Cyprus Mail

Why the ‘best and brightest’ can be dimmest and worst at governing

President John Kennedy with Defence Secretary Robert McNamara at the National Security Council Executive Committee meeting in the Cabinet Room in the White House in 1962

By Robert Dallek

Millions of Americans, led by the Republican presidential candidates themselves, seem to forget what goes into a successful presidency. Donald Trump has said repeatedly that he will make America great again by bringing the “greatest minds” into his administration to solve America’s domestic and foreign problems.

Trump assured Fox News back in August. “I know the best negotiators. … I always say, ‘I know the ones that people think are good.’ I know people that you’ve never heard of that are better than all of them.”

Certainly having a smart president and the best brains as his advisers is a desirable arrangement. But having the smartest people in the room at the White House is no guarantee of a triumphal presidency. While it is obviously better to have smart people than less astute men and women trying to figure out answers to current challenges, if offers no certainty that serious problems will be solved – or even that the right decisions would be made.

Here are three clear examples when having smart people at the White House did not lead to promised solutions – or anything resembling long-term answers – to daunting domestic and foreign dilemmas.

President Woodrow Wilson, for example, established “The Inquiry” in September 1917, to prepare for the peace negotiations certain to follow the Great War. He brought together 150 of the most accomplished academics in the United States. University of Texas President Sidney Mezes, a philosopher, and Johns Hopkins University geography professor Isaiah Bowman led the group in helping Wilson devise proposals for what became the Versailles Conference in Paris, where the president hoped to negotiate an enduring peace.

President Woodrow Wilson at the Paris Peace Conference in 1918
President Woodrow Wilson at the Paris Peace Conference in 1918

Yet for all these experts’ authoritative knowledge about economics, geography, politics and foreign affairs, the Versailles settlement produced more acrimony than harmony and opened the way to another world war.

Neither Wilson nor his advisers – 21 of whom accompanied him to Versailles – could chart a course around the passions for revenge that animated the heads of state and delegates attending the conference. The treaty ending the Great War was a disaster that Wilson’s smart counsellors could not set right.

In the midst of the Great Depression, Franklin D Roosevelt established the Brain Trust. During the 1932 presidential campaign, FDR counsellor Sam Rosenman suggested that Roosevelt seek the advice of leading academics and devise a plan to overcome the Depression. Roosevelt, who was then governor of New York, brought three celebrated Columbia University professors to Albany – Alfred Berle, Raymond Moley and Rexford Tugwell, dubbed the “Brain Trust” by a New York Times journalist.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt signs Gold Bill in 1934
Franklin Delano Roosevelt signs Gold Bill in 1934

This trio morphed into a group of brilliant young academics who followed FDR to Washington after he won the presidency. Roosevelt assembled these advisers into an alphabet soup of new government agencies – the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA), the National Recovery Administration (NRA), the Public Works Administration (PWA) and the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) to help him address the miserable economic and social dislocations of the time.

For all their brainpower, however, the Brain Trust could not find a way out of the Great Depression. It was the industrial mobilisation for World War Two that ultimately revived the economy.

To be sure, Roosevelt’s advisers helped him ease the terrible suffering brought on by the national economic collapse. They contributed mightily to humanising the US industrial system with a social safety network, instituting programmes like Social Security and creating the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the National Labour Relations Board (NLRB) that function effectively to this day. But Roosevelt’s smart advisers fell short of a definitive solution to the economic collapse that had brought them to the White House in search of answers to the Depression.

No better example of how overstated Trump’s pronouncements on how his “smart advisers” will transform the country can be found than in the record of the famously dubbed “best and brightest” brought together by President John F Kennedy in 1961. Many of these same men then stayed on to advise President Lyndon B Johnson after Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. The best and the brightest were from Harvard and several other prestigious universities – men with experience principally in economics and foreign affairs.

Trump and his supporters seem to have forgotten that JFK systematically surrounded himself with exceptionally smart men. As Kennedy told a group of Nobel laureates he had in for a luncheon at the White House: It was the greatest collection of brains ever assembled there except for the time Thomas Jefferson dined alone.

McGeorge Bundy and Robert McNamara were in the forefront of Kennedy’s best and brightest. Bundy, JFK’s national security adviser, had been a celebrated scholar for virtually his entire life. He was regarded as one of the smartest students ever to graduate from Yale University. He was then the youngest man ever to serve as dean of Harvard College.

In 1992, I interviewed him for biographies I wrote on Kennedy and Johnson and still found him to be as sharp as the many accounts had noted. He was most convincing as he explained the origins of US involvement in the Vietnam conflict.

Likewise, McNamara, Kennedy’s defence secretary, was a storied figure in the business world. He had risen to the presidency of the Ford Motor Company at the age of 44 and revitalised its performance as a corporate titan. I interviewed McNamara as well and found him to be a match for Bundy. He walked me through the ins and outs of the Cuban missile crisis, to show me why he and Kennedy had succeeded in that Cold War standoff with the Soviet Union. McNamara then, like Bundy, made a compelling case for the Vietnam War.

Yet no matter how whip-smart, McNamara and Bundy were also two of the principal advisers shaping Kennedy’s failure at Cuba’s Bay of Pigs, where they believed they could topple the government of Fidel Castro by means of an invasion of roughly 1,500 Cuban exiles. The stunning failure rested on the Kennedy administration’s misjudgements about how the Cuban people would respond to the attack.

Before the covert operation began, Kennedy was discussing it with former Secretary of State Dean Acheson. Acheson asked the president how many men the White House expected Castro could bring to the beaches to oppose the invaders. Kennedy said perhaps as many as 20,000 to 25,000. An incredulous Acheson replied, it doesn’t take Pricewaterhouse to figure out that 1,500 aren’t as good as 25,000.

Having the smartest people in the room when he decided to go forward with the Bay of Pigs invasion did not insulate Kennedy from a mortifying, embarrassing failure. True, he publicly took responsibility for the disaster, but the fact remained that he relied on his advisers in going ahead with so faulty a plan.

The greatest, most memorable blunder of the Kennedy’s best and the brightest was Vietnam. During his thousand days in office, Kennedy was sceptical about fighting a ground war in Vietnam, but McNamara and Bundy, as well as the brainy Maxwell Taylor, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Walt W Rostow, the brilliant accomplished economist, were confident that they could defeat the communist insurgency by training South Vietnamese forces to counter the tactics of the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese.

Counterinsurgency joined with a Strategic Hamlet Program and superior US firepower would win this guerrilla war, or so Bundy, McNamara, Taylor and Rostow believed. McNamara thought he could apply the metrics he had used to rebuild Ford to win the conflict in Vietnam. It was a searing experience for these exceptionally smart men, who laboured and failed for seven years to bring the war to a successful conclusion.

Trump should go back and read this history before he makes additional pronouncements about how he and other brainy people will work wonders in advancing the economy, solving US foreign policy problems in the Middle East, Asia and Europe, and defending the homeland against terrorism. If the truth is told, the fact that he’s made himself a billionaire (starting out as only a millionaire) guarantees nothing about his possible performance as president.

Herbert Hoover was a brilliantly successful businessman who also consulted with other smart, successful business moguls. His administration was one of the least successful in American history.

Yes, let’s elect smart people to the highest offices, but we do better to rely on men and women who have a sense of proportion and know some history in leading the country to meet its domestic and foreign problems. And voters do better to understand that there are no magic bullets that smart people can provide to solve the country’s problems.

Robert Dallek is the author of two volumes on President Lyndon B. Johnson, “Lone Star Rising: Lyndon Johnson in his Times 1908-1960” and “Flawed Giant 1961-1973.” He is also the author of “An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy 1917-1963” and most recently “Camelot’s Court: Inside the Kennedy White House.” He is now writing a biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

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