McNamara and me

Published April 8, 2004, in issue #0314 of the Hook

Thumbing through your March 18 issue, I saw the review Fog of War: 11 Lessons on the Life of Robert S. McNamara [Movie review, "To err is human? Fog of War makes its case"]. That brought back a lot of memories– including some grief and anger I thought I was over.

In my late 20s, I was a Time correspondent in the Washington bureau. I reported on the country splitting in half over Viet Nam: black against white, young against old, hippies against the establishment. The young people, the peace movement, and the disenfranchised convinced Bobby Kennedy to take up the torch of his fallen brother– and run on a peace ticket against Lyndon Johnson, a sitting president in his own party.

I'd covered Senator Kennedy both in Washington and San Francisco, and I liked him. He hired me to be on his speechwriting team. I thought we might be able to stop the war and save lots of lives, ours and theirs. Once elected, we would work on saving the cities, healing the race schism, and inspire young people again, like in JFK's day. Meanwhile, Robert McNamara, our Secretary of Defense, just kept on fueling the war, and the President kept listening to him.

Soon after I came on staff, I sent a memo to the Senator suggesting he distance himself from McNamara because history, I said boldly, was going to show that he is to blame for killing an awful lot of people– because of his paranoid domino theory. If one Southeast Asia country becomes commie, they all will. Like Joseph in Egypt, I imagined myself an advisor to presidents.

Adam Walinsky, the senator's senior staff writer, came in and told me to back off, that Kennedy and McNamara were friends and stop sending unsolicited advice. I thought about it. I was hired to help with the Senator's speeches. No one had asked my advice on Bob McNamara.

A few months later, Bob Kennedy was assassinated. I left the country and traveled around Europe, the Middle East, Mexico, and India. I became an American Yogi and a peaceful guy, I thought.

Until I read about McNamara's confessions. I wished he'd kept them to himself. If he ever hopes to redeem his soul, I think he ought to become a Trappist monk, serve in the slums of Calcutta like Mother Theresa did, and keep his mouth shut.

Now that I've vented some, I see it's not really my business how Bob McNamara deals with his past. Better I get straight about my own past, talk less and listen more.

Prahaladan (Phil Mandelkorn)