I was then-Senator Hillary Clinton’s chief speechwriter during the 2008 presidential primary when, over the course of 18 long months, she and then-Senator Barack Obama battled intensely for the Democratic nomination. She painted him as naïve and inexperienced — someone who was all talk. He depicted her as inauthentic and a creature of Washington, beholden to special interests. Charges of racism and sexism were made, campaign spokespeople lobbed biting statements back and forth, and by the time Hillary conceded, both campaigns had pretty much had it with each other.
A few days after Hillary’s concession speech, I got a call from Obama’s chief speechwriter, Jon Favreau, who congratulated me on a hard-fought race and gingerly asked whether I might want to be a speechwriter for Obama. While I was incredibly proud to have worked for Hillary, I had also come to deeply respect and admire Obama, and I jumped at the chance to keep fighting for the Democratic and American values that I — and both candidates — believed in.
Within a week of my arrival, Obama himself called to welcome me to the campaign, and other than some good-natured ribbing, none of my new colleagues ever penalized me or treated me with suspicion because of my time with Hillary.
A number of my Hillary colleagues joined me in the Chicago headquarters and across the country. Many of us were later hired into the Obama Administration, some serving in the most senior positions in the White House. And of course, President Obama hired Hillary herself to be his secretary of State.
Obama’s outreach to his former opponents was not an anomaly in American history. Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet included several men who had run against him for the Republican nomination. In recent times, Ronald Reagan chose one of his primary campaign rivals, George H.W. Bush, as his vice president and another, Howard Baker, as his chief of staff. George W. Bush hired Ari Fleischer onto his 2000 campaign after he’d had a senior role on a rival primary campaign and then appointed him White House press secretary.
Wise presidents understand that to run a large, mind-bogglingly complex government that handles the highest-stakes challenges imaginable, you need the top talent — people with expertise and experience who share your vision and are committed to serving their country — and you take them wherever you can find them.
During the campaign, Donald Trump seemed capable of doing that, hiring Kellyanne Conway even though, while working for Senator Ted Cruz’s PAC, she’d attacked him for everything from his exploitive business practices to his un-presidential language. But as president, he’s taken a very different approach, refusing to hire a number of highly qualified people who’ve previously challenged him, and even firing those found to have criticized him. And a month into his administration, many important jobs remain unfilled.
It seems that for Trump, the key question is not: Are you loyal to American democracy, or Republican party values, or the American people? It is: Are you loyal to Donald Trump? After his erratic behavior during his first month in office, it’s likely harder to find people who can answer that question in the affirmative.
Committed Republicans who wish to serve their country might be willing to do so despite their president’s glaring deficiencies in character and temperament if they thought he would at least stand for core Republican and American values. But there is nothing Republican or truly American about Trump’s protectionism, xenophobia, and relentless attacks on vital democratic institutions like our judiciary and free press.
That may be why Trump has had so much trouble filling key roles in his administration. He doesn’t seem to understand that true public servants — folks who put in long hours for low pay and little recognition — don’t just work for one elected official. They work for their 320 million fellow citizens, and they work to promote values they hold dear and implement policies that will improve the lives of the people they serve.
As long as Trump fails to comprehend these truths, positions in his administration may remain unfilled or be filled by supporters who may not have the qualifications to do their jobs well. Given the important role the federal government plays in our lives, particularly in moments of crisis — from responding to natural disasters and terrorist attacks to managing economic downturns and outbreaks of dread diseases — the personnel gaps caused by Trump’s obsession with personal loyalty should be cause for serious concern.
Sarah Hurwitz is a fellow at the Institute of Politics at Harvard University. She was a White House speechwriter from 2009 to 2017, serving as a senior speechwriter for President Barack Obama and chief speechwriter for First Lady Michelle Obama.