Feb 4, 2017

Steve Bannon told colleagues to read a book about hubris

Evan Vucci / AP

Over the past three months, Steve Bannon has been reading David Halberstam's book, "The Best and the Brightest." (A NYT reporter spotted him with the book in an airport in December.)

It's a devastating account of self-regard, delusion, and the tragic series of miscalculations that led America into Vietnam. The book shaped Bannon's thinking during the transition, and he recommended it to associates, including Jared Kushner and Anthony Scaramucci, as a warning against hubris.

He's told associates the book is a warning to "always keep the 'law of unintended consequences' in the front of your mind." And that "the governmental 'apparatus' has an institutional history, memory and methodology."

Re-read "The Best and the Brightest" and you'll get a sharper understanding of the biases from Trump's chief strategist, and how he processes the world:

  1. Halberstam holds in contempt the highly educated, verbally sophisticated elites — JFK's band of brilliant young men — making decisions in Washington.
  2. The author flatters hard-won experience — "true wisdom" — over intellectual theorizing.
  3. He critiques Washington's compliant press corps.
  4. He reinforces Bannon's belief that "personnel is policy" and that the very act of selecting a cabinet can lock in an administration.

If you have time for just one passage to mind meld with Bannon, make it this one:

"One of the things which surprised me was how thin most of the newspaper and magazine reporting of the period was, the degree to which journalists accepted the norms of government and, particularly in the glamorous Kennedy era, the reputation of these new stars at face value. Credit was given more readily for educational prowess and for academic achievement than for accomplishment in governance...Being verbal seemed to be an end in itself. Among those dazzled by the Administration team was Vice-President Lyndon Johnson. After attending the first Cabinet meeting he went back to his mentor Sam Rayburn and told him with great enthusiasm how extraordinary they were, each brighter than the next... "Well Lyndon," Mister Sam answered, "you may be right and they may be every bit as intelligent as you say, but I'd feel a whole lot better about them if just one of them had run for sheriff once." It is my favorite story in the book, for it underlines the weakness of the Kennedy team, the difference between intelligence and wisdom, between the abstract quickness and verbal facility which the team exuded, and true wisdom, which is the product of hard-win, often bitter experience. Wisdom for a few of them came after Vietnam."

Why this matters: Republicans in Washington are scrambling to understand Trump's chief strategist. Some are strategizing ways to shape his thinking, including using the language of populist nationalism to steer him towards mainstream party thinking.

First, they'll discover there are limits to Bannon's power (evidence: Trump delaying on DACA — President Obama's legal protection of the children of illegal immigrants.) Second, they'll learn that Bannon's guardrails are higher than most realize. He's not only anti-establishment; he's studiously resistant to being co-opted.

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