January 25, 2004

Oldest Living Whiz Kid Tells All

There has been no more unlikely movie star this season than Robert McNamara, the only living character in Errol Morris's documentary "The Fog of War." The 87-year-old Mr. McNamara — who, as the Washington Post film critic Stephen Hunter pointed out, is a dead ringer for Gollum in "Lord of the Rings" — has been as surprised as anyone by his new-found audience. "I don't know a damn thing about films and TV," he said when we spoke last weekend. He can't remember the title of the one other movie he saw in the past decade and has "never seen a DVD." He hasn't watched any other film about Vietnam, period, having made a particular point of avoiding those by Oliver Stone.

As secretary of defense in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, Mr. McNamara presided over the most disastrous foreign adventure in American history and refused to speak out against it even after his own private doubts helped fuel L.B.J.'s decision to fire him. Mr. McNamara still lives in Washington, minutes away from the memorial to the 58,000-plus American dead. Are strangers nice when they approach him to talk about the movie? I asked. Yes, he said, but he acknowledged that the sample may be skewed: "People who hate you don't come up to you on the street and say you're a son of a bitch."

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.

Consistent to a fault, Mr. McNamara doesn't approve of Mr. O'Neill's behavior. "I think it's terrible," he says. "It's wrong for a cabinet officer after he's out to blacken the reputation of the president." He finds it "particularly bad" that Mr. O'Neill has since retreated a bit from his criticisms: "If you're going to do it, don't shift!" But the former treasury secretary's cooperation with Mr. Suskind's book is useful in a way Mr. McNamara might have been had he spoken out when it could have made a difference. (Our involvement in Vietnam lasted another seven years after his seven years in office.) "The Price of Loyalty" is valuable not so much for its few specific headline revelations, or for its gratingly adoring portrait of the naïve and often hapless Mr. O'Neill, as for its atmospheric impressions of a White House where a C.E.O. mentality all too reminiscent of Mr. McNamara's shows signs of poisoning governance.

In the Kennedy administration, Mr. McNamara's background was something of a novelty. The Bush administration boasts more C.E.O.'s in top jobs than any administration in history — as well as the first president with his own Harvard M.B.A. These résumés were commended by the press when Mr. Bush took office, much as Mr. McNamara's had been 40 years earlier. But what Mr. O'Neill describes in Mr. Suskind's book is not the executive branch of a democratic government so much as an old-school dictatorial corporate monolith where any serious debate, whether about economic or foreign policy, is stifled from the top.

In "The Best and the Brightest," Mr. Halberstam summarizes how Mr. McNamara, his mind already made up on any subject, would run meetings at Ford (and later at the Pentagon): "Despite the appearance of give-and-take, the whole thing would become something of a sham, the classic Harvard Business School approach with loaded dice." The sentence could be grafted as is into Mr. O'Neill's descriptions of the Bush White House meetings in "The Price of Loyalty," where the McNamara-style C.E.O. enforcing his will and quashing debate often seems to be Mr. Cheney, freshly arrived from Halliburton. As Mr. McNamara's wielding of charts, statistics and unassailable rapid-fire logic mowed down internal dissent to Vietnam policy, so a similar intellectual arrogance at the very top of the Bush administration loads the dice for its rush into gaping budget deficits and ill-planned, excessively optimistic scenarios for post-Saddam Iraq.

I asked Mr. McNamara to identify any bad Ford habits that might have led him astray once in public service. He didn't concede much, noting only that he arrived in Washington having no sense of the role of the press in public life ("We had nothing like that in Detroit!") or the possibility that reporters might try (and succeed) in uncovering governmental activities that the administration wanted off the record. This corporate tic is duplicated exponentially in the Bush administration, which is shrouded in secrecy to the point where the public's right to know has been deftly supplanted by the small shareholder's right to receive an unfailingly upbeat annual report.

"The Fog of War" shows where this can lead. We see the vintage clips of Mr. McNamara promoting good news and suppressing the bad as the war turns sour — a "credibility gap" echoed by this administration's "Mission Accomplished" happy talk after the fall of Saddam. We learn that there was no real White House debate of the domino theory, which as a premise for pre-emptive war in Vietnam was as intellectually suspect as the pre-emptive doctrine the Bush administration has applied selectively to justify its invasion of Iraq. "We were wrong, but we had in our minds a mind-set that led to that action," Mr. McNamara says in "The Fog of War" when he recalls how Vietnam spiraled after the Tonkin incident.

Errol Morris is not a historian or an ideologue but a profound student of the quirks of human nature. As he dramatizes Mr. McNamara's efforts to make sense of his own history, we see that it is the man's vanity, his narcissistic overestimation of his own "skill set" (to use current C.E.O. lingo), that leads him into a mental fog and his government into a quagmire. Such a classic tragic flaw is personal, not political, which is why "The Fog of War" is moving in the end. We see its protagonist inexorably heading toward disaster, in his case taking a country with him, and we are powerless to stop it.

At Ford, Mr. McNamara was eventually succeeded by Lee Iacocca, who more than anyone rehabilitated the image of the corporate star. It wasn't long after Mr. Bush and his C.E.O. team arrived in Washington that that image took its biggest hit in years, thanks to the new corporate whiz kids of the dot-com bubble, "The Smartest Guys in the Room," as the recent book by Fortune magazine's Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind calls Enron's executives. But the economy is up a bit now, and memories in this country are short. The new runaway hit of prime-time television is not "Arrested Development," the well-received sitcom about an incarcerated Enronesque C.E.O. and his family. It is instead "The Apprentice," in which Donald Trump, the first C.E.O. with his own reality show, is glorified for behaving in the imperial manner of Mr. McNamara in his heyday and Mr. Bush in "The Price of Loyalty": his executives speak only to second his motions.

It's all terribly entertaining, and at the very least, the star's hair deserves its own Golden Globe nomination. As a businessman serving his stockholders, Mr. Trump may even be as good as he thinks he is. But imagine him bringing the same management style into government at wartime, and you can picture his boardroom table of underlings nodding in agreement at the idea of donning a uniform for a premature victory jig on an aircraft carrier. That's why "The Apprentice" is, in its own farcical way, a valuable cautionary tale in its own right. Call it a "Fog of War" for dummies.  

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