Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

The Return of the Best and Brightest

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

The Return of the Best and Brightest

Article excerpt

The election is over and the inauguration is upon us. There has been and will be a great deal of talk about the historic significance of Barack Obama- our first black president. The symbolism is powerful. America may be flawed, it may be arrogant in its power and sated with its wealth, but it is an extraordinary, unprecedented place.

So yes, a dramatic moment in American history. But the larger significance of the incoming administration is not racial at all. Obama's electoral success shows, in fact that race is an old and now passing fixation in American politics. Instead, what is striking about Obama is something deeper. Not since John F. Kennedy have we elected a man so closely identified with Northern, urban, educated elites.

His inner circle shares a similar profile. Their résumés shine with degrees from the old establishment colleges and universities: the Ivy League, University of Chicago, and so forth. There are no DePaul or Purdue grads to be found, no ward politicians, no in-laws with dubious credentials clamoring for civil-service jobs, no thick-necked labor leaders.

With all its credentials and stellar achievements, the Obama administration recalls Franklin Roosevelt's Brain Trust and the Whiz Kids who revitalized the Ford Motor Company after the Second World War. Obama and his pals are the experts whom Kennedy promised would bring new ideas to government. Their progressive views, trim physiques, and well-disciplined lives remove all doubt: We're witnessing the restoration of the Establishment

This restoration comes after four decades of antiestablishment political sentiment. David Halberstam's brilliant portrayal of the failures of the old Establishment in The Best and the Brightest gives a detailed account of the smug arrogance of "sound men" with "good backgrounds" who bungled the war in Vietnam. Add assassinations, urban riots, student unrest drugs, sex, and a general feeling of collapse, and you can imagine the general feeling of dismay in 1968.

That year voters elected Richard Nixon, a sour outsider who made no secret of his bitter dislike of the best and the brightest. After Nixon (and Ford) came a peanut farmer and then a Hollywood actor. George H.W. Bush was a pale ghost of the old northern Establishment and he was turned out of office after one term. Then we elected a Rhodes scholar from Arkansas with a twangy, tawdry personality. Narrow victories over the new Establishment favorites gave us eight years of George W. Bush, a man whose Yale degree seems to have had no influence on his visceral Texas personality.

The return of the Establishment with Barack Obama is not surprising. Even as the old WASP Establishment was failing in the 1960s- or maybe especially because it was failing- it was reinventing itself. In The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy, Nicholas Lemann tells the story well. In the 1940s, James Conant civilian head of the Manhattan Project and president of Harvard University, worried about the future of American society. He saw that elite institutions needed to cast dieir nets more widely, to find and train the very best in order to compete against the Soviets. The result was the development of the Scholastic Aptitude Test an instrument for flushing out talent and drawing it to places like Harvard.

The turmoil of the 1960s deepened the sense of urgency at places such as Harvard. Race riots dramatized the emerging black claim for power. The quiet anti-Semitism of the past was exposed to the harsh fight of criticism. Women, many of them daughters of powerful men, demanded public roles. The old Establishment was very much on the defensive, for it had sustained a social system that was suddenly viewed as morally indefensible.

The response was dramatic. American society got a strong dose of social change, much of it designed, endorsed, and implemented by the old Establishment: fair-housing laws, affirmative action, school busing, Great Society programs, nofault divorce, legalized abortion, and much more. …

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