the McCarthy era.

One extreme position was staked out by E.M. Forster, who famously said, "If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country." What if Forster's friend had a bomb and was on his way to a day care center? Does anyone believe that snitching is always wrong? At the other extreme, does anyone believe that friendship has no claims over the truth? There are highway signs around Seattle urging people to snitch on carpool lane cheaters by calling the number 764-HERO. Would it be heroic to pick up your cell phone and report to the police that your friend was driving in the carpool lane with only herself and you in the car?

Presumably the morally correct place to be is somewhere between these extremes. Sometimes ratting on friends is good, sometimes it is bad. But when? Tripp and Hitchens both felt they were helping to bring a bad person (President Clinton) to justice. Is that a good enough reason? Does it hurt Tripp's case that destroying Clinton might also serve her ideological beliefs? Or does it hurt Hitchens' case that his action might have done harm to political values he claims to believe in? There are friends and close friends and best friends: Does that make a difference?

Beyond the issue of snitching, when, in general, should friendship trump principles, and vice versa? Norman Podhoretz has just published a memoir titled Ex-Friends about losing or abandoning old friendships as his political values changed. Podhoretz himself seems uncharacteristically ambivalent about this. On the one hand, it is arid and bloodless to let politics infect all spheres of life. On the other hand, it trivializes both politics and friendship to say you should be friends with people whose values you deplore. So how should you decide?

And what if the trade-off involves not friends but family? Next month Tony Hiss will publish a memoir of his father, Alger Hiss, describing him as being "honest to a fault." Are you morally required to face the truth about your dad?

--Michael Kinsley

Reading Material: Catch up on Slate's excessive coverage of the Sid-Hitch, and read Jacob Weisberg's "Browser" column about the Elia Kazan controversy. Order Norman Podhoretz's book and Tony Hiss' from barnesandnoble.com. While you're at it, pick up Christopher Buckley's new novel, Little Green Men, and Michael Sandel's Liberalism and the Limits of Justice.