Questioning McNamara by Daniel N. White

by Daniel N. White
Featured Writer
Dandelion Salad
November 16, 2010

The main building of the University of Texas a...

The main building of the University of Texas at Austin, built in part with oil revenues (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Had a day completely off back in July, which isn’t normally the case for me during the summer months when I’m usually busy as hell.  Wasn’t a planned day off doing something I wanted to do–I had a jury duty summons and had to go downtown to the courthouse.  Parked about two miles away–that’s the nearest free parking to the courthouse downtown in Austin, and jurors don’t get free parking or parking meter passes here.  You do get all of a six dollar per diem, which buys most of your lunch I guess.  So I walked over to the courthouse from my truck, plenty early for my summons, and got stopped at the security checkin on account of my pocketknife, which I’ve toted one of around in my front pocket ever since I graduated from diapers.  Uniformed County security guard who had the distinct look of prematurely retired NCO to him got most upset at me–didn’t I read the sign outside the building before I came in?–and while I was pleasant enough at first to his ugliness, asking about rental storage lockers–things didn’t go well at all between us.  I wound up being told to either hand him my knife for his disposal and entering the building or leaving now.  Wasn’t any question about telephoning up to the court clerk where I was shortly expected and letting them know that I would be running a little late.  No that was impossible and I should have thought of that before I tried walking into the courthouse with a knife on me, you know.  Four miles of walking later I was back and went wandering around the courthouse looking for my jury pool.  No sign of it anywhere, nobody to talk to because everything was on the computerized TV screens that tell you everything you need to know and hell if I know where anything or anyone is in that building.  Finally ran into this gal I know, friend’s neighbor, attorney, who told me where to go and who to talk to.  Turns out that there was no trial on that case; settlement had been reached just as the jury pool was called to order, and everyone had been sent home right at starting time.  I was off*, and hell I hadn’t made any plans for the day, and I was hungry from all that walking, I went off to grab a bite at a sandwich shop not too far from the courthouse.

Sandwich shop has been there a while enough to where it is sort of a throwback place to a time when Austin was a lot smaller and friendlier place.  Got there after the lunch rush and took advantage of the shaded porch and ceiling fans outside and idle away some time drinking ice tea and reading a library book I’d brought along with me.  Older couple was out there with me, and we wound up striking up a conversation.  Turns out that they also had the day off, but again not exactly by choice.  Husband had been laid off and he and the wife had decided to spend a day touristing around Austin seeing all the tourist sights that they’d never seen in town despite having lived here most of their 58+ years.  They were off to visit the LBJ Library, and tourist around the UT campus, which as they’d never attended, well they thought they ought to see at least once up close in their lives.

I talked to them about some of the fine beautiful architecture out there on campus, how the truly gifted French architect Paul Cret had designed all the fine old buildings there, told them the story behind UT’s fine buildings, how a political swindle in the 1880’s that traded land-college UT’s prime agricultural lands for worthless rocks in the West Texas desert to build the capitol building had turned out beyond golden–those worthless lands sat on top of the Permian Basin giant oil field, and when they struck oil there in the late ’20’s UT was awash in money they could only spend on buildings.  The Depression hit about that time, and UT had the pick then of all the old-time hand craftsmen in the building trades, and they used them well in those buildings in all the small craft details those buildings are awash in that delight the curious roving eye.  Their craftwork combined with Paul Cret’s architectural design genius made for some wonderful buildings to look at and use.  They took all this in with interest–UT doesn’t publicize any of this information for visitors; they don’t care about details like this and hell I doubt they really care any about ordinary taxpayers visiting the place to see what their tax money does.

These folks had lived in Austin for all their lives, native Austinites.  They’d never gone to college, they’d worked here in Austin in various lower-level white-collar jobs that had paid enough for them to manage a solid comfortable existence for themselves and their now-grown kids.  Hope to hell that they’ve got everything paid for, because I sure wouldn’t want to be in the husband’s shoes, his age, looking for a job like his in this town, lower-level white collar jobs are going away at a good clip like all the manufacturing jobs most already have.  I didn’t talk about that with them, I’m sure they know it already.  But their talk about UT and how they wanted to see it, rapidly developed into one of them wondering about, at this stage in their lives, what they’d missed by not going there when they were young, when UT was dirt-cheap, and Austin was an inexpensive town to live in, a comfortable enough place to be student poor in.  None of that true nowadays, that’s for sure.

Seeing as y’all are going to the LBJ Library, I said, let me tell you my favorite LBJ Library story and that might answer you there.  Seems as back in early ’95 Robert S. McNamara made a stop there on his book tour for his book that supposedly was his apologia for him and the Vietnam War.  I saw an article about his coming to the LBJ Library in the newspaper one day, and then a couple of weeks I saw another article that said the specific time and date of his appearance, and by the way, there were no tickets available because the Friends of the LBJ Library had taken them all.  Sheeyitt I really wanted to attend, and ask Bobby McNamara a good hard question or two that probably none of the sorry geriatric LBJ crowd leftovers that make up the Friends would ever think to ask.  I called out to the LBJ Library to see about tickets, and got kicked upstairs right quick to Harry Middleton, Director of the Library, himself.

Mr. Middleton didn’t want to discuss matters any beyond telling me that all the tickets were taken and that there was nothing he could do.  My arguments about being a serious student of the Vietnam War meant nothing to him; he just wanted me to go away and stop bothering him.  His snottiness irritated me and I decided to turn the ugly on to him some, something that people in his position never get, not from the likes of me, an articulate soul who learned firsthand how to cuss people out from the best, from career military officers.

Sugary and pleasantly and levelly I said, well, Mr. Middleton, you say that you reserved tickets for the Friends of the LBJ Library.  Tell me, how many  tickets for the event did you reserve for enemies of the LBJ Library?  I’d like one of those, please.  Harry Middleton was taken aback some, and said, slowly and cautiously, umm, Mr. White, why are you an enemy of the LBJ Library?  Wrong thing for him to say, yesiree, giving me an opening like that.

The hard ice came into my voice then, as I told him:  “Mr. Middleton.  I am sure you are currently occupying your office there on the top floor of the LBJ Library, some corner office no doubt.  If you occupy either of the South side corner offices, I want you to go to the window and look out to the UT parking lots there. That all used to be a pleasant residential neighborhood before UT eminent domained everyone there out of their homes.  One of those people was my grandfather, Colonel Ernest Klein White, US Army, who had retired to a house he bought here in late ’45 when he retired out of the Army after 35 years in it.  That grassy lot there at 22nd and 1/2 and Oldham–sign is still out there on the corner–that was his house, and he owned the one next to it too.  Back when he was a decrepit sick old man, shitting into a colostomy bag on the side of his gut from his colon cancer operation, he got the eviction notice from UT.  Not long later he wandered over to the Tower Restaurant, now some stupid part of the UT Coop real estate empire, with his neighbor for a cup of coffee, and keeled over dead there from a heart attack.  Good timing on his part, don’t you think, Mr. Middleton?

“But you know, Mr. Middleton, there was a great irony that you, with your advanced university degrees, might particularly well appreciate here.  You see, the Army essentially ended one of Ernie Klein’s sons’ life essentially for good on some worthless Korean hillside in ’51.  2nd Lieutenant Steven White stopped some huge chunk of mortar fragment with his head and was left for dead on the battlefield.  Zipping him into the body bag a day or so later the casualty clearing station noticed him still breathing.  They shipped him off to Japan as an unidentified GI casualty and Ernie Klein got a bunch of confusing stories as to whether or not his son was still alive or not.  Being a retired Colonel gave him a leg up on his flying to Japan space-a and wandering through all the aphasic wards in all the GI wartime hospitals there until he found and identified his son.  Another thing that helped was a letter in his pocket, a nice one, I’ve seen it, from Senator Lyndon Baines Johnson, Senate Armed Services Committee, asking that all possible assistance be given to Colonel White to find his lost son.  So you see, Mr. Middleton, the same Senator Johnson who was happy to help him find his maimed and hopelessly crippled for life son was equally happy as President Johnson to evict him out of his house when he was a sick old man dying of colon cancer for y’all to build that stupid tasteless butt-ugly architectural monstrosity you have there.  A fine irony, don’t you think?

“But lets talk money, Mr. Middleton, which is what UT is really all about in the final end of things.  And you know, Mr. Middleton, I can assure you that that piece of property, worth what it later became, split seven ways as it would have had to have been, would have put more money into my back pocket than my asswipe liberal arts diploma I got there from you clowns at UT ever has, or ever will.  So yes, Mr. Middleton, I’m an enemy of the LBJ Library.  I got good blood reason to be.  Please to give me one of your goddamned tickets to your goddamned event, please.”

I got a lengthy spell of silence from the other end of the telephone, and then a not entirely coherent response from Harry Middleton before he told me no and hung up on me.  Doubt he’s forgotten that phone call–fuck him if he has, fuck him if he hasn’t.

I wound up going to the event anyway, and I ran into one of my old professors there, one of the few decent ones, and he snuck me into the auditorium there for the event.  He taught at UT for a while, then quit–he taught one of the few college courses on the Vietnam War taught anywhere in the US academy while he was out there and damn if I wasn’t the only one of all his students who’d shown up to see McNamara.  About average or better, I guess, for how much really took in most people from their time in the UT classroom.

Interesting show UT put on there that day.  Back at the start of McNamara’s tour, at the Kennedy School of Government, this woman in the audience** asked McNamara a question about why one day in 1967 he, Secretary of Defense, kept United States rescue aircraft from saving the life of her husband, who was sitting in his liferaft in the Sea of Hainan.  Her husband was a flying squid who wandered off course and intruded into Chinese airspace and got shot down there over the ocean and according to her research into DOD documents the decision to rescue her husband was one fraught with the danger of pissing off the Red Chinese so the decision was kicked up to your office, Mr. McNamara, and you said no, don’t rescue him, and he died out there in the ocean that day.  Tell me, Mr. McNamara, why did you let my husband die that day?  McNamara was blindsided, totally and completely blindsided by that question, and didn’t have the slightest recollection of the event, of his decision, and he got terribly flustered when she pressed him on it, and he wound up bolting off the stage, ending the event, badly.  Lot of newspapers commented on it, and him.

So the LBJ Library put on another one of their disgusting dog and pony shows where the geriatric crowds they draw most respectfully suck up to the big famous person we-all so nicely brought to speak to you-all.  Robert S. McNamara, probably the single man most responsible for our war in Vietnam, getting the suckup treatment.  Jesus.  Hell they even had Lady Bird, blind as a bat by then, show up for this show–why?  Nobody ever liked McNamara as a person in his day, why the nice to him now, particularly by her?  Well-dressed geriatric audience, as close to a hand-picked bunch you could ever put together for someone like McNamara.  That wasn’t safe enough for the LBJ Library–all questions to Mr. McNamara had to be submitted in writing before the event to a screening panel, and then the questions would be asked by the panelists on the stage to Mr. McNamara, with no followup of course.  No repeat of Boston going to happen here, prescreened audience, preselected questions asked respectfully by suitably restrained panelists.  I put on my thinking cap and came up with some solid ones.  “Tell me, Mr. McNamara, was there ever any discussion in your office about our treatment of VC POW’s–we turned them over to our Vietnamese allies knowing that they’d be terribly abused by them in full violation of the Geneva Conventions.  Did you see us as being liable for this violation of law?  Was that ever a concern of you there in the DOD?”  Another one was even better.  “Mr. McNamara, a decade ago you told David Halberstam that you couldn’t help him with his book on Ford, The Reckoning***, because your days at Ford were too many years back in the past for you to remember the details well enough.  Tell us, how is it that your memory is now working well enough to now remember the details of the Vietnam War, which event is more years removed now from events then than your days at Ford were back ten years ago?”  Even better one was “Mr. McNamara, you and your Harvard Business School colleagues took over the reins of US industry in the postwar years and were the first generation of professionally educated, finance-background, leaders of US industries.  During that same time period the US lost its manufacturing and industrial preeminence and went into a period of decline that shows no sign of ending.  Do you see a connection between these two events?  Do you not see your generation’s crippling of US industry as being a more serious long term problem than the Vietnam War ever could be?  Do you not think that you should be talking about that, and the apparent failure of business education and management by finance?”  Came up with two or three other doozies that I can’t remember now, but I wrote them all down and submitted them.

The three panelists–first was this LBJ School student politician suckup, one of the others was Neal Spelce, longtime broadcast journalist asskiss fixture, and the other person was this successful local businessman who’d been a jarhead second balloon in Vietnam in I Corps.(1)  McNamara talked for maybe ten or fifteen minutes about his book and how he came to write it and how important a work it was and then it was question time.  Neal Spelce led off with some lame softball about how hard it must have been to write this book that was followed up by the UT dipshit tossing her own softball in McNamara’s direction.  McNamara handled them well enough; it generally aint that tough a task to pat yourself on the back you know.  The ex-jarhead’s question was different.  He asked McNamara what Mr McNamara has to tell him to where when he meets the dead members of his platoon in the hereafter he can explain to them better than he could back in Vietnam what they died for.  McNamara got to raising his voice a lot and banging the table with his fist a bunch as he in a lengthy and roundabout way rehashed most of the same lame and stale excuses he offered for the war in 1967.  McNamara then bolted from the stage.  Event over, less than 45 minutes start to finish.  An absolutely disgraceful performance by the LBJ Library and Robert S. McNamara both, but I’d bet that both thought they’d done well if you asked them.  Swine.

So I hadn’t freaked out my audience of the two old time Austinites with all of this.  Hell they even were amused by it some.  So I told them that their wondering what they missed by not going to college, not going to UT was this, this sort of thing in my stories.  High school, I said, was mostly just some sort of abusive social conditioning where we sort ourselves out into the little boxes of jock or nerd or skater that society has for us at that age, and forces us into them whether we want to or not generally often enough.  Hell if high school isn’t just like a yard full of chickens sorting out their pecking order, and that so much of our behavior is just like those brainless feathered lizards’ makes you wonder about us our own species.  College is different.  All that sorting out has already been done, and what college is is a finishing school for the Future Bureaucrats of America.  College is about bureaucratic acculturation, making sure you can take your place in some bureaucracy and be a good bureaucrat, and be like Harry Middleton, Robert McNamara, Neal Spelce, you know them and how they are and what they do.  You get trained to put out crooked bullshit like the McNamara visit and believe in it as something good.  I kind of doubt that you really missed much by missing that experience.  It sure as hell didn’t take for me and it mostly drove me crazy when I was there going through the stupid process.  I think y’all have done just fine with your lives without college and are probably happier for it.  That’s my take on it.  We get told all the time about how we all ought to go to college but you know, like I said, a big part of UT, I’d say the biggest, of higher education, is the money part, and that means they want lots of people filling all their seats to where they get the most money.  Most of that talk about how important college is is just them advertising for customers; it isn’t an honest social policy prescription.   Y’all did fine.  And give a passing thought to my granddad when you are there at the LBJ Library for me, OK?

They smiled, and got up and left, thanking me for my time.  Solid decent nice folks; their kind aint as common as used to be.  Times have changed, Austin has changed, and most of us have changed too, in a lot of ways not for the better.  So that was my day off, such as it was.  I’ve had better, but I think I did OK by those folks and made them feel better about themselves and their lives, and that aint bad for day otherwise stolen and wasted.

*Not entirely, as it turned out.  Got home and there was this ugly message on my answering machine from a court bailiff about how because I missed my jury summons I had to show up at 8:00 tomorrow morning and sit on my ass all day in some other auxiliary jury pool at some county building across town.  I called up the court, and this bailliff’s judge wasn’t taking calls from the general public but his secretary was, and I turned the ugly onto her both barrels about how badly I’d been treated by those uniformed thug swine at the security checkin and how much of my time was wasted wandering around the courthouse because of the god-damnable professional incompetence and laziness of the courthouse staff working in tandem with their deep and inexcusable contempt for ordinary citizens they dragoon into that dump there.  Telling this later to a friend of mine who has seen me in action before, he winced, and said Jesus, Dan, why did you do that to that poor gal?  What did you think you’d get out of doing that?  I told him that as the secretary had told me that she’d heard complaints before about how rude the security staff were and nothing had been done to date she obviously needed to hear them again, louder and stronger.  Part of her job to catch the flak and she needs to do a better job of kicking it upstairs.  And besides, I got my lousy-assed check for $6.00, which I wouldn’t have otherwise.

**The woman’s name was Monika Jensen-Stevenson, and the book about her story is titled Spitehouse:  The Last Secret of the Vietnam War.  Not a bad book at all–it’s worth a read.

***The Reckoning is David Halberstam’s best book, and it is the best book ever written about the auto industry, and probably the best book written on business in the 1945-1985 period, and is a staggeringly good piece of descriptive sociology of the US in that same time period.  I can’t recommend it highly enough.  I’ve personally bought plenty of cheap paperback copies to give to people, one of about four books I’ve done that with.  Quote in it from a senior Ford insider about McNamara, and how he ran things at Ford–“There weren’t ever any honestly answered questions at Ford under McNamara because there weren’t ever any honestly asked questions, either.”

(1)  I believe in naming names.  Jerry Lindauer was the businessman/vet, and the student politico suckup was Andrea Fuller, president of the student body at the LBJ School.


How McNamara Lost World War II by Greg Palast

Gareth Porter: McNamara deceived LBJ on Vietnam

McNamara Dies at 93: A Look at His Legacy With Howard Zinn, Marilyn Young & Jonathan Schell