February 6, 2017
Steve Bannon’s Book Club
by Marc Tracy
On the day after Christmas, I was walking through Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport when I caught sight of a slightly rumpled man waiting for a flight. He seemed familiar, the way figures in dreams do.
It was, I thought, Stephen K. Bannon, who had been named chief strategist to Donald J. Trump after serving as his campaign’s chief executive. When the man put on a Barbour jacket, which Mr. Bannon has made something of a trademark, I was convinced I was not engaged in waking fantasy.
Mr. Bannon was carrying a book, and when an incoming President’s guru is reading a book, you should find out what it is. I walked by and peeked. It was “The Best and the Brightest,” David Halberstam’s 1972 history of the strategic errors and human foibles that birthed the disastrous American involvement in the Vietnam War. It begins with John F. Kennedy’s transition to the White House, in December 1960.
“Who’s asking?” he replied, smiling a contrived pirate’s grin. I again identified myself, adding my name, and he acknowledged who he was and shook my hand. (I am relying on my memory and notes jotted down immediately after.)
I asked if he was indeed reading “The Best and the Brightest.”“Oh, yes,” he said.
He seemed surprised that I was surprised, although really I was stunned at the situation’s surreal appropriateness. If a novelist were imagining the Trump presidency, this book, a case study in what can go wrong from the outset of an administration ushered in by a change election in uncertain times, is precisely what Mr. Bannon would be reading.
“I’m having everyone in the transition read it,” Mr. Bannon continued, later clarifying that “everyone” meant several people.
“It’s great,” he said of the book, “for seeing how little mistakes early on can lead to big ones later.”
We talked a few minutes more — about Mr. Halberstam’s other books; about college football, which I cover — and parted ways, myself wondering which lessons of the book Mr. Bannon would imbibe.
The central argument of “The Best and the Brightest” is that the very brilliance of the men whom President Kennedy appointed to his cabinet and senior advisory roles was responsible for what Mr. Halberstam, who had reported from Vietnam for The Times, saw as epic failure.
The phrase “the best and the brightest” is frequently misused, “failing to carry the tone or irony that the original intended,” Mr. Halberstam said in a 1992 preface. For instance, when Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, said in November that President-elect Trump sought to fill his administration with “the best and brightest in the country,” he presumably meant it in earnest.
But the implied irony was not that the advisers weren’t impressive men (always men, usually men who had attended Harvard). They were. Rather, Mr. Halberstam’s caustic title and the nearly 700 pages that follow indict the notion that society’s smartest are necessarily the ones best equipped to tackle society’s biggest problems.
Mr. Halberstam’s bull’s-eye is painted on a specific kind of smart person. President Kennedy chose his men based on general wits, rather than on specific knowledge. Perhaps the most famous example was Robert McNamara, an ingenious scientist of managerialism, a president of Ford Motor Company, who as secretary of defense, said Mr. Halberstam, “knew nothing about Asia, about poverty, about people, about American domestic politics.”
“The book speaks to a concern about having a government-run by technocrats,” Fredrik Logevall, a Vietnam War scholar, told me.
It scarcely requires the effort to see how Mr. Bannon’s anti-establishment worldview and his own assumption of broad power — he has been elevated to the National Security Council’s “principals committee,” an unusual move for a political adviser — could find ballast in “The Best and the Brightest.” He is no technocrat, but a former Goldman Sachs banker, film producer and media impresario whose national security experience appears limited to several years as a Navy officer and a master’s degree.
However, also unlike McNamara and the rest, he has definite beliefs about the world.
Mr. Bannon envisions President Trump as unencumbered by ossified default norms so he is able to push, he told The Times, “populist nation-state policies.”
These policies have worried civil rights groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League. Mr. Bannon called Breitbart News under his editorial stewardship “a platform for the alt-right” — a movement whose tenets include white nationalism and anti-Semitism. He has also advocated “a very, very, very aggressive stance against radical Islam,” which may help explain Mr. Trump’s executive order banning entry to people from seven predominantly Muslim countries.
If “The Best and the Brightest” is a brief against the East Coast meritocracy, though, its proposed alternative is not pure ideology. It is expertise.
Time and again, in Mr. Halberstam’s telling, lower-level government officials who understood Vietnamese politics, sentiments and even geography assessed reality accurately and offered correct policy recommendations to the major characters — who shunted them aside.
In early 1964, for instance, a State Department study concluded that bombing North Vietnam to reach a favorable political settlement would fail. The finding “reflected the genuine expertise of the government from deep within its bowels,” Mr. Halberstam writes. But the higher-ups favored bombing, and so there was bombing. (Which failed.)
“You’ve got these guys that are so brilliant, but they’re generalists,” said Mr. Logevall. “There’s a distinction to be drawn, he concludes, between this abstract quickness, this verbal facility, and true wisdom, which he says was missing.”
Such a reading prompts thought of the more than 1,000 State Department employees who signed a dissent cable opposing the immigration executive order — an order that, according to reports, was written by Mr. Bannon and the Trump adviser Stephen Miller, neither of whom are counterterrorism experts (or lawyers).
In this light, Mr. Bannon seems less a repudiation than a reincarnation of the tragic protagonists of “The Best and the Brightest.” Walt Rostow, who occupied various foreign policy positions before ascending to national security adviser, comes to mind. Like Mr. Bannon, who has said he grew up in a working-class Catholic household in Richmond, Va., Mr. Rostow, the son of Jewish Socialist immigrants in New York City, began as an outsider.
Mr. Rostow was an economist, and in foreign affairs Mr. Halberstam shows him to be a dilettante. As bombs fell on Pleiku, he writes, “Rostow wandered around the White House clapping Air Force officers on the back, asking about the weather, reminding them that he had once picked targets, and he knew that weather was important.”
Mr. Rostow’s wartime experience in the Office of Strategic Services ostensibly justified his influence, much as Mr. Spicer claimed that Mr. Bannon’s Navy tenure qualifies him for full membership on the National Security Council. That’s a perch from which he might redefine American engagement with the world.
Are Mr. Bannon’s early moves “little mistakes”? To go by Mr. Bannon’s book report on “The Best and the Brightest,” we may not know until years from now — by whether they led to big mistakes later on.