Sunday, December 7, 2008

Remembering "The Best and the Brightest"

Today, Frank Rich's column in the Times restores a proper measure of irony to the one phrase that will always the associated with the late reporter and author David Halberstam: "the best and the brightest."

As Rich points out in a column whose really quarry is the latest Obama appointments, Halberstam used the phrase in his book of the same name published in 1972. When The Best and the Brightest Came out, it was acclaimed as an exploration of the pride, overconfidence, and misplaced verbal agility that propelled the grand men of the Kennedy administration into Vietnam. They may have been the "best and the brightest," Halberstam concluded, but they failed to see the hazards of escalating the Vietnam War and led us into a disaster.
In his 20th-anniversary reflections, Halberstam wrote that his favorite passage in his book was the one where Johnson, after his first Kennedy cabinet meeting, raved to his mentor, the speaker of the House, Sam Rayburn, about all the president’s brilliant men. “You may be right, and they may be every bit as intelligent as you say,” Rayburn responded, “but I’d feel a whole lot better about them if just one of them had run for sheriff once.”

Halberstam loved that story because it underlined the weakness of the Kennedy team: “the difference between intelligence and wisdom, between the abstract quickness and verbal facility which the team exuded, and true wisdom, which is the product of hard-won, often bitter experience.” That difference was clearly delineated in Vietnam, where American soldiers, officials and reporters could see that the war was going badly even as McNamara brusquely wielded charts and crunched numbers to enforce his conviction that victory was assured.

Rich is concerned that not only are people resurrecting the phrase "best and the brightest" without appreciation for its origins, but they are enthusiastically applying it to Obama appointees whose pride and economically centrist politics could lead us down a bad road. The brightest, as the title of the column argues, are not always the best. Let's see.

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