The Riddle of Robert McNamara

About seven years ago, I considered writing a biography of Robert McNamara. I was intrigued by his willingness to examine his own mistakes on Vietnam, and I was drawn to the tragedy of a brilliant and fundamentally decent man accused of becoming a war criminal. I wanted to see how he defended himself while wrestling with his conscience.

I called McNamara, whom I knew slightly and who had spoken to me about an earlier biography I wrote on Robert Kennedy. He graciously received me in his Washington office. He had lost some of the physical stature that we remember from those pictures of the "Best and the Brightest"—McNamara with his slicked-back hair, glaring through clear plastic rim glasses. But he did not seem to have lost any of his confidence.

I did not really ask any questions. Rather, he held forth. He began by telling me that he had been unfairly and too narrowly criticized as a numbers man, a quantifier who had erred because he believed that the answer could be found if you just had the right equations. This was indeed the reputation of the so-called Whiz Kids, the brainy number crunchers McNamara had worked with at Ford Motor Co. whom he brought onto the staff of the Pentagon when John F. Kennedy appointed him secretary of defense in 1961. And to a degree, it was the image that made McNamara seem like a problem-solver for the New Frontier—all those bright young men with rational answers. But McNamara had long since lost his air of cold-eyed stoicism. He was well known in Washington as someone who wept easily. When he left the Pentagon in 1968, he was so emotional that he could not go on with his farewell remarks.

I knew the two sides of McNamara—I had seen him dominate a room with driving logic at lunches with my employer, the late Katharine Graham, proprietor of The Washington Post and McNamara's close friend. I had also see him choke up at a book party for his memoir on Vietnam, In Retrospect. But at my meeting with McNamara to discuss the possible biography, he was insistent that he be portrayed as someone who could look past the facts and numbers and base his judgments on feelings and intuitions.

OK, I said, I get it. But then an odd thing happened. He launched into a long monologue about his role, as an executive at Ford in the 1950s, pushing for seat belts. His insistence on safety, he asserted, had saved thousands of lives. It slowly dawned on me that he was still doing the math in his head—the balance sheet of his life. Yes, perhaps his judgments in Vietnam, his early push to escalate the war, had resulted in the loss of thousands of lives, but his earlier actions at Ford had, in the long run, saved more lives.

I went back two more times to see McNamara, but eventually I dropped the book idea. In part, I could see that Errol Morris's brilliant documentary The Fog of War, which came out at about that time, captured McNamara's complex personality as well as I could hope to. But I could also see that I would never really get behind McNamara's defenses. It's true, he was much more than a number cruncher. He was a sentimental, emotional man, tortured in some ways. But more than anything, he was a man who wanted to, neeeded to, be in control. And he could not be that man—no one can.