The Best and the Brightest Redux

All we seem to hear about President-Elect Obama’s appointments to his cabinet and inner circle is how “smart” these people are.  Take Obama’s newly named chief financial advisor, Larry Summers, for example.  Time, Newsweek, the LA Times and the Wall Street Journal have all described him as a “genius.”  Reportedly, Summers is even smarter than Tim Geithner, Obama’s choice for Secretary of the Treasury, and Geithner has been called “positively brilliant.”

How do we know that all these people are so damn smart?  Presumably, by applying the same standards we’ve always applied:  First, they all have the academic chops, having attended prestigious universities; second, they all bring the glowing references and sparkling endorsements of their peers; and third (let’s be honest), they’re all wildly ambitious, dedicated and self-promoting professionals.

Working off the premise that President Obama will do better than President Bush because he has appointed so many “smart” people, one might conclude that the monumental screw-ups of the current administration are traceable to the fact that, alas, Bush’s people just weren’t “smart” enough to figure out what was going on.  But that premise is badly flawed.

No one wants well-intentioned dummies running the show, but let’s take a closer look at how we’re picking these people.  The Nazi S.S. were smart.  The scientists who built the A-bomb were smart.  The guys running Enron were smart.  Maybe we need to re-define what “smart” is, and recalibrate its importance in governing a nation.

After all, wasn’t the whole point of David Halberstam’s account of America’s failures in Vietnam, “The Best and the Brightest,” to show that the men who led us into that debacle (and, more importantly, kept us there for over a decade) happened to be the cream of America’s diplomatic and academic crop?  They were products of the best pedigrees and the best schools.  They were America’s “best and brightest,” and yet they failed.

The Bush administration’s myriad shortcomings were no more a function of a collective low I.Q. than were our blunders in Vietnam  Bush’s inner circle aren’t dummies.  Rather, their failures were the direct result of the way they saw the world—the product of hubris, of intellectual arrogance, of post-Cold War triumphalism, of Corporationism (Mussolini’s alternative term for Fascism), and a fatal, near-suffocating sense of American Exceptionalism.

And it wasn’t just foreign policy that was botched.  Bush’s Secretary of Labor, Elaine Chao, graduated from Mt. Holyoke, got an MBA from Harvard, and did post-grad work at MIT.  Her pro-business, virulently anti-union record while Labor Secretary wasn’t the result of not being quite bright enough to realize that America’s working class is struggling, that they’re on the ropes.  It ain’t brains, folks.  It’s attitude.  A combination of intellectual, cultural and personal sensibilities.  Chao simply didn’t give a rat’s ass.

Paul Wolfowitz graduated from Cornell and has a Ph. D. from the University of Chicago.  He has degrees in mathematics and chemistry.  He’s smart.  He also happens to be a fanatically pro-Israel neo-con who believes that the U.S. is the greatest country in the history of the world and, based on that assessment, has the divine right to “re-invent” the Middle East in its own image.  Other than that, a very bright guy.

Condoleeza Rice and Robert Gates both have doctorates in Russian History.  John Ashcroft has degrees from Yale and the University of Chicago.  Donald Rumsfeld is a graduate of Princeton.  Secretary of Treasury Henry Paulson has degrees from Dartmouth and Harvard, and was the head of Goldman Sachs.  Former CIA director George Tenet holds degrees from Georgetown and Columbia University.

J. Paul Bremer, the man who, arguably, more than any single person, made sure that the U.S. mission in Iraq got off on the worse possible footing by unilaterally dissolving the Iraqi army, has a brilliant resume, with degrees from both Yale and Harvard.  The list goes on and on.

Even the two “dimmest bulbs” in the administration—the hapless former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and George W. Bush, himself—attended America’s most prestigious academic institutions.  Gonzales graduated from Harvard Law School, and GWB holds degrees from Yale and Harvard.

No one’s suggesting that instead of mining America’s best colleges and universities we seek graduates from Palookaville Vocational College.  What we’re saying is that, no matter where they went to school, in order to succeed, Obama’s people will need to bring a conspicuously new sensibility to the job.  They need to treat the rest of the world with dignity.  The “imperial presidency” and the military adventurism that goes along with it have been exposed as counter-productive, if not bankrupt.

Compromising and acquiescing aren’t the same as capitulating.  Respecting and seeking to understand another country or culture’s point of view, even one fundamentally alien to our own, isn’t a sign of weakness or vulnerability.  Quite the opposite; it demonstrates strength and confidence.  Just as every person wants to be treated with dignity, every country desires the same.

It’s not about “brains.”  The government is crawling with smart people.  It’s about genuine humility.  The argument can be made that, if the Obama administration retracts its fangs and shows its willingness to lead by example and consensus-building rather than by dominance and bullying, the rest of the world will not only recognize and appreciate the gesture, it will reward it.

David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and writer, was a former labor union rep.  He can be reached at





David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at