By Andrew Hager, Historian-in-residence
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One of the reasons people love reading about presidential pets is that it allows them to see behind the carefully managed political events they’re used to. Yes, presidents use their animal companions as political tools, but something real, something unscripted comes out when people and pets interact. We relish seeing these iconic figures being real.
For the same reason, I have long enjoyed behind-the-scenes histories of the White House. Bob Woodward is probably the most famous chronicler of executive intrigue, but he wasn’t the first. Around four years before the excellent Woodward and Carl Bernstein book The Final Days (which detailed the end of Nixon’s presidency), David Halberstam had compiled a massive, sobering book called The Best and the Brightest, which explained in great detail how America entered the Vietnam War.
Halberstam had been in Saigon in 1962 as a young reporter for the New York Times. He arrived with the idea that the North Vietnamese communists could and should be stopped, but, as time passed, he realized that the realities of the war did not support the optimism of American politicians. He had believed in the rational, moderate men of the Kennedy administration, men of wit and charm and brilliance. How these left-leaning intellectuals walked into a horrific foreign policy disaster puzzled him, and so he set out to write this book.
As you might have guessed, this is history, not a gossip-soaked beach read like the recent Fire and Fury. Halberstam cares about the private lives of these men only if they impact the decision-making process. We don’t hear about affairs or unhappy marriages. What we get is the extensive debate about American foreign policy that occurred at the highest levels of government in the 1950s and 1960s, as well as detailed backgrounds on all of the major players–Robert McNamara, Dean Rusk, George Ball, and others. Presidents Kennedy and Johnson are not the focus, although we get to know them from the way they respond to pressure and the choices they make. It is not a particularly flattering portrait of either.
We all want our government to be run by intelligent leaders, but Halberstam draws a distinction between genius and wisdom. It’s good to be smarts, but it’s better to be wise.