Frank Rich: McNamara Was the One of the Cool, Rational CEO Cabinet Secretaries (Like Cheney, Rumsfeld and O'Neill?)

Roundup: Media's Take

Frank Rich, writing in the NYT (Jan. 25, 2004):

Since its release, "The Fog of War" has generated plenty of debate on two fronts. Should Mr. McNamara, who freely admits to making errors about Vietnam but stops well short of outright contrition, rot in hell? The verdicts on his confessions in Mr. Morris's film range from mild praise (he's conceding fallibility, however belatedly) to utter rage (Roger Rosenblatt, on "The NewsHour," likened him to the self-justifying bureaucrats of Treblinka).

The greater debate has been over the degree to which the follies of Vietnam are now being re-enacted in Iraq. Though Mr. Morris started interviewing Mr. McNamara before 9/11 and his film never mentions current events, the implicit parallels between then and now are there for the taking. In the Johnson administration's deceptive hyping of the Gulf of Tonkin incident as a provocation to war, we see the Bush administration's deceptive hyping of the supposedly imminent threat of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction for the same purpose. In Mr. McNamara's stern warnings against waging war unilaterally and against trying to win the hearts and minds of a foreign land without understanding its culture first, we find historical lessons we didn't heed as we blundered into the escalating chaos of our "postwar" occupation of Iraq.

Such analogies can be pushed only so far, however, and Mr. McNamara refuses to draw them publicly, despite repeated badgering by interviewers like me to do so. But if it is inexact, not to mention wildly premature, to declare that Iraq is Vietnam, it is not too soon to mine a related and pressing resonance of the McNamara story. When President-elect John F. Kennedy appointed Mr. McNamara to his cabinet, he was lionized as the very model, indeed the very shiny new model, of the modern star business executive: famously, the first non-Ford to be president of the Ford Motor Company, the most brilliant of the 10 so-called Whiz Kids whom Ford had recruited en masse from the Air Force brain trust of World War II, and the first M.B.A. from Harvard Business School to ascend so high in government.

As a national role model at the dawn of Camelot, Robert McNamara was Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and, yes, Paul O'Neill before it was cool. He entered the cabinet as an exemplar of "American certitude and conviction" who could use "his rationality with facts" to intimidate bureaucratic dissenters, David Halberstam wrote in "The Best and the Brightest" in 1972, after Mr. McNamara had come to his bad end. Among Mr. McNamara's virtues, Mr. Halberstam wrote, was loyalty — but "perhaps too much loyalty, the corporate-mentality loyalty to the office instead of to himself."

"The Price of Loyalty," Ron Suskind's new best-selling exposé of the inner workings of the Bush White House, reads like an as-told-to book by its principal source, Mr. O'Neill, a C.E.O./cabinet officer fired by another Texan wartime president. It casts the former treasury secretary in the same role of protagonist that Mr. McNamara plays in "The Fog of War." When Mr. O'Neill was first appointed, he was hailed for his successful tenure at Alcoa, where, like Mr. McNamara at Ford, he was prized for his humanistic concern with safety as well as his can-do resuscitation of a sinking bottom line. The parallels end there. Whatever one thinks of Mr. O'Neill's White House tenure, he is of footnote stature in American history, if that. And unlike Mr. McNamara, a loyal courtier to presidents to the bitter end and beyond, Mr. O'Neill hardly waited a moment before trashing George W. Bush.


comments powered by Disqus