McGeorge Bundy Lives! (Or Harvard’s Revenge on Itself and America, Larry Summers edition)
By now, sitting up here at one end of Mass. Ave. in Cambridge, watching Larry Summers’ heirs pick up the pieces at Harvard (seriously — who puts operating budget into endowment investment?), while standing in silent respect for the departing Christina Romer, who more or less got the stimulus notion right, but was blocked by Summers from making that case to the President in the winter-spring of 2009, I find myself drifting back to those Best and Brightest Days of the early 1960s.
That would be when the Yale-educated wunderkind McGeorge Bundy went from having been the youngest Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard to be National Security Advisor to John F. Kennedy, and from within that position to serve as one of the architects of such triumphs as the Bay of Pigs fiasco and, of course, the Vietnam War.
Bundy’s preparation for his role as the lead Presidential advisor on security and defense was marked by acknowledged intellectual brilliance and a lack of real-world validation of his ideas and world view. He served in World War II as a junior staff officer. (his eyesight was bad enough that he memorized the eye chart to fool recruiters. No one ever said the man didn’t want to serve — which hasn’t been one of Summers’ sins either). But then, from 1945-1961, he lived the life of the professionally smart: aiding former Secretary of War, Henry Stimson in writing his autobiography; then becoming first a Harvard professor of government and then, in 1953, the dean of the faculty. He was by all accounts as clever and intellectually nimble as can be; a member of Boston’s aristocracy, a good dancer, a ferocious wit, a success…until he was placed in a position where his ideas about the use of American power hit the brutal reality of the forests, hills and lowlands of Vietnam.
Larry Summers was a wonder boy too. He too was a brilliant student, starting out at that notoriously relaxed institution of higher learning, MIT, at 16, completing his economics Ph.D.at Harvard by the time he was a greybeard 28, becoming one of the youngest tenured professors in Harvard’s history just one year later. He too was born of an aristocratic family — this time peers of the mind, and especially economists, being as he was the nephew of two econ Nobels in Paul Samuelson and Kenneth Arrow.*
And now we see that also like Bundy, Summers’s undoubted power of intellect has not met the challenge of making policy in the hard world of power and competing interests.
The parallels aren’t exact. I’d argue that in Summers’ case we already knew he was a dangerous administrator. No one can say that his tenure as Harvard President was a model of smooth administration, and hints that the financial management there had been weak, to say the least, on his watch, were already discernable at exactly the time Obama was assembling his economic team. Bundy presented a much cleaner slate in 1961 than Summers did in 2009.
But the results: disaster in human terms and lasting damage to causes of social equity and national wellbeing to which both men subscribed, are much the same.
The moral: not that brains aren’t useful–essential– in governance. Not that economists are evil, or political scientists naive — some are, some aren’t. Not that arrogance is itself a besetting sin. Rather, I’d say, beware of wunderkinder. If you’ve always been the most brilliant person on your block — and you’ve only competed for that title in essentially protected environments (trust me; there are few more protected ecological niches than that in which tenured Harvard professors live), then what you have to offer is advice, not decision.
Nominally, of course, both Bundy and Summers were/are advisors. In fact, at the ranks they engaged in that advice, they were decision makers. The stories linked above document how Summers constrained the flow of options and information reaching the president. He was the wrong person to be doing so — and I would argue that he was predictably so.
I only hope that he winds up having done less damage to the country than some; the blunt trauma the Democratic Party is already suffering in this political season may already be beyond repair. If that’s true, then we are in for hard times, as the not-so-loyal opposition is simply not credible as a governing body.
*Now that, pace McArdle, is an intellectually intimidating family. (See the bottom of the linked post.)