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The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, June 1st, 2004


The Guardians: Kingman Brewster, His Circle, and the Rise of the Liberal Establishment


A review by Benjamin Schwarz

True, he was Yale's president during the most tumultuous years of its history (1963 to 1977), the only university president to appear on the covers of both Time and Newsweek, and he probably remains George W. Bush's least favorite university administrator, but could we possibly need a 550-page biography of Kingman Brewster? Well, yes, because this deftly woven portrait of Brewster and his close friends — McGeorge Bundy, Elliot Richardson, John Lindsay, Cyrus Vance, and Paul Moore — is among the most revealing books ever written about the liberal establishment. The author is plainly nostalgic for the leadership and style of these fellows, who he believes were justified in seeing themselves, by virtue of their breeding and abilities, as the country's guardians. He thus gushes at times (his assessment of JFK's Administration is positively Sorensenian), and to be sure, he usually provides the most generous interpretation possible of his subjects' actions, including Brewster's and Bundy's flirtations with radical chic (in his speech about the murder trial of the racist and thuggish Black Panther leader Bobby Seale, Brewster notoriously declared, "I am appalled and ashamed that things should have come to such a pass in this country that I am skeptical of the ability of black revolutionaries to achieve a fair trial anywhere in the United States"; and Bundy, as president of the Ford Foundation, granted money to CORE after that organization had purged its white members and after one of its leaders had made racist threats against white teachers). But Kabaservice is so thorough a researcher and so comprehensive a storyteller that his chronicle leaves ample room for other, less charitable interpretations. After all, in addition to such worthy accomplishments as making Yale coed and doggedly attending Bilderberg, Aspen Institute, and Law of the Sea conferences, one or more of these men were partly or largely responsible for such disasters as the Bay of Pigs, the Vietnam War, the bankrupting of New York City, and the blight of "urban renewal." (New Haven, the cynosure of that effort, remains abjectly unrenewed nearly four decades later.) Why did these men, who were convinced of their own brilliance, so often make such a hash of things? It turns out that although they were all quick, clever, and poised, their intellectual attainments were negligible. Brewster and Richardson admitted that they didn't like to read — they preferred to get their ideas from schmoozing. Richardson — about whose book the most Kabaservice can muster is that it contained "high-minded ideas about government and citizenship expressed in elaborate prose" — may have held more Cabinet posts than any other man in history, but he failed to make a lasting mark in any of them (Bundy certainly left his mark as National Security Adviser, but probably he wouldn't be pleased to be remembered as the pseudo-tough guy advocate of the "graduated escalation" of the Vietnam War). I thought I knew quite a lot about these men before reading this book, and although many of their public stances and policy positions struck me as misguided or ridiculous, I was inclined to see them fairly kindly. But what clearly, if inadvertently, emerges from this book is their most unlovely disdain for so many of their countrymen, whom they believed they were born to lead. Although they repeatedly wrung their hands over the plight of minorities (referring to the gun-toting black militants who occupied Cornell's student center, Brewster said it was pretty much inevitable that they would "resort to violent efforts to compensate for [their] own insecurity," and he deputized his personal assistant, a liberal, blue-blooded old CIA hand, to help at "building bridges" to "the most militant black activists"), they consistently failed to extend the same sympathy to those of their fellow citizens whom they perhaps regarded as less exotic — to those whom a friend and fraternity brother of Brewster's, the diplomat L. Douglas Heck, dismissed as "hard-hat Middle America[ns]." Richardson sneered at suburbanites in their "'little houses made of ticky-tacky.'" Meanwhile, Bundy characterized the American Legion as "composed largely of the same class of people as those who brought Hitler to power — the penny-proud, ignorant petit bourgeois folk ..." Kabaservice recounts John Lindsay's solipsistically self-righteous response to complaints that "all the taxes came out of the white pockets to be spent in black neighborhoods" (the city's welfare spending rose by $600 million during Lindsay's first term). "We," this product of St. Paul's, Yale College, and Yale Law School lectured to his working-class Brooklyn constituents, "have three hundred years of neglect to pay for." These men believed it their duty and their right to guide and rule what Kabaservice calls "the multitude." ("Vote for Elliot Richardson," read a bumper sticker his political opponent composed, "he's better than you.") But after reading a tome-ful of declarations such as Brewster's "We [members of the Yale community] are best equipped to be our brother's thinker," one finds oneself agreeing with the young and intemperate (and improbably populist) William F. Buckley Jr., who called this bunch "haughty totalitarians who refuse to permit the American people to supervise their own destiny."

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