A Man Of The Establishment

BEFORE MCGEORGE BUNDY ARRIVED AT THE WHITE HOUSE in 1961, the office of national-security adviser was only another anonymous box on the organization chart. President Eisenhower, the military man accustomed to a clear and accountable chain of command,, preferred to govern through the mandarins at the State Department and the CIA. His own national-security adviser was a retired general who moved paper and organized meetings. Robert Cutler--""Boston's Bobby Cutler''--was a Brahmin who counted Harvey Bundy among his closest friends; Harvey, former assistant secretary of state in the Hoover administration, assistant to Secretary of War Henry Stimson in the Roosevelt administration, father of McGeorge.

John F. Kennedy had a different view of the office because he had a different view of the presidency and was temperamentally unsuited to orderly chains of command. He wanted his own mandarin, an intellectual who knew something of the world and of government as well, the sort of man who could discipline other men and with whom you didn't have to finish every damned sentence you started because you spoke the same language. That was the Kennedy code that depended so on irony and understatement: ""I think I'll continue to have residual functions,'' the president assured a reporter who wondered if perhaps Bundy was altogether too powerful and influential at the White House.

Kennedy and Bundy, who died last week at 77, had known each other from debutante-party days on the North Shore--all the north shores, Boston's, Long Island's and Chicago's. Bundy--a Lowell on his mother's side--was the kind of man you heard stories about: the first Yale student to get perfect scores on his college entrance exam, elected to Skull and Bones, candidate for the Boston City Council at 22 (losing), military aide to family friend Adm. Alan Kirk in World War II, collaborator with Henry Stimson on his memoirs, foreign-policy adviser to Thomas E. Dewey in 1948, lecturer at Harvard at 30, editor of Dean Acheson's papers (brother Bill Bundy had married Acheson's daughter), dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard, a position second only to the presidency of the university, at 32. Sen. John F. Kennedy was then an Overseer at Harvard, and he and Bundy renewed their friendship.

Kennedy had a good eye for the right foot in the right slipper. A friend said of Bundy, ""He is unblanching in his confidence in himself, in his inner security. And it's not because he was a wunderkind--it was because he was a Lowell, from the rightest city, the rightest money, and the rightest schools.'' This is the way the American establishment organized itself 35 years ago at the peak of the WASP ascendancy (in Joseph Alsop's term), links as strong as iron forged through marriage, schools, clubs, trips abroad, summer houses, winter resorts, government service. In any case, in the exhilarating winter of 1961 it seemed that there were only a hundred people in the Federal Triangle and they all knew each other.

Kennedy made it plain to Bundy that he wanted an adviser, not a clerk; and if he had wanted a clerk, he never would have chosen Bundy. In due course the adviser moved his staff from the Old Executive Office Building across the street to the West Wing of the White House. A Situation Room was added, and within nanoseconds the word went out that Bundy's reach exceeded that of the secretary of state, Dean Rusk, the adviser more energetic, more brilliant, more unorthodox. And the adviser and the president got along so well, and everyone knew that if you controlled the paper you controlled the policy. Bundy understood that he served the president and in time became an expert, if brusque, counselor to the Washington press corps, his ideas expressed crisply and with flair. A favorite expression, then and later, when casting doubt on a critic's thought: the idea was ""intellectually incomplete.''

When JFK was assassinated, his entire national-security cohort remained to advise Lyndon Johnson, with ghastly results. Bundy's energy and confidence made him an early war hawk, and when he visited Pleiku in the aftermath of a bloody assault by the Viet Cong, his resolve was not shaken, but redoubled. The sight of American dead and wounded infuriated the Brahmin. For men of his generation and background, failure was not acceptable. America lost battles, but it never lost wars. So Vietnam grew even as the doubts multiplied until it became uncontrolled and unstoppable, and then it all fell apart. In December 1965, Bundy left the administration, the first of the original cohort--the first of ""the Best and the Brightest''--to quit. A clash of styles with LBJ, it was said; Bundy himself was not crisp on that subject or on the war, retreating, as did Robert McNamara, to the composed world of good works. But unlike McNamara, he never, even late in life, anguished in public.

No, Bundy left government with as little fanfare as he entered it, becoming president of the Ford Foundation and later a professor of history at New York University. At his death he was scholar in residence at the Carnegie Corporation, concerned mainly with survival in the nuclear age. Yet he would never write his memoirs; his was a government career that was strangely incomplete.