30+ quotes from The Best and the Brightest by David Halberstam

Quotes from The Best and the Brightest

David Halberstam ·  720 pages

Rating: (8.7K votes)


“What it came down to was a search not for the most talent, the greatest brilliance, but for the fewest black marks, the fewest objections. The man who had made the fewest enemies in an era when forceful men espousing good causes had made many enemies: the Kennedys were looking for someone who made very small waves. They were looking for a man to fill the most important Cabinet post, a job requiring infinite qualities of intelligence, wisdom and sophistication, a knowledge of both this country and the world, and they were going at it as presidential candidates had often filled that other most crucial post, the Vice-Presidency, by choosing someone who had offended the fewest people. Everybody’s number-two choice.”
― David Halberstam, quote from The Best and the Brightest


“Some of his [Chester Bowles's] friends thought that his entire political career reflected his background, that he truly believed in the idea of the Republic, with an expanded town-hall concept of politics, of political leaders consulting with their constituency, hearing them out, reasoning with them, coming to terms with them, government old-fashioned and unmanipulative. Such governments truly had to reflect their constituencies. It was his view not just of America, but of the whole world. Bowles was fascinated by the political process in which people of various countries expressed themselves politically instead of following orders imposed by an imperious leadership. In a modern world where most politicians tended to see the world divided in a death struggle between Communism and free-world democracies, it was an old-fashioned view of politics; it meant that Bowles was less likely to judge a country on whether or not it was Communist, but on whether or not its government seemed to reflect genuine indigenous feeling. (If he was critical of the Soviet leadership, he was more sympathetic to Communist governments in the underdeveloped world.) He was less impressed by the form of a government than by his own impression of its sense of legitimacy. ... He did not particularly value money (indeed, he was ill at ease with it), he did not share the usual political ideas of the rich, and he was extremely aware of the hardships with which most Americans lived. Instead of hiring highly paid consultants and pollsters to conduct market research, Bowles did his own canvassing, going from door to door to hundreds of middle- and lower-class homes. That became a crucial part of his education; his theoretical liberalism became reinforced by what he learned about people’s lives during the Depression.”
― David Halberstam, quote from The Best and the Brightest


“The Marshall Plan had stopped the Communists, had brought the European nations back from destruction and decay, had performed an economic miracle; and there was, given the can-do nature of Americans, a tendency on their part to take perhaps more credit than might be proper for the actual operation of the Marshall Plan, a belief that they had done it and controlled it, rather than an admission that it had been the proper prescription for an economically weakened Europe and that it was the Europeans themselves who had worked the wonders.”
― David Halberstam, quote from The Best and the Brightest


“That [Chester Bowles's] ideas seemed to be a little unfashionable did not bother him. He simply did not take the Russian threat that seriously; he thought the real dangers in the world were those of poverty and hunger. To many liberals he was a comforting throwback to the Roosevelt era; he still stood for things that they believed in but which had recently come under considerable attack.”
― David Halberstam, quote from The Best and the Brightest


“It was against this backdrop that the great fortunes were made, fortunes which allowed the first families to dominate the society of that era. Theodore Parker, a crusading minister in the 1840s, wrote of the Lowells and these other great families: “This class is the controlling one in politics. It mainly enacts the laws of this state and the nation; makes them serve its turn . . . It can manufacture governors, senators, judges to suit its purposes as easily as it can manufacture cotton cloth. This class owns the machinery of society . . . ships, factories, shops, water privileges.” They were also families which had a fine sense of protecting their own position, and they were notorious for giving large grants to Harvard College, which was their college, and just as notorious for doing very little for public education.”
― David Halberstam, quote from The Best and the Brightest


“an aristocracy come to power, convinced of its own disinterested quality, believing itself above both petty partisan interest and material greed. The suggestion that this also meant the holding and wielding of power was judged offensive by these same people, who preferred to view their role as service, though in fact this was typical of an era when many of the great rich families withdrew from the new restless grab for money of a modernizing America, and having already made their particular fortunes, turned to the public arena as a means of exercising power. They were viewed as reformers, though the reforms would be aimed more at the newer seekers of wealth than at those who already held it. (“First-generation millionaires,” Garry Wills wrote in Nixon Agonistes, “give us libraries, second-generation millionaires give us themselves.”)”
― David Halberstam, quote from The Best and the Brightest


“The byline is a replacement for many other things, not the least of them money. If someone ever does a great psychological profile of journalism as a profession, what will be apparent will be the need for gratification—if not instant, then certainly relatively immediate. Reporters take sustenance from their bylines; they are a reflection of who you are, what you do, and why, to an uncommon degree, you exist. ... A journalist always wonders: If my byline disappears, have I disappeared as well?”
― David Halberstam, quote from The Best and the Brightest


“Of the things I had not known when I started out, I think the most important was the degree to which the legacy of the McCarthy period still lived. It had been almost seven years since Joe McCarthy had been censured when John Kennedy took office, and most people believed that his hold on Washington was over. ... among the top Democrats, against whom the issue of being soft on Communism might be used, and among the Republicans, who might well use the charge, it was still live ammunition. ...

McCarthyism still lingered ... The real McCarthyism went deeper in the American grain than most people wanted to admit ... The Republicans’ long, arid period out of office [twenty years, ended by the Eisenhower administration], accentuated by Truman’s 1948 defeat of Dewey, had permitted the out-party in its desperation, to accuse the leaders of the governing party of treason. The Democrats, in the wake of the relentless sustained attacks on Truman and Acheson over their policies in Asia, came to believe that they had lost the White House when they lost China. Long after McCarthy himself was gone, the fear of being accused of being soft on Communism lingered among the Democratic leaders. The Republicans had, of course, offered no alternative policy on China (the last thing they had wanted to do was suggest sending American boys to fight for China) and indeed there was no policy to offer, for China was never ours, events there were well outside our control, and our feudal proxies had been swept away by the forces of history. But in the political darkness of the time it had been easy to blame the Democrats for the ebb and flow of history.

The fear generated in those days lasted a long time, and Vietnam was to be something of an instant replay after China. The memory of the fall of China and what it did to the Democrats, was, I think, more bitter for Lyndon Johnson than it was for John Kennedy. Johnson, taking over after Kennedy was murdered and after the Kennedy patched-up advisory commitment had failed, vowed that he was not going to be the President of the United States who lost the Great Society because he lost Saigon. In the end it would take the tragedy of the Vietnam War and the election of Richard Nixon (the only political figure who could probably go to China without being Red-baited by Richard Nixon) to exorcise those demons, and to open the door to China.”
― David Halberstam, quote from The Best and the Brightest


“Among those dazzled by the Administration team was Vice-President Lyndon Johnson. After attending his first Cabinet meeting he went back to his mentor Sam Rayburn and told him with great enthusiasm how extraordinary they were, each brighter than the next, and that the smartest of them all was that fellow with the Stacomb on his hair from the Ford Motor Company, McNamara. “Well, Lyndon,” Mister Sam answered, “you may be right and they may be every bit as intelligent as you say, but I’d feel a whole lot better about them if just one of them had run for sheriff once.” It is my favorite story in the book, for it underlines the weakness of the Kennedy team, the difference between intelligence and wisdom, between the abstract quickness and verbal fluency which the team exuded, and the true wisdom, which is the product of hard-won, often bitter experience. Wisdom for a few of them came after Vietnam.”
― David Halberstam, quote from The Best and the Brightest


“Those years [as the war progressed] would show, in the American system, how when a question of the use of force arose in government, the advocates of force were always better organized, seemed more numerous and seemed to have both logic and fear on their side, and that in fending them off in his own government, a President would need all the help he possibly could get, not the least of which should be a powerful Secretary of State.”
― David Halberstam, quote from The Best and the Brightest


“No son of mine is going to be a goddamn liberal, Kennedy interjected. Now, now Joe, Luce answered, of course he’s got to run as a liberal. A Democrat has to run left of center to get the vote in the big northern cities, so don’t hold it against him if he’s left of center, because we won’t. We know his problems and what he has to do. So we won’t fight him there. But on foreign affairs, Luce continued, if he shows any sign of weakness toward the anti-Communist cause—or, as Luce decided to put it more positively—if he shows any weakness in defending the cause of the free world, we’ll turn on him. There’s no chance of that, Joe Kennedy had guaranteed; no son of mine is going to be soft on Communism.”
― David Halberstam, quote from The Best and the Brightest


“We seemed about to enter an Olympian age in this country, brains and intellect harnessed to great force, the better to define a common good... It seems long ago now, that excitement which swept through the country, or at least the intellectual reaches of it, that feeling that America was going to change, that the government had been handed down from the tired, flabby chamber-of-commerce mentality of the Eisenhower years to the best and brightest of a generation.”
― David Halberstam, quote from The Best and the Brightest


“Up to then there had been something of a gentleman’s agreement among those who might be called The Good Journalists of Washington that the Kennedy Administration was one of excellence, that it was for good things and against bad things, and that when it did lesser things it was only in self-defense, and in order that it might do other good things.”
― David Halberstam, quote from The Best and the Brightest


“There was, I found, always more to learn.”
― David Halberstam, quote from The Best and the Brightest


“Had I been given The [Pentagon] Papers themselves that early, I would probably have become a prisoner of them—as it was, I had a good sense of the bureaucratic history [in them] as related by an expert, but I was also free to do several hundred interviews, not merely to flesh out the bureaucratic history, but to balance the pure paper history with a human history, and to relate secret decisions as they were not always set down on paper.”
― David Halberstam, quote from The Best and the Brightest


“Day after day we read about them, each new man more brilliant than the last. They were not just an all-star first team, but an all-star second team as well. There were counts kept on how many Rhodes scholars there were in the Administration, how many books by members of the new Administration (even the Postmaster, J. Edward Day, had written a novel, albeit a bad one).”
― David Halberstam, quote from The Best and the Brightest


“Theodore Sorensen wrote for [Robert Kennedy's 1968] announcement speech: “At stake is not simply the leadership of our party, and even our own country, it is our right to the moral leadership of this planet.” The sentence absolutely appalled all the younger Robert Kennedy advisers, who felt it smacked of just the kind of attitude which had gotten us into Vietnam. Nonetheless, despite their protests, it stayed in the speech.”
― David Halberstam, quote from The Best and the Brightest


“The good reporters of that era, those who were well educated and who were enlightened themselves and worked for enlightened organizations, liked the Kennedys and were for the same things the Kennedys were for. In addition, the particular nature of the President’s personal style, his ease and confidence with reporters, his considerable skill in utilizing television, and the terrible manner in which he was killed had created a remarkable myth about him. The fact that a number of men in his Cabinet were skillful writers themselves and that in the profound sadness after his murder they wrote their own eloquent (and on occasion self-serving) versions of his presidency had strengthened that myth.”
― David Halberstam, quote from The Best and the Brightest


“There is no small irony here: An administration which flaunted its intellectual superiority and its superior academic credentials made the most critical of decisions with virtually no input from anyone who had any expertise on the recent history of that part of the world, and it in no way factored in the entire experience of the French Indochina War. Part of the reason for this were the upheavals of the McCarthy period, but in part it was also the arrogance of men of the Atlantic; it was as if these men did not need to know about such a distant and somewhat less worthy part of the world. Lesser parts of the world attracted lesser men; years later I came upon a story which illustrated this theory perfectly. Jack Langguth, a writer and college classmate of mine, mentioned to a member of that Administration that he was thinking of going on to study Latin American history. The man had turned to him, his contempt barely concealed, and said, “Second-rate parts of the world for second-rate minds.”
― David Halberstam, quote from The Best and the Brightest


“[David Riesman] had made a hobby of studying the American Civil War and he had always been disturbed by the passions which it had unleashed in the country, the tensions and angers just below the surface, the thin fabric of the society which held it all together, so easy to rend.”
― David Halberstam, quote from The Best and the Brightest


“It was only natural that the intellectuals who questioned the necessity of American purpose did not rush from Cambridge and New Haven to inflict their doubts about American power and goals upon the nation’s policies. So people like Riesman, classic intellectuals, stayed where they were while the new breed of thinkers-doers, half of academe, half of the nation’s think tanks and of policy planning, would make the trip, not doubting for a moment the validity of their right to serve, the quality of their experience. They were men who reflected the post-Munich, post-McCarthy pragmatism of the age. One had to stop totalitarianism, and since the only thing the totalitarians understood was force, one had to be willing to use force. They justified each decision to use power by their own conviction that the Communists were worse, which justified our dirty tricks, our toughness.”
― David Halberstam, quote from The Best and the Brightest


“For there was no doubt in Bundy’s mind about his ability to handle... the world. The job was not just a happenstance thing; he had, literally and figuratively, been bred for it, or failing this, Secretary of State. He was the brightest light in that glittering constellation around the President, for if those years had any central theme, if there was anything that bound the men, their followers and their subordinates together, it was the belief that sheer intelligence and rationality could answer and solve anything.”
― David Halberstam, quote from The Best and the Brightest


“The truth was that history—and in Indochina we were on the wrong side of it—was a hard taskmaster and from the early to the middle sixties, when we were making those fateful decisions, we had almost no choices left. Our options had been steadily closing down since 1946, when the French Indochina War began. That was when we had the most options, and the greatest element of choice. But we had granted, however reluctantly, the French the right to return and impose their will on the Vietnamese by force; and by 1950, caught up increasingly in our own global vision of anti-Communism, we chose not to see this war as primarily a colonial/anticolonial war, and we had begun to underwrite most of the French costs. Where our money went our rhetoric soon followed. We adjusted our public statements, and much of our journalism, to make it seem as if this was a war of Communists against anti-Communists, instead, as the people of Vietnam might have seen it, a war of a colonial power against an indigenous nationalist force. By the time the Kennedy-Johnson team arrived and started talking about all their options, like it or not (and they did not even want to think about it) they had in fact almost no options at all.”
― David Halberstam, quote from The Best and the Brightest


“It was one of the great myths of that time that foreign policy was this pure and uncontaminated area which was never touched by domestic politics, and that domestic politics ended at the water’s edge. The truth, in sharp contrast, was that all those critical decisions were primarily driven by considerations of domestic politics, and by political fears of the consequences of looking weak in a forthcoming domestic election.”
― David Halberstam, quote from The Best and the Brightest


“That was something else I owed Teddy White. I and others of my generation, who went from newspaper and magazine reporting to writing books, owed him a far greater debt of gratitude than most people realized. As much as anyone he changed the nature of nonfiction political reporting. By taking the 1960 campaign, a subject about which everyone knew the outcome, and writing a book which proved wondrously exciting to read, he had given a younger generation a marvelous example of the expanded possibilities of writing nonfiction journalism. As I worked on my own book, I remembered his example and tried to write it as a detective novel.”
― David Halberstam, quote from The Best and the Brightest


“He had spent the last five years, he [JFK] said ruefully, running for office, and he did not know any real public officials, people to run a government, serious men. The only ones he knew, he admitted, were politicians, and if this seemed a denigration of his own kind, it was not altogether displeasing to the older man. Politicians did need men to serve, to run the government. The implication was obvious. Politicians could run Pennsylvania and Ohio, and if they could not run Chicago they could at least deliver it. But politicians run the world? What did they know about the Germans, the French, the Chinese? He needed experts for that”
― David Halberstam, quote from The Best and the Brightest


“he [Robert Lovett] knew that those whose names were always in print, who were always on the radio and television, were there precisely because they did not have power, that those who did hold or had access to power tried to keep out of sight.

Halberstam, David; John McCain (2002-03-26). The Best and the Brightest (Modern Library) (Kindle Locations 448-449). Modern Library. Kindle Edition.”
― David Halberstam, quote from The Best and the Brightest


“They were men linked more to one another, their schools, their own social class and their own concerns than they were linked to the country. Indeed, about one of them, Averell Harriman, there would always be a certain taint, as if somehow Averell were a little too partisan and too ambitious (Averell had wanted to be President whereas the rest of them knew that the real power lay in letting the President come to them; the President could take care of rail strikes, minimum wages and farm prices, and they would take care of national security).”
― David Halberstam, quote from The Best and the Brightest


“somehow Acheson had been scarred during the McCarthy era; it was not so much that he had done anything wrong as the fact that he had been forced to defend himself. By that very defense, by all the publicity, he had become controversial. He had been in print too often, it was somehow indiscreet of Dean to be attacked by McCarthy.”
― David Halberstam, quote from The Best and the Brightest


“true wisdom ... is the product of hard-won, often bitter experience.”
― David Halberstam, quote from The Best and the Brightest


About the author

David Halberstam
Born place: in The United States
Born date April 10, 1934
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