The Obama staff of minds is quickly being filled, we are told by the mainstream media, with only “The Best and the Brightest” — but is that a good thing?  Frank Rich of the New York Times doesn’t think so:

IN 1992, David Halberstam wrote a new introduction for the 20th-anniversary edition of “The Best and the Brightest,” his classic history of the hubristic J.F.K. team that would ultimately mire America in Vietnam. He noted that the book’s title had entered the language, but not quite as he had hoped. “It is often misused,” he wrote, “failing to carry the tone or irony that the original intended.”…

The stewards of the Vietnam fiasco had pedigrees uncannily reminiscent of some major Obama appointees. McGeorge Bundy, the national security adviser, was, as Halberstam put it, “a legend in his time at Groton, the brightest boy at Yale, dean of Harvard College at a precocious age.” His deputy, Walt Rostow, “had always been a prodigy, always the youngest to do something,” whether at Yale, M.I.T. or as a Rhodes scholar. Robert McNamara, the defense secretary, was the youngest and highest paid Harvard Business School assistant professor of his era before making a mark as a World War II Army analyst, and, at age 44, becoming the first non-Ford to lead the Ford Motor Company.

Rich then turns his insight from history to illuminate the Obama camp today:

…It’s the economic team that evokes trace memories of our dark best-and-brightest past. Lawrence Summers, the new top economic adviser, was the youngest tenured professor in Harvard’s history and is famous for never letting anyone forget his brilliance. It was his highhanded disregard for his own colleagues, not his impolitic remarks about gender and science, that forced him out of Harvard’s presidency in four years. Timothy Geithner, the nominee for Treasury secretary, is the boy wonder president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. He comes with none of Summers’s personal baggage, but his sparkling résumé is missing one crucial asset: experience outside academe and government, in the real world of business and finance. Postgraduate finishing school at Kissinger & Associates doesn’t count.

Then Frank Rich closes the circle by returning to the Halberstam book and its warning against favoring manufactured experience over real life expectation:

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.”

Halberstam loved that story because it underlined the weakness of the Kennedy team: “the difference between intelligence and wisdom, between the abstract quickness and verbal facility which the team exuded, and true wisdom, which is the product of hard-won, often bitter experience.”

That is our first and final warning in the now against the sins of the past and Obama needs to listen: Pick real people, not those that have lived only in their minds and in ivory towers and on trust funds.

Choose minds that fell but got up again. Pick people that are flawed, yet wondering, to rough up the pristine edges of those surrounding you. We need street smart, tough, people. Michelle is not enough. We need bare knuckle fighters like Ed Rendell.

The awful Tom Delay, former House Majority Leader, knew how to bloody his knuckles by bruising egos. He got the job done. He came to Washington as a pest exterminator and ended up offing his own career, but his success was found in the example of his bug killing: He knew where the rodents lived and bred and he terminated them all without a moment of remorse.


  1. Excellent point David!
    Obama needs a right mix of theory and real world experience to forge his path ahead now, he needs to counter balance, complement himselfhis world by picking pepole with the attributes he lacks – not those whome he admires only.

  2. That’s right, Katha! Obama is internal. He’s insular. He needs to poke of the real world around him and while Michelle has been that device in the past, she won’t be able to do it from the White House. He needs hard-won realists who know the ache of failing and who have learned from those broken lessons.

  3. Theory is fine for academia, Gordon, but in ruling a nation is does little to help set a feasible and workable agenda. Obama needs to get more street fighters on his team. He can’t make the same mistake JFK made. “The Best and the Brightest” — in the context of the original book — was not a compliment.

  4. I guess we have to trust that he will pick up some street fighters along the way or now.

  5. You are absolutely right David!
    Obama surely has real world experience but a person can not be “all in all” – alone.
    He needs to understand his deficiencies and pick people according to those requirement.
    My first post looks awful, sorry for all those typos…I am really tired I guess –

  6. Katha —
    Right! Obama is smart. He knows how to run things — but the White House changes people and perspectives. His mother-in-law was invited to live with them in the White House and if she accepts, she would be the perfect real world conduit he needs. She’s just living there — she isn’t worried about policy or patting backs. She can gift him the real world every day.

  7. Rahm Emanuel seems to me like a good street fighter. Am I wrong? He has a good life history thusfar and not just in theory.

  8. Gordon —
    Rham is just one guy and Rham is in the world for Rham. He’ll fight for Obama, but he’s so hated — and not feared — his use of the “F” bomb only makes him smaller and sillier.

  9. Good question, Dananjay.
    Obama will be untouched. As I understand it, Blagojevich tried to get $300,000.00USD as “payment” for seating Obama’s first choice. He was turned down. In the taped transcripts he is furious at Obama for not playing along and even calls him a “motherfather” — but with a different word in the place of “father.”
    Obama never had anything to do with the guy and when you watch him on TV you just get the creeps.

  10. I don’t think I got it…
    Mother-in-law and White House do not gell well somehow!
    By the way, when you say – “Obama is internal, insular…” what do you mean by that?

  11. Hi Katha —
    Yes, Obama is introspective and respectful. He can sometimes live too far inside himself but Michelle is there to bring him back to the table when circumstances demand his external attention.

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