Hunter Thompson Knew It Well: Robert McNamara's Vision for America Was Imperial and Elitist
The announcement of Robert McNamara's death brought the good Doctor Hunter S. Thompson to mind. These two men were contemporaries on the public and political stage. While vastly different in so many ways, Thompson and McNamara were profoundly American and their stories offer some thoughts on where we are today.
McNamara entered public view first, while entering the public stage as Defense Secretary for JFK, Thompson was hitching a ride on a smuggling boat to disembark on the shores of Columbia with a few dollars in his pocket, spending a couple years in South America honing his skills as a journalist. Thompson, though younger in age by a couple decades, was a much older American. Nietzsche said true radicals were much older than their times, and this was true of Hunter. Thompson was a son of the old republic; high school graduate, relished his independence, considered the Bill of Rights sacred, became an outstanding member of the free press, and in his one attempt in electoral politics ran locally for Sheriff of Pitkin County Colorado.
McNamara on the other hand was very much of a younger age, a product of the 20th century, of the republic as it evolved from the twin challenges of the Depression and World War II. He had a degree from Harvard Business School and rose to be President of Ford Motor Company. Mr. McNamara defined the word technocrat. He had a fanatical faith in the omniscience of numbers and models, which as Defense Secretary, he would use monstrously on the people of South East Asia. "The Best and the Brightest," David Halberstam ironically labeled McNamara and his fellow cohorts who conducted the Vietnam War.
Today, Mr. McNamara's ilk remain very much in charge. Our political system is even more centralized than it was when he was at Defense. The idea that technocrats can run a large and unwieldy government is the true-faith of DC. While we are no longer bombing SE Asia, we kill with the same technical ferocity in the illegitimate wars of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. While our auto companies, no longer the shining star of global industry, still remain vital to the health of the US economy, or so we are told from DC. And behind the present financial fiasco, we find any number of well educated young men working in elaborate offices and manipulating numbers and formulas thinking they control the world. And yes, at the same time committing fraud after fraud, and lying through their teeth every step of the way.
Mr. McNamara's America is a fairly ugly place, it is in so many ways against the politics of this republic's founding. It is imperial, elitist, and predatory. Today, we are in desperate need of Dr. Thompson's sensibility to castrate power, to uphold the idea that anyone with great power, deserves even greater distrust. A revival of the truth that any system of self-government, needs no great power, no great leaders, it needs good citizens. We all need a little more of the strength of the old republic about us, not to avert our eyes from the belly of the beast, but to stare straight at it, and get involved to change it.
Doctor Thompson had scary accurate political instincts. He was a self-appointed Doctor of Journalism, whose beat he said was the death of the American dream. About a year before he left, he said the final half of the 20th century in America would look to history as a "party by a bunch of rich kids." That's quite an epithet for a couple of generations who were the wealthiest and most widely educated in world history. That, as the good Doctor would say, is heavy stuff Bubba.