[OPINION] 'The best and the brightest'

Thus, did the title of David Halberstam’s 1972 book on the Vietnam War describe the people President John F. Kennedy (JFK) selected for his Cabinet. They came with distinguished academic credentials, successful professional experience in government and private institutions, and high public regard. Since then, the phrase has become the golden goal that even President Duterte promised to achieve for his administration.  

Recruiting the best and the brightest (B & B) for the organization is a worthy target, even if it is an unattainable ideal. First, the pool of potential candidates will never include all the best and the brightest, only those who make themselves available. 

Second, recruiting organizations will have to bid for them in a competitive market. This market will not necessarily favor engagement in the public sector, even with the president doing the recruiting. The charismatic JFK could not always get the people he wanted, and he had a generously liberal approach. His concern was to get the best person for the job: “I don’t care whether a man is a Democrat or an Igorot.” He risked public criticism because he appointed brother Bobby Kennedy as the best person for the Attorney General position.

Assuming the availability and willingness of the B & B to accept appointments, determining the best choices for jobs as demanding as cabinet positions is the difficult decision. The scope and complexity of the issues they address and the diversity of the constituencies they affect often require decisions that will allocate costs and benefits unevenly on different communities. Validating the knowledge, skills, and attitudes acquired through education and demonstrated on the job can only be the starting point. Managing effective trade-offs equitably under likely lobbying pressures will also require a strong and coherent set of ethical values. 

Finally, how candidates will respond to challenges from unforeseen changes in technology and in the political and economic conditions is important but largely unknowable. 

Robert McNamara, president of Ford Motor Company and, after government service, of the World Bank, initially declined the defense portfolio; he professed himself unprepared for its responsibilities. JFK countered with the observation that there was “no school for either cabinet members or presidents.” Lacking such schools, a president must look beyond credentials, track record, and reputation to probe how the qualifications of candidates fit the nature of the job and his expectations on how it should be performed — which implies that the president must have a clear understanding of the job himself. Regardless of these constraints, presidents continue to aspire for a B & B cabinet. McNamara relented and joined the JFK Cabinet, reportedly abandoning a $3 million/year job for one that paid $250,000/year.

In acclaiming the JFK Cabinet as the best and brightest, however, Halberstam was being ironic. All their talent and academic and professional achievements notwithstanding, it was this Cabinet that presided over the US plunge into the quicksand of the Vietnam War. 

But let us not draw the wrong lesson from the failure to bend the trajectory of the war and its tragic consequences. Halberstam was not denying the importance of trying to recruit highly intelligent, educated, experienced, and patriotic officials. He was acknowledging that, in the end, even these sterling qualities may prove insufficient. Whether in the choice of corporate CEOs or appointed or elected high officials, the obligation of those making the choice must be to encourage the best and the brightest to apply and to choose from among their number.

Halberstam warned against relying only on the qualifications of the best and the brightest. He was not prescribing the selection of the worst and the dumbest.

But here is the irony: for the more critical presidential job, can voters even pretend that they are choosing from among the best and brightest the country can offer? Any voter, if required to undergo heart surgery, would want someone with medical training, preferably someone who has some knowledge and skills related to the operation. But anyone who meets age and literacy requirements can become a president. A & B voters tend to blame the outcome of elections that disappoint them on the C, D, and E sectors, who discount the B & B and flock to the PWD — not persons with disabilities, but the popular, winnable, and dynastic candidates. Bonus for them if the candidates look good and have benefitted from exposure in media, movies, or sports.  

Here is the even richer irony. Consider the analyses of the politically-savvy A & B experts who put down C, D, and E voters for their inability to discern which candidates would best serve the country’s interests. In placing electoral bets, their prescription: follow the ignorant, corruptible, and easily intimated masses – because they will choose the winner. 

But recall that a higher proportion of A & B voters than C, D, & E voters chose Duterte. Perhaps they thought Duterte was really the better choice. But, according to a Bacolod friend, his fellow sugar planters, who had prospered during the previous administration, admitted that they voted “just for a change.” 

Anyway, A & B voters can afford to dismiss the best and brightest criterion and take chances with the PWD. Even if later regretting their choice, they have enough connections and resources to survive their disappointment.  Too much work and, perhaps, too many risks to try and use their agency to “educate” the C, D, E voters.

How many of those at the top levels of A & B can speak up like Bobby Romulo: “Do not put priority on the 'winnability' of a candidate but rather on someone who will bring back competence, dignity, civility, and true love of country and her people. Together we can make that candidate winnable.” Hats off to you, Bobby. – Rappler.com

Edilberto de Jesus is a senior research fellow at the Ateneo School of Government.

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