Ah, the heartache of the presidential adviser





In 1966, White House aides found themselves precariously perched between apprehension of looming disaster in Vietnam and the need for candor with their boss, President Lyndon Baines Johnson.

Disaster seemed a safer choice.

Defense Secretary Robert McNamara was a logical candidate to speak the truth to his boss. Mr. McNamara told the historian and Kennedy confidant Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. and the economist John Kenneth Galbraith in January over dinner and drinks that he regarded a military solution as impossible, according to Mr. Schlesinger’s diaries, which have recently been published as “Journals: 1952-2000.” A sensible objective, Mr. McNamara told them, would be “withdrawal with honor.” Seven months later, the defense secretary was still publicly urging a widening of the war....

“The rule of thumb is never tell the president what he doesn’t want to hear,” said Richard Reeves, who has written histories of the Kennedy, Nixon and Reagan administrations. “As David Halberstam made clear, there was one similarity between Mao Zedong and Douglas MacArthur: Neither of their staffs ever told them a thing they didn’t want to hear.”

Perhaps, but some of the best American presidents encouraged robust debate, heated rivalries even, in hopes of threading a path to a tough decision. Lincoln was comfortable with discord.


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