A President or a Press Secretary

I finished David Halberstram’s The Best and the Brightest about a month ago and I’ve been trying to find a way to approach writing about it ever since. The book is so packed with fascinating history and insights that its hard to choose what to bite off first; worse, each approach ties inexorably into a few others, making disentangling one into a blog post near impossible.

I heard a quote in a Podcast the other day (I think Vox’s The Weeds but I can’t remember certainly) that succinctly captured one of the main messages and has been banging around in my head ever since; to paraphrase, “We think of our brain as a president, when really it is a press secretary.” That is: we imagine that we’re impartially weighing and evaluating each piece of evidence we read about the world and incorporating this into our updated worldview, when really our worldview is mostly fixed and the ‘evidence’ we hear is recast or highlighted as to best fit into this worldview (or outright rejected if no fit can be made).

This isn’t a revolutionary idea and is in many ways just a restatement of Confirmation bias; however, the idea and the metaphor itself aptly describe one of the main problems that befell the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.

At a high level: Kennedy and his acacademic and operationally minded technocracy of men like McGeorge Bundy, Bill McNamara, and Walt Rostow believed in the overwhelming power of their own open-minded brilliance and rationality to resolve any political matter; however, this self-same belief made them blind to their own biases and preconceptions and eventually outright hostile to any questioning of their essential rightness. The propoganda machinery supporting this self-deception eventually permeated stretched from the reporting structure at the lowest levels of the military on the ground in Vietnam to the highest ranking members of the presidental cabinet.

The mechanisms enforcing this conformity are myriad and take up many of the pages of this (massive) book. However, three (that magic number for enumeration) stick with me now: bureacratic enforcement, patriotic pressure, and misinformation.

Bureacratic pressure is one of the most obvious and pernicious mechanisms that was available to the administration. Obvious because this is a bureacracy; pernicious because the pressure could be applied without administrators even realizing they had done so. At its meanest, men who disagreed with the presidential concensus on Vietnam and East Asia generally would be fired or removed to remote, insignificant posts in order to silence their criticism. More common, I think, would be the subtle pressure on military underlings to provide rosy assessments of the war to their superiors all the way up the main, or likewise the pressure on State Department officials to sit on information that upset the administration’s worldview. Promotions for those with ‘good’ information; stalled careers for those with true information. In this way the adminstrators, intentionally and not, outright corrupted the data that was so essential to the proper function of their hyper-rationalist evaluations.

Before reading this book I had underestimated how much the shadow of McCarthyism hung over Washington for years after his death. Not only communists but anyone to the left of the prevaling hard-line anti-Communist demonology of the day were purged from political life and sometimes faced with legal problems. Through the Johnson administration Democrats in particular remained fearful of seeming ‘soft’ on Communism, even when it came to supporting liberal domestic causes. The way this worked to silence critics of the hard-line of Vietnam cannot be understated. Journalists were afraid to question the statements and assumptions of the adminstration; potential dissenters in Congress feared not “supporting the boys”; outsiders within State and the military had long been purged. Disagreeing that the United States should support the cruel and corrupt Diem regime in Vietnam, pointing out the danger and futility of saturation bombing in North Vietnam, questioning whether the “Communuist Monolith” was real or imagined were not opinions meriting discussiin; they were committing treason. This led to a nation-wide purging of dissenting voices and created the illusion of concensus in the administration.

Finally, the Johnson (and to a lesser extent Kennedy) administration used the information and dissemination powers of the Executive to mislead the public, the press, and Congress. They executive under-stated the troop requirements given by the generals, painted an inanely optimisitic picture of the war (which would always be “over by Christmas”, lied about funding requirements, leaked when it benefit them but otherwise completely hid the internal deliberations and decisions of the administration. These machinations were part and parcel with the leader’s belief in their own intellectual superiority and rationality; they held the public and Congress in such disdain that misleading them was necessary and right in order to bring them along on the correct course. Those who questioned and disagreed with the leadership were belittled and treated with hostility. Halberstram summarizes this beautifully:

Nor had they, leaders of a democracy, bothered to involve the people of their country in the course they had chosen: they knew the right path and they knew how much could be revealed, step by step along the way. They had manipulated the public, the Congress and the press from the start, told half truths, about why we were going in, how deeply we were going in, how much we were spending, and how long we were in for. When their predictions turned out to be hopelessly inaccurate, and when the public and the Congress, annoyed at being manipulated, soured on the war, then the architects had been aggrieved. They had turned on those very symbols of the democratic society they had once manipulated, criticizing them for their lack of fiber, stamina and lack of belief.

What are those of us who believe in rationality to do, then? The “Go with your Gut” instict of the second Bush administration brought us Iraq, our modern Vietnam; the passions of the mob brought us Trump. Halberstram argues that infusing humanism and political courage were the necessary but missing partners of Kennedy’s rationalism. The team was too willing to see napalm bombing as numbers on a spreadsheet modeling the balance of the war rather than as the act of human cruelty that it was. And even when Kennedy saw an unfortunate political truth, he lacked the courage to bear the political cost of his convinction – always waiting until the second term.

I’d argue that intellectual humility was also a crucial but missing element of this administration. Too many men who’d made a career of being perpertually correct and meteorically successful had no capacity for considering their own flaws and blindspots and no tolerance for the less-credentialed who challenged the rightness of their betters. To my thinking Obama, most often compared to Kennedy, fused these traits of humanism, political courage, and humility nicely. Perhaps relatedly he stands almost alone among his modern peers in not embroiling the United States in some foreign military debacle (though, somehow, Trump has a chance to be the most peace-loving president yet).

More important than prescriptions for society, though, is advise for ourselves. Remain humble, question your assumptions, and attempt to meet new information with the open mind of a true Executive rather than the fixed, debate-poised mind of a Press Secretary.

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