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Advice and dissent; what LBJ could have learned from Ike.


There is no real training program for becoming president, if we are to believe the men who have held the office, but this book should help a little.

By comparing the ways that Lyndon Johnson and Dwight D. Eisenhower organized and used their advisers to make key decisions on Vietnam, Burke and Greenstein have written (*1) what amount to an owner's manual for operating the National Security Council, the president's main in-house advisory group for defense and foreign policy.

This is a book Reagan's people could have used and George Bush ought to read: Bush because it points out the traps that a president can fall into when a mania for secrecy causes him to decide policy on the scattershot advice of only a few trusted advisers; the Reagan people because they would have learned that almost every idea they had about channeling foreign policy and defense advice to the president was wrong. (Having the national security adviser report to Ed Meese and putting advisers' recommendations in Meese's famous "bottomless briefcase" for safekeeping were not good ideas.)

In their very readable study, Burke and Greenstein set out to determine why Johnson and Eisenhower came to such different conclusions about what to do when American-backed forces in Vietnam appeared on the verge of collapse.

For Eisenhower in 1954 and Johnson in 1965, the challenge was the same: U.S.-backed forces were in imminent peril. There were high-level discussions about how to react. Ike, the old soldier, decided not to risk the use of American troops, even ruling out a surgical air strike. On the other hand, Johnson, the master politician, reversed what he had said in the 1964 campaign and dispatched American troops in force. Why? Because Ike based his decision on good advice and Johnson didn't, is the author's short answer. What concerns them is not whether either president made the "right" decision but the quality of the advice upon which the decisions were based.

Greenstein was among the first revisionist historians to conclude that Eisenhower's contemporaries were wrong in regarding him as a passive president who delegated most of the work to others while he spent afternoons and weekends on the golf course. In their short study, the authors show what a master organizer Eisenhower really was. A military planner for most of his career, Eisenhower had a professional's appreciation of staff and how to use it. As Greenstein and Burke reveal, this was his real talent.

As we now know, much of Eisenhower's success as an executive came from letting others share credit for the things that worked. Years after the Normandy invasion, when he was once criticized for not being up front with the troops, he remarked dryly, "I planned it and took responsibility for it. Did you want me to unload a truck?" That was the management style that he brought to the White House, and nowhere was it more evidence than in the way he organized his national security advisers.

Bull fighting

The National Security Council had been set up as a little-noticed part of the National Security Reorganization Act in 1947, when the Defense Department was created. Eisenhower saw no need to immerse himself in the details of running it. He invented the post of national security adviser to supervise the NSC and put Boston banker Robert Cutler in the job. Cutler turned out to be sui generis: the first man to have the job and the last of his breed--a true honest broker who collected the policy recommendations of others, kept Eisenhower informed, and kept his own views to himself unless asked, and only then if asked by Eisenhower himself. Cutler, said a friend, "was untouchable, unreachable, and unquotable." Yet, as one reads Greenstein and Burke's account, one is struck by just how well-served Eisenhower was by the system he had devised, and how good he was at getting the best out of those around him. At times, he would pit them one against the other, and sometimes even against himself, in spirited argument. In other instances, he bounched their opinions off a group of informal advisers whom he also consulted. His genius seems to have been his ability to understand what the advisers really though, even when he disagreed with them.

Greenstein and Burke quote a 1967 interview in which Eisenhower said, "I know of only one way in which you can be sure you have made a wise decision. That is to get all of the people who have partial and definable responsibility in this particular field, whatever it might be. Get them with their different view points in front of you, and listen to them debate. I do not believe in bringing them in one at a time and therefore being more impressed by the most recent one you hear. You must get courageous men, men of strong views and let them debate and argue with each other. You listen, and you see if there's anything been brought up, an idea that changes your own view or enriches your view or adds to it. . . . Sometimes the case is so simple that you can make a decision right then. Or you may go back and wait two or three days, if time isn't of the essence. But you make it."

Presidents are always saying things like that, but Eisenhower actually did it that way.

The authors are not nearly so kind to Johnson. By the time he had come to the White House, his predecessor, John Kennedy, had dismantled or reorganized most of the advisory panels that Eisenhower had designed. The National Security Council was no longer being used as a central deliberative forum. Like Kennedy, the authors write, Johnson relied on informal advising. The post of honest policy broker that Cutler had handled so effectively for Eisenhower went unfilled in the Johnson White House. McGeorge Bundy, the national security adviser Johnson inherited from Kennedy, was nothing if not an advocate for his own ideas. As Greenstein and Burke write, "Even the views of Rusk and McNamara sometimes reached Johnson accompanied by Bundy's gloss. It was Bundy who informed Johnson that he and McNamara leaned toward intervention, warning of the danger of being forced out of Vietnam in 'humiliating circumstances.' Risk's view reached Johnson via Bundy and accompanied by Bundy's assertion that Rusk's unwillingness to support escalation was 'not good enough.'"

Dove barring

Bundy also tailored his arguments to the men he served. His memoranda to the volatile Johnson had a more emotional tone thatn the papers he forwarded to Kennedy. For the most part, Bundy's memos to Johnson suggest that Johnson's advisers thought they had a better chance of winning over the president by playing to his vanity than by arguing their cases on the merits.

In reporting the dovish views of Senator Joseph Clark, the authors note, Bundy described Clark as "a man who has plenty of convictions but not quite enough courage to give them full expression." In another memo, Bundy told Johnson there was talk in the press corps to the effect, "that you are lonely in Hawkville with no beautiful doves like Roger Hillsman to keep you straight."

Greenstein andBurke have written a fine shelf book that is valuable on several levels. By combing through the minutes of key NSC meetings, they have produced a handy ready-reference to events during the crucial periods of 1954 and 1965. More important, their analysis provides a framework for improving the advice that all presidents need. The lesson from Greenstein and Burke is clear: The worst thing that can happen to a president is to fall in with advisers who tell hin only what he wants to hear, a danger that can be averted with the right organizational structure.

(*1) How Presidents Test Reality. John P. Burke, Fred I. Greenstein, with Larry Berman and Richard Immerman. Russell Sage Foundation, $29.95.

Bob Schieffer is chief Washington correspondent for CBS News and co-author of The Acting President, a book about the Reagan years.
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Title Annotation:Lyndon B. Johnson, Dwight Eisenhower
Author:Schieffer, Bob
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Jul 1, 1990
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