Brightest Not Always Best
Frank Rich entitles his latest column “The Brightest Are Not Always the Best.”
IN 1992, David Halberstam wrote a new introduction for the 20th-anniversary edition of “The Best and the Brightest,” his classic history of the hubristic J.F.K. team that would ultimately mire America in Vietnam. He noted that the book’s title had entered the language, but not quite as he had hoped. “It is often misused,” he wrote, “failing to carry the tone or irony that the original intended.”
Halberstam died last year, but were he still around, I suspect he would be speaking up, loudly, right about now. As Barack Obama rolls out his cabinet, “the best and the brightest” has become the accolade du jour from Democrats (Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri), Republicans (Senator John Warner of Virginia) and the press (George Stephanopoulos). Few seem to recall that the phrase, in its original coinage, was meant to strike a sardonic, not a flattering, note. Perhaps even Doris Kearns Goodwin would agree that it’s time for Beltway reading groups to move on from “Team of Rivals” to Halberstam.
I keep wondering why the honeymoon hagiography about the best and the brightest has been so over the top. Washington’s cheerleading for our new New Frontier cabinet superstars has seldom been interrupted by tough questions about Summers’s Harvard career or Geithner’s record at the Fed. For that, it’s best to turn to the business press: Andrew Ross Sorkin at The New York Times, for one, has been relentless in trying to ferret out Geithner’s opaque role in the catastrophic decision to let Lehman Brothers fail.
No doubt the Pavlovian ovations for the Obama team are in part a reaction to our immediate political past. After eight years of a presidency that valued cronyism over brains (or even competence) and embraced an anti-intellectualism apotheosized by Sarah Palin, it’s a godsend to have a president who puts a premium on merit. I also wonder if a press corps that underrated Obama’s political prowess for much of the campaign, demeaning him as a professorial wuss next to the brawny Clinton and McCain, is now overcompensating for that mistake. No one wants to miss out a second time on triumphal history in the making.
This is all dead-on. On paper, Obama’s appointees are on the whole superb, as is acknowledged by even most Republicans. Then again, so were George W. Bush’s. We’ll have to see how well they work together.
Beyond that, though, the hubris is in thinking that simply putting some very talented people at the very top of one of three branches of the federal government is going to be a magic fix. The central government’s ability to control the economy or events around the world is relatively small.