The New Normal

Instead of telling everyone you’re the ‘Best & Brightest,’ listen more to the people in the trenches

By Paul Lippe

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Paul Lippe

I really, really wish lawyers would stop using the expression “Best & Brightest” to describe themselves.

For example, the “Recruiting the Best & Brightest” page at Covington & Burling’s website.

When I was a college freshman in 1976, the first book we were assigned to read in an American Presidency class was The Best and the Brightest by former New York Times reporter David Halberstam, a Pulitzer Prize-winning history of how the U.S. got involved militarily in Vietnam.

By the time I finished my sophomore year, the book had probably been assigned in six different classes. I won’t say I reread it every time, but I read it at least three times. Here’s the nub of what Halberstam says:

• When John F. Kennedy became president in January 1961, he actually had a fairly narrow set of acquaintances, so he turned to establishment figures like Robert Lovett, who was President Harry S. Truman’s defense secretary, to help him identify the “New Frontiersmen” (they were mostly men) who would staff his administration.

• Most of the leading lights Kennedy picked (e.g., Robert McNamara, William and McGeorge Bundy, Dean Rusk, Nicholas Katzenbach) were Kennedy’s peers, and had very high achievement in a mix of academic, athletic, military, business and professional pursuits. Most would go on to very distinguished careers after serving in the Kennedy administration, and many were extremely competent and high-integrity.

• The phrase “Best and Brightest” (which the book popularized—it had not been widely used before) came from a hymn that was sung at Groton, the prep school which was a common node for many of the Best and Brightest.

• Despite their strong credentials and achievements, the Best and the Brightest folks had no specific, detailed knowledge or insight about Vietnam, and in fact the few people in the State Department who had such experience or insight were mostly driven out or cowed by McCarthyism.

• Because they had no real insight or knowledge about Vietnam, the Best and Brightest folks in the National Security Council (McGeorge Bundy), Defense Department (McNamara and later Katzenbach) and State Department (Rusk and William Bundy) led America into the Vietnam war (although very few of them had their own sons go to fight) which Halberstam, in another book, described as a “Quagmire.”

• Halberstam, as a young reporter in Vietnam, with borderline Best and Brightest credentials, had better insight into what was really going on because he was at the coalface, seeing daily combat, and in particular seeing the cognitive dissonance between what was being reported in Washington and what was happening on the ground.

• The Best and Brightest used their Best and Brightest-ism to cow dissent and critical reporting from people like Halberstam and prolong and deepen the Quagmire.

• None of this proves that the Best and Brightest were bad people or not smart, or that achievement or credentials in one sphere are completely nonpredictive of success in another. It’s just another lesson about the nature of hubris in human affairs. Despite (or perhaps a little because) of successful, intelligent, well-intentioned people, bad outcomes can ensue, and assuming that “Best and Brightest-ism” is a predictor of future success is not wise.

By the time I was a few years out of college, through politics and various other activities, I had met Halberstam (who wrote another book about some friends of mine and ended up investing in my previous company) and many of the people portrayed in the book. So while I can’t claim to be a top expert about the events depicted in the book, I do have a reasonable familiarity, and even proudly own a copy signed by the author. (David Halberstam very sadly died in a car crash in 2007.)

So when lawyers talk about the “Best & Brightest,” presumably they mean there is some sort objective way to assess “Best & Brightest-ism,” and a magical connection between prior achievement, “elite” credentials and future success. But that is the exact opposite of what Halberstam said in the book, and suggests precisely the qualities that Halberstam was criticizing, not praising. The whole point of the book is that the Best and Brightest led America into a Quagmire, and that less experienced people on the ground understood what was going on better than the Best and Brightest did. You can argue whether Halberstam was completely accurate or objective in his assessment, and you can certainly argue about the Vietnam war, but you can’t argue that the expression Best and Brightest is intended to glorify credentialism in any but the most ironic way or be used as a badge of honor.

So please stop saying it.

Paul Lippe is the CEO of the Legal OnRamp, a Silicon Valley-based initiative founded in cooperation with Cisco Systems to improve legal quality and efficiency through collaboration, automation and process re-engineering.

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