Wise men say

I realize Nick Kristof is trolling…otherwise why would he use one of the principal architects of the Vietnam War as an example of how academics should get involved in politics?

When I was a kid, the Kennedy administration had its “brain trust” of Harvard faculty members, and university professors were often vital public intellectuals who served off and on in government.

[….]

Academia has also become inflexible about credentials, disdaining real-world experience. So McGeorge Bundy became professor of government at Harvard and then dean of the faculty (at age 34!) despite having only a B.A.–something that would be impossible today.

FWIW, I think Bundy was a pretty good dean, but he and fellow former Harvard professor Robert McNamara…you know what happened with Vietnam. Maybe in his next piece, McNamara can talk about the examples Paul Wolfowitz and Larry Summers set.

Bringing up Kennedy’s “wise men” and then asking why there can’t be more academics in American government….well, it’s not too far from asking why there can’t be more Austrian house painters in German government.

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66 replies
  1. 1
    Violet says:

    These people make my head spin. I thought “pointy headed elites in their ivory towers” were the problem not the solution. Make up your minds, wingnuts!

  2. 2
    SRW1 says:

    The Best and the Brightest.

    ” …is an account by journalist David Halberstam of the origins of the Vietnam War published by Random House. The focus of the book is on the erroneous foreign policy crafted by the academics and intellectuals who were in John F. Kennedy’s administration, and the disastrous consequences of those policies in Vietnam. “

  3. 3

    My theory, Kristoff is tired of his NYT gig, he wants a cushy visiting professor appointment at either NYU or Harvard, he can teach, Going to the Brothels 101.

  4. 4
  5. 5
    NonyNony says:

    @Violet:

    Nick Kristof isn’t a wingnut, he’s a well-off white, male liberal op-ed writer.

    He has a tendency to (possibly unintentionally) concern troll, and has a tendency to not be able to perceive past the end of his own nose. But he certainly ain’t a wingnut.

    (I’m careful about this because I had an unfortunate tendency to confuse Nick Kristoff with Bill Kristol a decade or so back. Totally not the same.)

  6. 6
    Botsplainer says:

    Academia has also become inflexible about credentials, disdaining real-world experience. So McGeorge Bundy became professor of government at Harvard and then dean of the faculty (at age 34!) despite having only a B.A.–something that would be impossible today.

    All I know is that during law school, I got to be the student rep on a committee which was tasked with selecting a new law professor. Being an apparent dumbass, I slogged through all the resumes and gave my highest possible marks to candidates who managed to have stellar academic credentials while also having significant practice experience in both public and private sectors (there were also actually quite a few who managed to have military legal careers in addition to government and private civil law practice). My rationale was that they would be able to best convey the linkage between legal theory and the situations that people encounter in real life, and could help make a legal career an understandable proposition.

    What got selected, to my chagrin, was a pencil-necked geek who’d never been outside a college setting and whose writings were oriented to theoretical constructs. Had he been a classmate, I’d have engaged in eye-rolling every time he opened his mouth.

  7. 7
    Bobby Thomson says:

    Principal.

  8. 8
    Big R says:

    Bundy is also a perfect example of how having the right parents makes a meteoric rise that much easier, as he came from “Boston Brahmin” stock on one side, and Marshall Plan diplomat on the other. Attending Dexter, Groton, and Yale doesn’t hurt, either. And then he turned around and, as The Great Wiki puts it, “played a crucial role in . . . the Bay of Pigs Invasion, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and . . . the Vietnam War.”

    In short, Bundy is the perfect example of what is wrong about how we pick our leaders in this country; not any sort of exemplar to imitate.

  9. 9
    catclub says:

    @NonyNony: “confuse Nick Kristoff with Bill Kristol”

    and Kristol isn’t a wingnut either, but a neocon warmonger.

  10. 10
    dollared says:

    Here’s the not-very-surprising part: if you ignore credentials, what do you get? How about a member of the elites? With all the myopia and entitlement? Of course!

    Nick Kristof thinks academia needs more Matt Yglesias’ – unqualified Harvard boys with no life accomplishments put in leadership positions in their 20s.

  11. 11
    dollared says:

    @Big R: ding ding ding ding ding! This!

  12. 12
    dollared says:

    And DougJ, congrats on going Godwin on Nick Kristof. I just pray he sees this – I would love to see him spluttering and protesting…..

  13. 13
    Violet says:

    @NonyNony: Yeah that’s probably what I did, confuse the two. Thanks for the correction.

  14. 14
    Amir Khalid says:

    @Big R:
    So, how well did McGeorge Bundy do teaching government at Harvard? Did his academic peers find him out of his depth, either on knowledge or as a teacher? Did his students?

  15. 15

    KSG has many non-PhD type professors, most are lawyers and/or folks from previous administrations.

  16. 16
    Botsplainer says:

    @Big R:

    “played a crucial role in . . . the Bay of Pigs Invasion, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and . . . the Vietnam War.”

    I dunno – Bundy was reflective, and seemed to learn. Bundy’s initial embrace of the Zapata plan on the Bay of Pigs didn’t lead him to sugarcoat the truth, and Kennedy declined the support. The Cuban Missile Crisis did wind up contained after some scary moments as well.

    Two out of three isn’t all bad.

  17. 17
    Keith G says:

    Bringing up Kennedy’s “wise men” and then asking why there can’t be more academics in American government….well, it’s not too far from asking why there can’t be more Austrian house painters in German government.

    Nah, silly conclusion, or trolling.

    Academics? Hmmmm:

    Robert Reich, Donna Shalala, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Woodrow Wilson, Samantha Power (oh wait she was a journalist too, would that make her doubly bad?)

    For every terrible performance by an academic, I imagine one can find an equal or even larger number who have handled their time in government rather well.

    edit

    @NonyNony:

    Nick Kristof isn’t a wingnut, he’s a well-off white, male liberal op-ed writer.

    But if one find the slightest hint of a problem in another’s work, then derisive names must be hurled. Right?

  18. 18
    kwAwk says:

    A little too cynical I think. Yeah, they gave us Vietnam. But they also gave us the Civil RIghts Act of 1964, a man on the moon, Food Stamps, Medicare and any number of other positive things.

  19. 19
    dollared says:

    @kwAwk: Academics gave us those things?

  20. 20
    DougJ says:

    @Keith G:

    I’m not a huge Moynihan supporter, but part of my point is that Kristof could have gone with some other than McGeorge Bundy.

  21. 21
    Wag says:

    @Morbo:

    Think Tank: A clearly-limited and defined container for thinking outside the box.

    This is the money quote from the excellent takedown of Kristof. By far the best definition of a think tank ever.

  22. 22
    NonyNony says:

    @Keith G:

    But if one find the slightest hint of a problem in another’s work, then derisive names must be hurled. Right?

    If you say so. Though I’m not sure if any of “well off”, “liberal”, or “white” count as “derisive”.

    ETA: I suppose “op-ed writer” might be considered a slur, but only by those who are not op-ed writers.

  23. 23

    I fail to understand what exactly NK wants academics to do? Go on shouty TV and yell at other people? Many law and econ profs in the public eye are not particularly insightful. To every Krugman there are ten Althouses and Instapundits.

  24. 24
    EconWatcher says:

    Graham Greene’s great novel “The Quiet American” tells you all you need to know about the dangers from American academic types in foreign policy.

    I’ll never get over the fact that it was first published in 1955. The dude saw it all coming.

    Plus, if you substitute the name of, say, Paul Wolfowitz for Alden Pyle, and Iraq for Vietnam, then Greene looks even more prescient. He put his finger on a tendency that’s been with us for a very long time, and apparently won’t be going away any time soon.

    The novel is still a great read, by the way. In my humble opinion, it is one of those few books about which you can genuinely say, everyone should read this.

  25. 25
    Bill E Pilgrim says:

    In Kristof’s original column, he basically blames the anti-intellectualism and hatred of academics by Republicans on academics themselves for being too “dominated by the left”, and then says, and this is a direct quote:

    “In contrast, economics is a rare academic field with a significant Republican presence, and that helps tether economic debates to real-world debates.”

    It was a few moments before I could take a deep breath, wipe tears of laughter from eyes, and continue to read his piece after that.

    It’s such a comfort to know that even-the-liberal [insert “centrist” pundit] actually agrees with right-wing Republicans, most importantly because it demonstrates that deep down inside, all liberals secretly do.

  26. 26
    EconWatcher says:

    @EconWatcher:

    I should say, a certain academic type–ie, the abstract, “idealistic,” and messianic kind. I’m not tarring all academics, of course.

  27. 27
    ruviana says:

    “Maybe in his next piece, McNamara can talk about the examples Paul Wolfowitz and Larry Summers set.”

    You meant Kristof, right? Sorry, it was bugging me.

  28. 28
    Librarian says:

    If you ignore credentials, you get David Brooks teaching classes at Yale.

    For the record, Hitler was never a house painter- he was a painter as in artist.

  29. 29
    kwAwk says:

    @dollared:

    The Kennedy and Johnson administrations did. If you’re going to blame them for Vietnam why not give them credit for the good things too?

  30. 30
    dollared says:

    @schrodinger’s cat: I have a number of medical and scientific researchers on my Facebook list and they linked this, saying “what exactly are we supposed to do?”

    I think “Stop reading this privileged idiot” is the only actionable response.

  31. 31
    Amir Khalid says:

    A former university academic is President of the United States right now, and not doing too badly in the job.

    DougJ — I checked Hitler’s Wikipedia entry. His work history, as described there, makes no mention of house-painting. It does mention that he was a casual labourer, though, and could conceivably have done a job or two slapping paint on a wall. Wikipedia also mentions that he was in fact an artist who sold a few water-colour paintings — perhaps on the street, rather like a Ted & Hellen. The Vienna Academy of Fine Arts did reject him twice, a decade before he went off to fight in WW1.

  32. 32
    dollared says:

    @kwAwk: I agree about the administrations. But I wouldn’t call Lyndon Johnson an academic.

  33. 33
  34. 34
    raven says:

    @kwAwk: Fuck em.

  35. 35
    raven says:

    Here’s some work by Thomas L. Hughes,

    In late 1968, Thomas L. Hughes, the director of the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), commissioned this study, intended as an in-house classified review and evaluation of INR’s performance on the subject of Vietnam during the eight years of the Kennedy and Johnson presidencies. As Mr. Hughes explains in the retrospective preface he generously provided for this posting, he tasked two former INR analysts who were intimately familiar with INR’s product but no longer serving in the Bureau – W. Dean Howells and Dorothy Avery – to produce the study. They wrote the chronological review of INR reporting, compiled the annexes of source material, and wrote the thematic summaries as well. Recently retired INR staffer Fred Greene then reviewed the material and wrote the critique section. Mr. Hughes refrained from supervising or editing the results. All of this material except for the “B” section, the 265-page “Annexes Quoting Sources,” is included in this posting.

    http://www2.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/.....hughes.htm

  36. 36
    Suffern ACE says:

    @Amir Khalid: He wasn’t a painter of houses. As an artist he tended make paintings that had houses in them.

  37. 37
    Keith G says:

    @NonyNony: I believe “wingnut” was used. That is what I was reacting to. Kristoff might be the best voice in the public sphere on sex trafficking and the exploitation of youth. He has a platform and he is using well. I do worry on that front that he injects himself too much into the story, but sometime you have to take what you get when an under-served issue is being addressed.

    @DougJ: Point taken. In his long career, DPM went some places I wish he hadn’t, but as I said just above sometimes you don’t get all good out of these people – most times probably.

  38. 38
  39. 39
    PurpleGirl says:

    Weren’t the initial moves in Vietnam made in the waning days of the Eisenhower Administration as the French were leaving what was French Indo-China?

  40. 40
    raven says:

    @PurpleGirl: Depends on what you mean by “moves”. The OSS worked with the Viet Minh during WWII. The entire post WWII French effort was bankrolled and supplied by us.

  41. 41
    Suffern ACE says:

    @Keith G: You mean there might be an issue with sex trafficking worth reporting on that might not be reduced to being “brothel obsessed?”

  42. 42
    NonyNony says:

    @Keith G:

    I believe “wingnut” was used. That is what I was reacting to.

    Ah. But that is easily explained because people are always confusing Nick Kristoff with Bill Kristol on the Internet (and Violet even said that that was probably what she was thinking when she said “wingnut”).

    I feel badly for Nick Kristoff because I’m sure that happens to him constantly. He’s a fairly decent guy (though he has his blind spots, of course) and he does good work. But I know that I went for a couple of years reading his name on a blog link, assuming it was Bill Kristol, clicking on the link cringing because of the awfulness that I was sure was ahead, and being pleasantly surprised when I realized I’d gotten the wrong guy again. I know I’m not the only person who has had this issue.

  43. 43
    beltane says:

    @Amir Khalid:

    Wikipedia also mentions that he was in fact an artist who sold a few water-colour paintings — perhaps on the street, rather like a Ted & Hellen

    Heh, I see what you did there.

    Though Nick Kristof is a decent, well-meaning person, he does share many of David Brooks’ cultural biases.

  44. 44
    PurpleGirl says:

    @raven: I guess then I’m referring to the support we gave the French and the way we picked up the fight after they left. (Thanks for the clarification.)

  45. 45
    Glocksman says:

    @Bill E Pilgrim:

    Is he serious?
    I’m no economist, but with the notable exceptions of Robert Reich and K-Thug, all of the economists I see on the tube are Chicago School types who stick their fingers in their ears and go ‘lalalallala..I can’t hear youu’ when real world data contradicts their free market theories.

  46. 46
    Big R says:

    @Amir Khalid: Well, let’s judge him by the standards of academics: teaching, scholarship, and service.

    As far as teaching: I am sure that there is information out there about Bundy’s teaching, but I don’t have it to hand. So let’s rule, in the absence of evidence, that this neither supports nor detracts from his academic appointment.

    Scholarship: As near as I can tell, Bundy wrote three books, which have had so little impact on the world or the discipline as to be out of print and uncited by colleagues (so says Google Scholar). So the BEST this factor can do is be neutral.

    Service: Here’s where Bundy’s bio falls apart. I’m sorry, but when your public-sector experience can be summed up in a single Princess Bride line, you haven’t been of sufficient service to justify academic appointment.

    I’d vote against tenure.

  47. 47
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @Amir Khalid: He ended up a Dean. He was Harvard Fellow. Three years of intensive study – not leading to a degree, grad study and credential nonetheless.

  48. 48
    Bill E Pilgrim says:

    @Glocksman:

    Yep. And just on the face of it, anyone who thinks today’s Republicans are by definition more “tethered” to reality than non-Republicans lives in a different reality from mine, unless he was using the word to refer to straitjackets or something.

    It seems fairly clear to me that to whatever degree economics has gone completely wrong these past decades and especially this last one, it’s pretty much ideology-driven, specifically a matter of right-wing politics having inspired certain people to ignore reality.

    They’re doing it right now in Europe, where misguided ideology-driven policy now has the place flirting dangerously with deflation. To give you an idea how bad it is, the socialist President of France recently announced his belief not only in supply-side Reaganomics, but even more absurdly, in “Say’s Law”, a fallacy discredited many decades ago.

    I think Kristof is fine on his crusades against trafficking, but when he takes on anything political, at least domestic, he strikes me as similar to and a worthy successor to Bill Keller, who’s gotten his share of abuse around here.

  49. 49
    raven says:

    @PurpleGirl: Got it. When Vietnam gained it’s independence they held a big rally and the people waved American flags as American planes flew over. That didn’t last long.

  50. 50
    NCSteve says:

    And let us not forget the spectacularly successful Wilson Administration.

  51. 51
    cokane says:

    I think DougJ your previous posts on people’s biases is a good response to this kind of logic from Kristof. At the end of the day it really matters little how the argument is dressed up — with facts, numbers, evidence, or even compelling anecdotes. If wingnuts don’t want to believe something, they won’t.

  52. 52

    @Bill E Pilgrim: Is Kristoff referring to austerity mongers Rogoff and Reinhart?

  53. 53
    Citizen_X says:

    @Bill E Pilgrim: That gave me a lot of pause, too, in that column, but this is what brought me to a complete halt:

    Likewise, it was TED Talks by nonscholars that made lectures fun to watch

    Gawd. I can’t even.

  54. 54
    Librarian says:

    I’ve read a bit about Bundy, and the impression I get is that he was not an academic in today’s sense in that he did not have a doctorate and he was a great teacher but did not publish much. He taught a course at Harvard on the history of American foreign policy, which was one of the most popular courses in the school. He was more a public intellectual than an academic.

  55. 55

    OT: My very non academic review of episode 6 of Downton Abbey.

  56. 56
    Chris says:

    @Violet:

    These people make my head spin. I thought “pointy headed elites in their ivory towers” were the problem not the solution. Make up your minds, wingnuts!

    It depends on what you mean by “these people.” To the average wingnut voter, all pointy headed elites in ivory towers are untrustworthy, weak, elitists who suck. The wingnut intelligentsia, on the other hand, is more likely to discriminate, lamenting the liberalism and lack of Americanness in academia but carefully stressing that you should follow the RIGHT academics.

    Jonah Goldberg thusly:

    [P]opulism is a useful and healthy passion when aimed at the liberal elite. But conservatives can get drunk on it when they proclaim that elites are bad simply because they are elites. Conservatives respect authority — the authority of ideas, traditions, morals, religion, customs, reason, law, excellence and so on. One cannot believe in this kind of authority while having a blanket hostility to elitism in any form.

  57. 57
    Roger Moore says:

    @dollared:

    “what exactly are we supposed to do?”

    Writing popularizations of the work in your field seems to be a good place to start. Most of the public academics I can think of started that way.

  58. 58
    Chris says:

    @Keith G:

    For every terrible performance by an academic, I imagine one can find an equal or even larger number who have handled their time in government rather well.

    @EconWatcher:

    Graham Greene’s great novel “The Quiet American” tells you all you need to know about the dangers from American academic types in foreign policy.

    I’m not convinced that it’s anything specifically about academics.

    People usually list three big generations of American foreign policymakers (since superpower status was achieved, at least), each of them defined by a different background. The Wise Men was the generation of right after 1945, dominated by Wall Street bankers and lawyers. The Best and Brightest was the sixties generation, dominated by Harvard academics, that we’re discussing right now. The Vulcans were the generation of the eighties onwards, dominated by Pentagon bureaucrats (a mix of civilian and military, but service at the Pentagon was their common denominator).

    Looking back, I think it’s fair to say that none of these people have especially distinguished themselves. The Vulcans, certainly, have fucked things up every bit as royally as the Best and Brightest generation did in its day. I might be tempted to give the Wise Men the highest score, but they also had an easier job in some ways since none of them were stuck with the mess their predecessors left them. (Vietnam, for example, might have been escalated by the Best and Brightest, but much of the groundwork for it had already been laid by the policymakers of the forties and fifties. Iran, of course, you can lay right at the feet of those two eminent businessmen, John and Allen Dulles. The Best and Brightest don’t look that good if you look at it in that light).

    My (completely nonscientific, I admit it) instinct would be to say that while there’s nothing wrong with businessmen, academics or bureaucrats as a class, those of them who rise high enough to make policy in Washington tend to be better at playing political and careerist games than actually doing their jobs well. Of course, that, if true, is a paradox that I don’t quite know how to resolve.

  59. 59
    Chris says:

    @Chris:

    How that should’ve read:

    (Vietnam, for example, might have been escalated by the Best and Brightest, but much of the groundwork for it had already been laid by the policymakers of the forties and fifties. Iran, of course, you can lay right at the feet of those two eminent businessmen, John and Allen Dulles. The Best and Brightest Wise Men don’t look that good if you look at it in that light

  60. 60
    RobertB says:

    Embers of War is a must-read for Vietnamese history, during the period of time prior to the Kennedy’s. http://www.amazon.com/gp/produ.....#038;psc=1

    I’d recommend it if you’re even remotely interested in this period.

  61. 61
    Schlemizel says:

    @PurpleGirl:

    The two big ones that set us on the road were Ike’s (led by the Dulles loons) to not allow the elections to take place as agreed upon and sending Marines in 1957.

    Like the Bay of Pigs fiasco the ideas that led to disaster were percolated in the 50’s and popped up in the new administration who apparently had too many greenhorns that, when presented with “expert opinion from the long-time pros” fell for the BS. That does not absolve them of guilt for their part in the messes but the earlier involvement is always overlooked.

  62. 62
    Cervantes says:

    Ah, the Bundy brothers. Memories.

    One of my favorite McGeorge moments: no matter what the “wild men in the wings” might be shrilling, all the serious people “on the main stage” knew that “the argument on Viet Nam turns on tactics, not fundamentals.”

    In other words, don’t ask if we should be butchering Vietnamese peasants; only ask how we should be butchering them.

    This was in 1966. If only he and his brother had listened to “wild men in the wings” instead of bombing and burning a sub-continent with their “fundamentals,” The Best and The Brightest might have been spared their awkward humiliations.

    (Lots of people wouldn’t have been killed, either, but that’s hardly the main thing.)

  63. 63

    Are wise men and some people, the same people?

  64. 64
    Cervantes says:

    @Schlemizel:

    That does not absolve them of guilt for their part in the messes but the earlier involvement is always overlooked.

    True, but (1) The Best and The Brightest did not simply inherit a bad situation; they made it worse by lying to get the deeper involvement they wanted; and even then (2) The Best and The Brightest included factions who knew better but somehow never made their case forcefully enough.

  65. 65
    RSA says:

    Academia has also become inflexible about credentials, disdaining real-world experience.

    For a small fee, I can get someone a “college” degree based entirely on “life experience.”

  66. 66
    El Cid says:

    Among other things, what I’m really, really tired of is prominent pundits’ continual lack of drive to think their arguments through.

    It’s like they get an idea, go stream of consciousness, type it out, and think that this is what is meant by ‘crafting an argument’.

    These are intelligent people, but they’re just so institutionally and intellectually lazy on the entire purpose of what they’re supposedly good at that it conflicts with their often high energy high activity lifestyles & careers.

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