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.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    Yeah, I saw this one yesterday and thought about writing along the same lines. I think it’s largely the technocratic fallacy at work–the idea that people who are good at something are good at everything or that they can’t do dumb things.

    I also think that good management makes a difference in dealing with talented, accomplished people. I despised George W. Bush’s management style, at least as it was evident from his presidency. It’s one I’ve seen before: pit your managers against one another and may the best man win. I think it’s a weak management style.

    Antagonism is the opposite of synergy. You get less from good people this way than you would with more astute management.

  2. ken says:

    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.

    James, you keep saying that Bush’s appointments were considered first rate. If you recall the quality that was admired in his appointments was that they were loyal to Bush and not part of his fathers team. Essentially they were first rate sycophants and that is what they were recognized and admired for by the press and the politicians alike.

    This is nothing like the simple acknowledgement taking place regarding the achievement, intellect and independence that characterizes the Oboma nominees.

  3. James Joyner says:


    Take a look at this PBS Newshour discussion from 29 December 2000. The panelists all thought these were accomplished, pragmatic folks. Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell, Tommy Thompson, Norman Mineta, etc. were all extremely well regarded.

  4. Barry says:

    Dave has a good first point – the president has tremendous power. That includes the power to f*ck things up.

    I would add that most of the high officials are very smart, very hardworking, and very well-connected. That’s not the critical difference. Things like corruption, character, emotional intelligence will make the difference.

  5. Bob says:

    Right now the Washington press has assumed the cheer leading role. Obama and his picks have yet to assume power, make decisions, or make it through the confirmation process. Soon the shine will begin to dull. Some will screw up, the power plays will commence, and policy changes will both gore and thrill the “interested parties” (special interests). For some time all problems will continue to be due to Bush. But even that will fade. We’ll see when the cheer leading stops.

  6. Steve Verdon says:

    Dave has a good first point – the president has tremendous power. That includes the power to f*ck things up.

    When it comes to the economy that is about all the power he has, I’d say. The idea that a president can turn an economy around is largely a myth propagated by presidents so they can take credit for the end of a recession.

  7. Scott Swank says:

    I can’t term any of the following first-rate choices: O’Neil, Ashcroft, Norton, Evans, Chao (much less Chavez, who had to be withdrawn), Gonzalez, Veneman, Paige, Abraham, Thompson, Ridge, Martinez or Principi.

    That leaves the following: Rumsfeld, Rice & Powell.

    The Bush cabinet was simply not composed of the best conservatives available. I’ll pick out Ashcroft as an example of what I mean. He was a former Senator and former Missouri Atty General, so his credentials are solid. However, no one in the country would have said that he was someone to go to with an important legal question because of the insight he could have brought. In fact, in no legal arena can I conceive of him as in the top tier nationally.

  8. ken says:

    James, your link is to David Brooks, Margaret Warner and Mark Shields. You know as well as I do that Brooks can never be trusted and that Warner and Shields were just being polite in order to keep the pundit gig that pays so well for being agreeable and likable.

    The real story was in the innumerable news articles at the time touting the team loyalty and discipline of the appointees. Competence was not a high priority for Bush, and we all knew it. His appointees may not have been drooling at the mouth retards but none of them were first rate best of the class either.

  9. steve says:

    You really thought Rice was a first rate choice? I thought it incredibly predictable that the Middle East would be our trouble area. It has been and will be for a long time. Rice was a Russian expert. She also had no experience managing people. Compared with Jones she was a very weak choice.