Saturday, September 7, 2013

Conrad Black's Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full 14

For my blog post today about Conrad Black's Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, I'll use as my starting-point something that Black says on page 460.

"Nixon moved on to Saigon and conducted his usual extensive private tour.  He was appalled at the views of his former running mate, [Henry Cabot] Lodge, who had bought into the groupthink of the academics and theorists around Kennedy and now Johnson, immortalized in David Halberstein's description 'the Best and the Brightest.'  It was about these people, when Johnson effused to the late Sam Rayburn about how intelligent they were, that Rayburn said, 'I hope you're right, but I just wish one of them had ever run for county sheriff.'  The word from Johnson's inherited entourage at this point was that the war in Vietnam could be won with social spending, acts of goodwill, and encouragements to democracy.  An inexpressible, unbelievable tragedy, on a new, hideously magnified scale was about to spring, whole, from its Indochinese cradle and be unleashed upon the world."

I first heard about "the Best and the Brightest" when I was working at a library.  One of the workers there, an older gentleman and a long-time right-winger, told me about the concept as it pertained to the Kennedy Administration.  The library was having a book sale, and one of the books on the sale-truck was Arthur Schlesinger's A Thousand Days, which is about the Kennedy Presidency.  I was asking my co-worker if he wanted the Schlesinger book, and he scoffed.  He told me that Schlesinger was one of those "Best and the Brightest" who was around Kennedy.  "They thought they were such experts," he told me.  "What you or I thought would be of no account to the upper echelon, but these Best and the Brightest were considered so wise."

There is a strong part of me that is anti-intellectual elite.  I can't deny that.  And it's a bipartisan sentiment.  For example, I can scoff at the Best and the Brightest around Kennedy and Johnson, who thought that they were so smart yet had ideas about the Vietnam War that did not seem to work.  Right-wingers may scoff at how these Best and the Brightest believed that a humanitarian approach to Vietnam would have ameliorated the war and brought Vietnam along the yellow-brick road to democracy.  But one could easily scoff at right-wing intellectuals, as well.  The neocons in the Bush Administration were smart, well-educated people.  Some of them, if I'm not mistaken, were called vulcans.  And yet, did their "get tough" strategy on the Middle East actually work?  Many, for good reason, are quite skeptical.

The thing is, I don't want to go to the other extreme and say that knowledge does not matter.  Going back to my co-worker's comment, I would much prefer for the President to consult someone who knows more than I do about the history of regions, economics, politics, culture, etc., than for the President to consult me.  When a person has knowledge, he has more that he can work with, even if his judgment is not always that good.

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