Wraparound — From the June 1975 issue

The Smartest Man in the Room

I‘m not sure anymore what the word smart means. The more it is used, the less it seems to mean. When someone is described as “really smart,” is that favorable or unfavorable?

It used to be much simpler. In school, smart was what the best students were called, ratings being based simply on grades and class standing. Other flattering adjectives which could have been used to measure people’s worth–wise, thoughtful, solid, profound, intelligent–were rarely, if ever, invoked. Smart meant getting good grades, and getting good grades was what school was all about.

When I first came to Washington in 1962, straight from college, the word, or what it seemed to stand for, still had great force. An article in Life by Theodore H. White, written sometime early in the Kennedy Administration, had made a great impression on me: it described a new group of men (there were, as I recall, no women in the group) who were coming to Washington to determine the destiny of the nation and the world. They were called “action-intellectuals,” for they possessed a rare combination of intelligence and a flair for decisive executive action: They were, in other words, very very smart.

For a while that seemed good enough. But sometime in the mid-1960s, the virtues of smartness became less evident, and the word seemed to lose some of its strength. I remember vividly, for example, a meeting I attended with Maxwell Taylor, then the American Ambassador in Saigon. Taylor had returned to Washington for briefings during one of Vietnam’s recurrent political crises and he was in the middle of a complicated assessment of the situation when he was interrupted by one of the smartest Pentagon civilians. “Fifty percent chance of the government’s survival for another fifteen days?” the Pentagon official asked. Taylor laughed and turned aside the meaningless question. Subtle political judgments are not reducible to quantification.

In a similar instance, reported by Stewart Alsop, a senior CIA official who regularly briefed Defense Secretary McNamara on Indochina, using all the statistics and data compiled by the Pentagon, suddenly asked McNamara if he could offer a personal observation. When McNamara agreed, according to Alsop, the official said that he had spent much of his life working on Southeast Asia and, yes, he knew that the statistics showed that we were winning but that somehow, deep down in his bones, he just didn’t feel comfortable with all those signs of progress. Deep down he felt that things were rotten. McNamara asked for reasons, data, empirical evidence. The official couldn’t give any, he said; it was just a feeling, McNamara thanked him for his comments, dismissed him, and asked the CIA to send over another briefer.

Briefing someone that smart could be very difficult. Several of my friends who had lived for years in Vietnam and really knew something about the country found they were sometimes unable even to finish their sentences because the men they were briefing were so smart they could see the end of the thought coming and wanted to save some time. People who had important things to say were cut off in mid-thought because they were not articulate enough to frame their thoughts in the precise, logical, bright way that was desired, if not required.

But sometimes the slower-speaking, less smart person was right; sometimes the smart ones were wrong. So finally it started to become clear: the smartest man in the room is not always right. The truism may have seemed all too obvious to some people, while others may have seen in it a logical contradiction: the rightest man in the room, they might say, is by definition smart. Regardless of semantics, I think that there is a real point to all this: Vietnam was not a special case, and in Washington smart men tend to put down people whom they regard as less smart with little regard for the substance of those people’s views. The way the government works, speed gets rewarded more than deliberation, brilliance more than depth.

Only with hindsight can one look back and see that the smartest course may not have been the right one. Even then the lesson is hard, perhaps impossible, to learn. Confronted with a choice between the recommendations of two advocates, one smart and one seemingly less smart, on what basis does one choose that of the less smart one? Without firsthand knowledge of the situation under discussion, it would be almost impossible. The only thing one can do is try to bear in mind that sheer smartness is no guarantee of correctness, and that the smartest person in the room may be wrong. It sounds simple, but it’s not.

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