Monday, February 23, 2009

The Best and Brightest (?)

I’ve always had a fascination with the Vietnam War, and particularly from the angle of the American government’s (mis)handling of it. Recently, two articles appears in the NY Times that both referenced David Halberstam’s book “The Best and the Brightest.” Below are the links. (BTW, if you can read only two books on the Vietnam War, that’s one of them. The other is Neil Sheehan’s “A Bright Shining Lie.”)

Richard Holbrooke (former U.N. ambassador) reviews of “Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam” by Gordon M. Goldstein:

My favorite passage in this piece has nothing to do with the book; it’s a personal anecdote offered by the reviewer toward the end of the piece:

As it happens, I was part of a small group that dined with Bundy the night before Pleiku at the home of Deputy Ambassador William J. Porter, for whom I then worked. Bundy quizzed us in his quick, detached style for several hours, not once betraying emotion. I do not remember the details of that evening — how I wish I had kept a diary! — but by then I no longer regarded Bundy as a role model for public service. There was no question he was brilliant, but his detachment from the realities of Vietnam disturbed me. In Ambassador Porter’s dining room that night were people far less intelligent than Bundy, but they lived in Vietnam, and they knew things he did not. Yet if they could not present their views in quick and clever ways, Bundy either cut them off or ignored them. A decade later, after I had left the government, I wrote a short essay for Harper’s Magazine titled “The Smartest Man in the Room Is Not Always Right.” I had Bundy — and that evening — in mind.


Frank Rich parallels the “Best and Brightest” of the Vietnam War with Obama’s new “Best and Brightest” economic team here:

Choice excerpt:

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.”