Why the ‘best and brightest’ can be dimmest and worst at governing

December 18, 2015
Republican U.S. presidential candidate and businessman Donald Trump speaks to the media in the spin room following the U.S. Republican presidential debate in Las Vegas, Nevada December 15, 2015. REUTERS/David Becker

Donald Trump in the spin room after the Republican presidential debate in Las Vegas, Nevada, December 15, 2015. REUTERS/David Becker

Millions of Americans, led by the Republican presidential candidates themselves, seem to forget what goes into a successful presidency. Donald Trump has said repeatedly that he will make America great again by bringing the “greatest minds” into his administration to solve America’s domestic and foreign problems.

Trump assured Fox News back in August. “I know the best negotiators. … I always say, ‘I know the ones that people think are good.’ I know people that you’ve never heard of that are better than all of them.”

Certainly having a smart president and the best brains as his advisers is a desirable arrangement. But having the smartest people in the room at the White House is no guarantee of a triumphal presidency. While it is obviously better to have smart people than less astute men and women trying to figure out answers to current challenges, if offers no certainty that serious problems will be solved – or even that the right decisions would be made.

Here are three clear examples when having smart people at the White House did not lead to promised solutions — or anything resembling long-term answers — to daunting domestic and foreign dilemmas.

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“The Big Four” of the Paris Peace Conference (L-R) British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, Italian Prime Minister Vittorio Emanuele Orlando, French President Georges Clemenceau and President Woodrow Wilson

President Woodrow Wilson, for example, established “The Inquiry” in September 1917, to prepare for the peace negotiations certain to follow the Great War. He brought together 150 of the most accomplished academics in the United States. University of Texas President Sidney Mezes, a philosopher, and Johns Hopkins University geography professor Isaiah Bowman led the group in helping Wilson devise proposals for what became the Versailles Conference in Paris, where the president hoped to negotiate an enduring peace.

Yet for all these experts’ authoritative knowledge about economics, geography, politics and foreign affairs, the Versailles settlement produced more acrimony than harmony and opened the way to another world war.

Neither Wilson nor his advisers — 21 of whom accompanied him to Versailles — could chart a course around the passions for revenge that animated the heads of state and delegates attending the conference. The treaty ending the Great War was a disaster that Wilson’s smart counselors could not set right.

In the midst of the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Brain Trust. During the 1932 presidential campaign, FDR counselor Sam Rosenman suggested that Roosevelt seek the advice of leading academics and devise a plan to overcome the Depression. Roosevelt, who was then governor of New York, brought three celebrated Columbia University professors to Albany — Alfred Berle, Raymond Moley and Rexford Tugwell, dubbed the “Brain Trust” by a New York Times journalist.

Franklin_Delano_Roosevelt_signs_Gold_Bill_1934

President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs the Gold Bill, which moved the United States off the gold standard, in the White House, January 30,1934. Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr. is standing immediately left of FDR and Samuel Rosenman is right of the president. Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library/Underwood & Underwood

This trio morphed into a group of brilliant young academics who followed FDR to Washington after he won the presidency. Roosevelt assembled these advisers into an alphabet soup of new government agencies — the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA), the National Recovery Administration (NRA), the Public Works Administration (PWA) and the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) to help him address the miserable economic and social dislocations of the time.

For all their brainpower, however, the Brain Trust could not find a way out of the Great Depression. It was the industrial mobilization for World War Two that ultimately revived the economy.

To be sure, Roosevelt’s advisers helped him ease the terrible suffering brought on by the national economic collapse. They contributed mightily to humanizing the U.S. industrial system with a social safety network, instituting programs like Social Security and creating the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) that function effectively to this day. But Roosevelt’s smart advisers fell short of a definitive solution to the economic collapse that had brought them to the White House in search of answers to the Depression.

No better example of how overstated Trump’s pronouncements on how his “smart advisers” will transform the country can be found than in the record of the famously dubbed “best and brightest” brought together by President John F. Kennedy in 1961. Many of these same men then stayed on to advise President Lyndon B. Johnson after Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. The best and the brightest were from Harvard and several other prestigious universities — men with experience principally in economics and foreign affairs.

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President John F. Kennedy with Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara (R) at the National Security Council Executive Committee meeting in the Cabinet Room in the White House, October 29, 1962. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum/Cecil Stoughton

Trump and his supporters seem to have forgotten that JFK systematically surrounded himself with exceptionally smart men. As Kennedy told a group of Nobel laureates he had in for a luncheon at the White House: It was the greatest collection of brains ever assembled there except for the time Thomas Jefferson dined alone.

McGeorge Bundy and Robert McNamara were in the forefront of Kennedy’s best and brightest. Bundy, JFK’s national security adviser, had been a celebrated scholar for virtually his entire life. He was regarded as one of the smartest students ever to graduate from Yale University. He was then the youngest man ever to serve as dean of Harvard College.

In 1992, I interviewed him for biographies I wrote on Kennedy and Johnson and still found him to be as sharp as the many accounts had noted. He was most convincing as he explained the origins of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam conflict.

Likewise, McNamara, Kennedy’s defense secretary, was a storied figure in the business world. He had risen to the presidency of the Ford Motor Company at the age of 44 and revitalized its performance as a corporate titan. I interviewed McNamara as well and found him to be a match for Bundy. He walked me through the ins and outs of the Cuban missile crisis, to show me why he and Kennedy had succeeded in that Cold War standoff with the Soviet Union. McNamara then, like Bundy, made a compelling case for the Vietnam War.

Yet no matter how whip-smart, McNamara and Bundy were also two of the principal advisers shaping Kennedy’s failure at Cuba’s Bay of Pigs, where they believed they could topple the government of Fidel Castro by means of an invasion of roughly 1,500 Cuban exiles. The stunning failure rested on the Kennedy administration’s misjudgments about how the Cuban people would respond to the attack.

Before the covert operation began, Kennedy was discussing it with former Secretary of State Dean Acheson. Acheson asked the president how many men the White House expected Castro could bring to the beaches to oppose the invaders. Kennedy said perhaps as many as 20,000 to 25,000. An incredulous Acheson replied, it doesn’t take Pricewaterhouse to figure out that 1,500 aren’t as good as 25,000.

Having the smartest people in the room when he decided to go forward with the Bay of Pigs invasion did not insulate Kennedy from a mortifying, embarrassing failure. True, he publicly took responsibility for the disaster, but the fact remained that he relied on his advisers in going ahead with so faulty a plan.

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President John F. Kennedy and National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy (R) at the White House in Washington, June 13, 1962. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library/Abbie Rowe

The greatest, most memorable blunder of the Kennedy’s best and the brightest was Vietnam. During his thousand days in office, Kennedy was skeptical about fighting a ground war in Vietnam, but McNamara and Bundy, as well as the brainy Maxwell Taylor, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Walt W. Rostow, the brilliant accomplished economist, were confident that they could defeat the communist insurgency by training South Vietnamese forces to counter the tactics of the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese.

Counterinsurgency joined with a Strategic Hamlet Program and superior U.S. firepower would win this guerrilla war, or so Bundy, McNamara, Taylor and Rostow believed. McNamara thought he could apply the metrics he had used to rebuild Ford to win the conflict in Vietnam. It was a searing experience for these exceptionally smart men, who labored and failed for seven years to bring the war to a successful conclusion.

Trump should go back and read this history before he makes additional pronouncements about how he and other brainy people will work wonders in advancing the economy, solving U.S. foreign policy problems in the Middle East, Asia and Europe, and defending the homeland against terrorism. If the truth is told, the fact that he’s made himself a billionaire (starting out as only a millionaire) guarantees nothing about his possible performance as president.

Herbert Hoover was a brilliantly successful businessman who also consulted with other smart, successful business moguls. His administration was one of the least successful in American history.

Yes, let’s elect smart people to the highest offices, but we do better to rely on men and women who have a sense of proportion and know some history in leading the country to meet its domestic and foreign problems. And voters do better to understand that there are no magic bullets that smart people can provide to solve the country’s problems.

24 comments

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You must remember that academics are judge intelligent based on their ability to absorb the information of the past. Then to, and possibly a tendency of you, people view those that their eyes enjoy as intelligent. Additionally, those that change our world for the better must by necessity be outside the accepted realm of intelligence. They are almost always vilified or at least scoffed at. So for those brain trusts you speak of, they are clearly within the world of accepted knowledge, which is limited and is typically that which does not upset the powerful and does not press the boundaries of acceptability. People are not fond of changing their minds and the majority typically hate the truly intelligent and hold up those who confirm their beliefs as the best and brightest. Then too, I doubt Trump was going to hire a bunch of academics. I suspect those he views as the best are wealthy people like himself. Now, if ruthlessness is intelligence then he would be correct.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

Trump wants to run America like a business? Good. He can shut down one of the Dakotas. And sell the extra Virginia to a German hedge fund. It’s reduntant and inefficient to operate a West Virginia and a regular Virginia. And Texas? That goes back to Mexico. Its managers whine too much.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

Trump or Hillary: How about a choice for a sane person!

Posted by GEC48 | Report as abusive

Well said!

Posted by GEC48 | Report as abusive

Article was meh, I would advise anyone who reads this to watch “Fog of War”

Posted by TPJ94 | Report as abusive

Very well

The point is clearly made however consider that the dumbest and worst can cause total havoc in the political arena and irreparable damage to a country.

See Zuma and his ANC cadres deployed in South Africa for proof of this.

Posted by casper123 | Report as abusive

They might have been clever.

But were they wise?

Posted by Roger_Sponge | Report as abusive

Why go far. Look at Obama and his administration. It is difficult to find a better example of a shambolic administration. He got nothing right and has managed to drag America to its lowest standing in the world.
It isn’t merely a question of Best and Brightest.
Experience guts and above all political savvy i.e. The art of the possible and the courage to act.

Posted by pharoah | Report as abusive

Interesting points but are there any examples of the Worst and Dimmest doing any better?

Posted by HuwSayer | Report as abusive

The challenges facing the next president are both daunting and illusory. Hillary, opposing a Republican Congress, would preside over no more than a veto-fest. She would accomplish nothing. She was one of the “best and brightest” Bill Clinton chose to implement healthcare reform. Result? Zero.

Trump will also face a Congress he knows nothing about. They will no doubt go their own way but he will sign whatever they pass. Hopefully he will choose a VP with some experience (John Boehner?). However, the other presidential power is the bully pulpit, which I think Trump might use better than most might expect.

Posted by watcher8 | Report as abusive

“Temperatures have always been going up and down. It is called the “weather”.

Donald Trump.

Posted by pbgd | Report as abusive

Trump is not the normal game show host politician, he is smart and business savy. the country needs someone that can reel in spending, get the economy going again an stimulate the middle class wages. Maybe we don’t need the brightest, but we do need a different direction.

Posted by cheeze | Report as abusive

At least one of America’s best and brightest appears to never get outside his right wing group if he thinks Obama and the US are nearly as ridiculed as they were under W. Obama is certainly underperforming compared to expectations, but compared to anything the GOP has on offer he is doing a top job

Posted by ArghONaught | Report as abusive

You only need to listen in on any academic senate meeting to quickly learn that holding numerous degrees and prestigious academic positions does NOT mean that you have common sense or an ability to understand public opinion and public will. One of the criticisms of the Kennedy gang was that they were so smug and conceited about their so-called greatness that they let their own hubris bury any criticism or second thoughts about the rightness of their analyses. And I see the same smugness and hubris with Trump.

Posted by BGaston | Report as abusive

Gerrymandering in the last redistricting made the US Congress much more conservative than is the typical US voter. In 2012 GOP candidates lost in the popular vote for House candidates by five percent, yet came out on top by 34 seats. The game is rigged to the Right.

Posted by xaxacatla | Report as abusive

Trump is alive to defend himself, that can’t be said of JFK. His mistakes are fair game, but repeating information that has been proven to be historically false defames his legacy and sacrifice. That should not be allowed to stand unchallenged.

The location of the landing site for the anti-Cuban rebels was to be in an area that would allow them to blend into the mountains on each side should the resistance be too great. Then they would blend into the communities and foment a counter-revolution.

In an attempt to force him into using air support to avert disaster, the landing site was moved to an area bounded on both sides by impassible swamp…

He was betrayed yet shouldered the loss of life with the statement, “Success has a 1,000 Fathers, but Failure is an orphan.”

At the time of his murder, the Joint Chiefs were on their way to Hawaii for a meeting with McNamara who was to instruct them that 1,000 US advisers were to be out of Vietnam by the end of the year and a total withdrawal of all military advisers by 1965. He died a man of his word. He had declared that he would never allow a young American serviceman to be sent to the jungles of Vietnam to fight and die under his watch.

It is long past the time that these two myths were laid to rest. The betrayals began before he ever took the oath. As president-elect, he had guaranteed Patrice Lumumba (who was under house arrest) his protection. Lumumba was assassinated three days before he took office and the news withheld from him for 30 days.

We desperately need another John Kennedy, that is painfully clear. The only question is would “They” let this one live?

Posted by OldNotBent | Report as abusive

High IQ is not a guarantee of problem solving, If that was the case then every candidate should take a test to see if the IQ measures up……….What individuals
need to demonstrate is common sense, good judgement and a willingness for strong military.
Trump certainly comports himself this way and is successful. The fact that he will not be beholden to lobbyists speaks quite loud that policies will put the country first.

Posted by kenwoody | Report as abusive

Well, Trump doesn’t have to worry about being the best or brightest and he has the common sense of a rock. Born with a silver spoon in his mouth he’s little more than a blowhard. Anybody that thinks he has even a slim chance at being voted in to office hasn’t even the slightest grasp on reality.

Posted by Whipsplash | Report as abusive

The article implies that a high IQ qualifies one to make decisions for the common good but the result is the opposite. Scholars and academics are elitists snobs lacking common sense. Trump strikes me as a combination of street smarts and book smarts.

Posted by kenwoody | Report as abusive

Trump bankrupted 3 companies and lost the four previous elections he has tried this in. Never mistake attention-seeking incompetence for common sense or “street smarts.”

He has neither.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

JFK was my favorite, talented and smart, but he forgot to keep his friends close and his enemies closer. The country took a direction of shock after his death which spiraled during vietnam.

Posted by kenwoody | Report as abusive

Reuters, Please post the latest comment I submitted. I’m trying to ‘advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data’, which is obviously being block by a right winger on your staff, just sad Reuters.

Posted by Whipsplash | Report as abusive

. “I know the best negotiators. … I always say, ‘I know the ones that people think are good.’ I know people that you’ve never heard of that are better than all of them.”

Tell me where in his statement that he said that he was going to bring in the “smartest people”. As the last post I think is trying to say is that there are people recognized as intelligent and then there are practical “street smart” people. I don’t think that Trump is looking to employ academia.

Posted by Datadon | Report as abusive

As others have mentioned here the “best and brightest” were academics, that is not what the government needs.

What they do need are intelligent people who have proven themselves successful outside of government, that gives them experience and wisdom.

Posted by Murfalad | Report as abusive