With the passing of Robert McNamara it’s instructive to remember the legacy of one of the “best and the brightest” of another administration that was ushered in with great pomp and circumstance. Robert S. McNamara came to Washington to serve in the Kennedy administration after a brief but highly visible stint as president of the Ford Motor Company. The aura of brilliance and newness that made up the image of the Kennedy White House was embodied in the brainy McNamara. The taciturn and unexciting style of the Eisenhower White House gave way, in a revolution of style over substance, to an electoral adrenaline rush of what might be described as the 1960’s version of hope and change.
There’s something about the debut of progressive Democrats in the Oval office that brings with it the gushing descriptions of brilliance and brains, whip smart personalities and towering intellects. From JFK to Clinton to Obama the mantra has been consistent: these are really, really smart guys. Unfortunately, as far as the first two were concerned, auspicious beginnings were soon overwhelmed by the hard realities of the office. Kennedy was quickly humbled by the Bay of Pigs disaster; Clinton by the 1994 mid term elections. It appears that the economy will be President Obama’s banquet of consequences.
While Robert McNamara was ushered into Washington to the sound of hosannas, called to serve by a president who was wildly popular at the time, he left the town in ignominious defeat, reviled by the very electorate that had showered him with praise. McNamara had a poorly thought out strategy for the war in Vietnam and he will be forever remembered as the principle architect of failure in that mission. For such a smart guy, no one at the time would have thought that a writer like David Halberstam would have later said of him…
“[He] did not serve himself or his country well. He was, there is no kinder or gentler word for it, a fool.”
The Obama administration would be well advised to study the rise and fall of Robert McNamara.