Posted by: David Offutt | May 12, 2009

Obama, JFK, and the Best and the Brightest

JFK and Obama

After President-elect Barack Obama announced several of his cabinet appointments and advisors, a Republican friend asked me what I thought of his selections. I told him that they are already being compared to John F. Kennedy’s assemblage of “the best and the brightest.” I also reminded him that Democratic Senate Majority Leader Sam Rayburn cautioned the overwhelmed VP Lyndon B. Johnson that while JFK’s people may be brilliant, none of them had ever been elected sheriff. Obama seems to have learned that lesson. Many of his appointees, such as Hillary Clinton, Janet Napolitano, Tom Daschle, and Rahm Emanuel, have actually been elected to public office.

Many forget that historian David Halberstam coined the phrase “the best and the brightest,” in a book of the same name, as a rather sarcastic expression. He was writing about “geniuses” whose ultimate legacy was the escalation of the disastrous Vietnam War and the destruction of the presidency of LBJ, who otherwise could have been one of the greatest presidents in American history. LBJ’s instincts were usually good, but he lacked JFK’s ability to discern whom to listen to on Vietnam.

In a recently-released recording of a May 1964 phone conversation between President Johnson and his first national security advisor McGeorge Bundy, LBJ said: “Looks like to me we are getting into another Korea. It just worries the hell out of me. I don’t see what we could ever hope to get out there once we’re committed. I believe the Chinese communists coming into it. I don’t believe we can fight them 10,000 miles away from home and ever get anywhere on, in that area. I don’t think it’s worth fighting for, and I don’t think we can get out, and it’s just the biggest damn mess that I ever saw. …I just thought about ordering – ordering those kids [mostly draftees] in there – and what in the hell am I ordering them out there for? It’s damned easy to get into a war, but it’s going to be awfully hard ever to extricate yourself if you get in.”

Economist and anti-communist Walt Rostow was one of JFK’s “best and brightest.” Kennedy explained that Walt had ten ideas: nine would lead to disaster, but one was worth having. Unfortunately, LBJ considered Rostow to be his most important advisor on Vietnam! Former Kennedy aide Ken O’Donnell once told Rostow that it finally occurred to him why they disagreed so much over the Vietnam issue: O’Donnell was the WWII bombardier who spent time in a German POW camp and Rostow was the guy back at headquarters who picked his targets. LBJ fired O’Donnell and kept Rostow, making him his second national security advisor in 1966. The rest, as they say, is history.

When some of “the best and brightest,” like Sec. of Defense Robert McNamara, admitted they had been wrong, LBJ felt personally betrayed. But frustrated by his generals’ continuous requests for more troops – the number had increased from 25,000 to over 500,000 combatants in four years – he had had enough! LBJ initiated the Paris Peace Talks with the North Vietnamese, but he was unable to get his own allies, the South Vietnamese, to attend. It has always been suspected that Richard Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign staff worked against LBJ’s efforts to achieve peace so that Nixon could be elected. In another recently-released taped phone conversation – this time with Senate Republican leader Everett Dirksen – LBJ said: “This is treason. If Nixon keeps the South Vietnamese away from the [peace] conference, well, that’s going to be his responsibility.”

(You may recall a similar circumstance 12 years later. Ronald Reagan’s campaign is still suspected of stalling Jimmy Carter’s negotiations with Iran to release the 50 American hostages that were being held there. Iran reentered negotiations only after Reagan’s election in November 1980 and didn’t release the hostages until moments after Reagan took the oath of office Jan. 20, 1981.)

When I was a history major at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, I was distressed that many of my friends and classmates supported and/or voted for Nixon in 1968. Nixon had convinced them he would quickly end the Vietnam War – and the draft was heavy on everyone’s mind. However, I warned them that Nixon had always supported that war. As vice president, he even tried to get President Eisenhower to enter the U. S. into the war in 1954 to rescue the French at the siege of Dien Bien Phu. Fortunately, Ike refused. Sadly, after the French surrendered and left Indochina, Eisenhower terminated the plans for a national Vietnamese election in 1956 and began sending U. S. military advisors into South Vietnam.

It wasn’t long before my friends realized that Nixon had duped them. I will never forget the time I was shoving money into a Coca Cola vending machine and heard a deep voice behind me repeating, “I’m sorry; I’m sorry.” I turned around to see a fellow Yocum Hall resident assistant named Gary Tarpley. He then said, “I didn’t know why he was called Tricky Dick.” I still regret not making it more clear.

As president, Nixon dragged out the war for four more years at the expense American power, prestige, and economic and natural resources. We lost an additional 30,000 young lives, and thousands more were physically and/or psychologically wounded. In the end, Nixon made a deal that could have been made when he first entered office. He finally got us out of the Vietnam quagmire, but it had all been for nothing.

Since then, one of the many qualities I have looked for in presidential candidates has been their knowledge of the Vietnam experience. Were they foolish enough to continuously support the Vietnam War and/or did they learn anything from it? Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and John McCain always supported that war and all seemed clueless – even McCain – as to most of its numerous lessons. Barack Obama was willing to use the lessons of history and take the political risk to speak against the Iraq War when it was not popular to do so.

Amazingly, 21 to 33 % of Americans still find something commendable about Mr. Bush. And 47 % of the voters in November wanted to continue his irresponsible policies for four more years! It was scary. Luckily, the other 53 % of us wanted to reverse course. Progress must be made soon on all our crises: clean energy, climate change, infrastructure, health care, Middle East, Wall Street reform, and jobs. Hence, we need to stop expending our borrowed money and our precious lives on Bush-Cheney’s pet project in Iraq. January 20, 2009, will bring us our first true hope in eight years. Obama must lead and use his “best and brightest” wisely. He and they have the ability and desire to do their jobs. Wish them well.

by David Offutt
A version of this essay was published January 9, 2009,
in the El Dorado News-Times as a letter to the editor.

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