Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Lessons in hubris from one of the best and brightest

In a departure from routine, I want to acknowledge the untimely death of a great American author and journalist. David Halberstam was killed in a car crash yesterday, and when I heard the news, I pulled from the shelf my battered hardcover copy of The Best and The Brightest. Halberstam wrote that book more than 35 years ago, yet its insights into the perils of White House hubris are just as true today. Needless to say.

Halberstam, for those of you too young to remember, was already in Vietnam as a young New York Times reporter, writing about the disparity between Washington talking points and factual reality on the battlefield, long before many Americans were even focusing on the war at all. His dispatches seriously ticked off President Kennedy, who then sought to have Halberstam yanked off his beat. Halberstam stayed, and continued to file stories that systematically challenged the sunny spin of the Democratic administration. Several years after he returned to America, he embarked on an ambitious project to tell the inside story about how a team of arrogant war planners, acting on behalf of two Democratic presidents, led America astray during the 1960s.

The Best and the Brightest was published in 1972, and many of its countless anecdotes still resonate. One of my favorites recounts an incident during the summer of 1964, when President Johnson and his war spinners decided to ask Congress for an open-ended resolution to wage war in Vietnam. They did this by exploiting an incident in the Gulf of Tonkin, where North Vietnamese PT boats may have challenged two U.S. destroyers. The truth was far murkier (as Halberstam painstakingly documents), but the White House decided to frame the incident as an example of naked communist aggression. Let’s pick up the book narrative:

(War planner) McGeorge Bundy gathered the White House staff together and said that the President had decided to go for a congressional resolution calling for a general posture in Southeast Asia…After Bundy finished, Douglass Cater, a White House adviser on domestic issues, was one of the first to speak up. “Isn’t this a little precipitous?” he asked. “Do we have all the information…?”

Bundy looked quickly at him and said, “The President has decided, and that’s what we’re doing.”

Cater, new to the White House, persisted: “Gee, Mac, I haven’t really thought it through.”

Bundy, with a very small smile: “Don’t.”

Tens of thousands of American deaths later, Halberstam finished his book in 1972 with this assessment:

Lyndon Johnson had lost it all, and so had the rest of them; they had, for all their brilliance and hubris and sense of themselves, been unwilling to look to and learn from the past….He and the men around him wanted to be defined as being strong and tough; but strength and toughness and courage were exterior qualities which would be demonstrated by going to a clean and hopefully antiseptic war with a small nation, rather than the interior and more lonely kind of strength and courage of telling the truth to America (about an unwinnable war) and perhaps incurring a great deal of domestic political risk…

Nor had they, leaders of a democracy, bothered to involve the people of their country in the course they had chosen; they knew the right path and they knew how much could be revealed, step by step along the way. They had manipulated the public, the Congress, and the press from the start, told half truths, about why we were going in, how deeply we were going in, how much we were spending, and how long we were in for. When their predictions turned out to be hopefully inaccurate, and when the public and the Congress, annoyed at being manipulated, soured on the war, then the architects had been aggrieved. They had turned on those very symbols of the democratic society they had once manipulated, criticizing them for their lack of fiber, stamina, and lack of belief….What was singularly missing…was an iota of public admission that they had miscalculated. The faults, it seemed, were not theirs, the fault was with this country which was not worth of them. So they lost it all.

It is tragic that Halberstam won’t be around to recap the Iraq debacle in similar fashion. But, as you can see, perhaps he already has.


An open letter to John Edwards:

What is it with you and your hair, anyway? I’ve seen you up close a number of times, and we even chatted when you first ran for the Senate in 1998, and it’s abundantly clear to me that you have good hair, the easy-to-cut kind of hair, the straight hair that mitigates against your ever having a bad hair day…and it shouldn’t cost $400 (at campaign expense, no less) to get that hair looking right.

I don’t intend here to imply that your fancy haircut is the most monumental issue of the day; it’s also important to point out that many politicians with expensive habits have successfully portrayed themselves as friends of the downtrodden. Bobby Kennedy was filthy rich, yet his portrait adorned the walls of thousands of shacks in Appalachia and in ghettoes. Lyndon Johnson, before being consumed by Vietnam, was fixated on fighting poverty, and believed deeply in the mission, even though he had made himself rich, thanks to some sweetheart ownership deals for Texas TV stations. Franklin D. Roosevelt was a friend of the little guy, even though he lived his life in the lap of luxury in Hyde Park. So I wasn’t necessarily scandalized by the news that you had purchased a 100-acre spread in North Carolina, complete with basketball court, squash court, swimming pool, and a 600-square foot bedroom.

But, really, this hair thing was so avoidable.

Fairly or not, you’ve already been tagged with that “Breck girl” label, and you’ve already been immortalized on YouTube as someone preternaturally obsessed with what stray locks might fall over your left brow. That video clip drags on for two minutes, and it feels like 20. Your detractors are forever looking for new ways to question your gravitas as a candidate, to impugn your crafted image as a populist crusader, to show that you’re on the rich side of your Two Americas, so why give them any fresh ammunition?

Here’s how you explained it the other day: “This guy had to come to where I was to (give) a haircut.”

John…Dude…Was it so hard to anticipate that Joseph Torrenueva might be a tad pricey? First, he was making a house call. Second, he was coming from Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. Repeat, Beverly Hills. That’s a place where a cold plate of gefilte fish at Nate ‘n Al’s Delicatessen will run you nearly $15.

So, just a word of advice: If you want to be a man of the people, get a people’s haircut. I go to an earthy guy named Frank who wears a neck chain and cuts hair for $20, including tip. I’ll give you his number. His shop is located in a swing state with an early primary, if that’s any help. And do yourself another favor: pay for it out of your own pocket next time.