Oh How the Mighty are Fallen! (Sort of)

I witnessed a very powerful illustration of the vanity of the pride of the world the other day, or at least I witnessed it until I realized that I was probably wrong. My office is kitty-corner to McPherson Square in Washington, DC, which means that I am just a couple of blocks north of the White House. On Tuesday afternoon, I had promised to meet my wife and son down town and I found myself waiting for them on Pennsylvania Avenue between Lafayette Park and the White House. Lafayette park is one of the oldest portions of the District. It is ringed by wonderful old Federalist era houses on the east and the west. The White House, Treasury Department, and Old Executive Office Building are to the south. To the north is one of the oldest churches in the District. On Tuesday it was foggy and raining as I stood there watching the tourists walk by and the purposeful people scurry in and out of the employees entrance to the West Wing.

I turned around to look for my wife and son and I saw shuffling toward me an old man. He was dressed with the complete disregard for fashion common amongst the old: white sneakers and faded white pants covered by an overcoat. In his hand was clutched a canvas book bag of the kind favored by elementary school librarians. He was clearly not a tourist, and he looked very out of place amongst the happily self-conscious “insiders� traipsing in and out of the White House and the beautiful old houses around the park (these houses are now almost completely filled with “White House� staff). I was struck by what an obvious “outsider� this man was, completely disconnected from the world of political power represented by the White House and the tourists who had come to snap pictures at it. The man came closer and walked by within two or three feet of me. I got a long, clear look into his face. It was Robert McNamara.

In his time, Robert McNamara was probably one of the most powerful men on the planet. From 1960 until 1968 he served as Secretary of Defense in first the Kennedy and then the Johnson Administrations. He was one of the inner circle that during the Cuban Missile Crisis sat in the West Wing and looked for a way to avoid nuclear Armageddon. He was later one of the architects of the Vietnam War, which ultimately destroyed his political career and drove him out of the Pentagon.

Watching him shuffle across Lafayette Park, I thought, “Oh, how the mighty are fallen! There goes a man who was once at the very center of it all, and now he shuffles across the pavement of Pennsylvania Avenue shut out by the fences and the guards just like the rest of us. The ultimate insider is now the ultimate outsider! A tired old man trudging through the rain.�

As I was savoring this Christian insight, my cynical inner voice began battling to reassert itself. “Oh get over it,� the voice said. “McNamara no longer places nuclear missiles on alert, orders the mining of Haiphong harbor or the sits in the White House picking bombing targets with presidents, but he is hardly a wasted old man!� After leaving the Pentagon, McNamara crossed the river and took up residence in the World Bank, which he led until 1981. He still sits on the boards of powerful corporations and gives lectures at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. He remains an insider. Still, the power of the Christian symbolism that I imposed on the shuffling figure in the rain in Lafayette Park lingers, and for the last couple of days I have been trying to puzzle out which of my inner voices is right.

36 comments for “Oh How the Mighty are Fallen! (Sort of)

  1. I was very encourage by what I was reading in your post until I reached the last paragraph. Perhaps only death will rid us of incumbents once they get power. The best we can do is remain hopeful.

  2. Fog of War was great!

    The other side of your point of view with regard to power is it’s “temporary nature”. It is good for a person to learn that, even with great power, that it is fleeting. The winds of government change quickly as do other things in life, so the lesson to be learned is not to embrace that power to tightly. To not make it the focal point of your life. McNamara, along with others, have learned this difficult lesson. Jimmy Carter comes to my mind. Hopefully those of us with an eternal perspective already have a seasoned understanding of where true power lies, and it certainly isn’t with us.

  3. I too work in Washington DC and just a few months ago I walked across the street from my office to purchase a CD at Borders on the corner of 14th and F Streets. The Borders store is set up so that there is an entry point to the long line of cashiers. This works best when the store is busy and all the registers are manned by store personnel. But on this day there were only a few of us in the store and there was only one cashier who was located at the complete opposite end of the entry point. I took my place at the entry point waiting for the lone customer being served by the cashier. I noticed that two gentleman stopped near the cashier and waited. When the current transaction was completed, the cashier looked down the long line to me and said “Next.” She explained to the first man who had waited at the wrong end that the line formed at my end. He dutifully said “thanks” and walked down toward me. I moved forward and as I approached the cashier the second man, an elderly gentleman, attempted to get service from the cashier. She explained to him that he would have to go to the end of the line. At first he didn’t hear her and said “Huh?” She repeated her instructions and he gruffly grabbed his books and headed for the end of the line. As he turned away I noticed that it was Robert McNamara. My first thought was to be courteous and respectful of the former Secretary and perhaps let him crowd in front of me. And then I thought, “Why should he get to break the rules.” I later joked to my colleagues that I had aced out Robert Mcnamara at the bookstore.

    Since that day I’ve thought a lot about that experience. I think Nate and I felt the same sadness seeing the once powerful goverment and corporate officer in his aging, deteriorating state and might have felt some pity for him. But in subsequent days I have come to the conclusion that there may be more dignity in such a life – where one serves with forthright effort, to the best of ones ability, regardless of how history might ultimately judge that service, and then rather than trying to maintain one’s star power through television punditry or speaking for astonomical fees, one blends back into the urban fabric, continuing to engage in intellectual endeavors. Mr. McNamara is obviously still reading, as witnessed by the location and description of these two recent citings, and I’m sure he is still engaged in the world of politics and finance if only for his own interest. Now in his 80’s, his body has lost the stature it once had. I saw him walking through Faragut Park several years ago and he was more upright then than he is now. But he obviously spends his days enjoying the city that he once impacted and continues to enrich his mind through diligent study. Not a bad way to go out.

  4. A poignant post, Nate. I think similar thoughts when I read about movie actors from the 1920s and 30s or hear the names of old Heisman trophy winners. Nobody knows them anymore. Fame rises and sets with the sun.

    But I guess McNamara (“lard head,” LBJ called him) is still recognized, still known. If he hadn’t had so much success after Vietnam I would be more inclined to think of him as an American tragedy, a man who embodied cool and calculating American confidence in military might and technocratic power, reduced to a man having nightmares about whether he was a murderer, defeated by the tenacity of human will. A sad and not irrelevant to Iraq, obviously.

  5. “poignant post”??

    This is one of your weakest posts ever, Nate. So you happened to see a famous figure walking near the White House. And you want to tell everyone. But “poignant”? The one point you labor to make carries little weight since, as you note, McNamara still wields power and remains active in public and private capacites. Hardly a “fallen” figure in any real sense.

  6. Well, “poignant,” is my word, not Nate’s. Hard to fault Nate for an idea he didn’t impute.

    The post is as much about Nate as McNamara. It is about the battle of voices. Don’t we all encounter that struggle? I hear the battle of mercy and justice, emotion and reason, in this post, sort of a “Help the beggar. No, don’t help, he brought it on himself,” struggle. Nate may be giving us a wink-wink, a playful irony here, but there is something universal in the post. I like it.

  7. Nate’s strongest post was his recent “I’m Elliot P. Dowde” post: “The Spiritual Benefits of Cluelessness.”

  8. Times and Seasons is closer to me (in real space) than I realized! I guess I should spend more time at the Borders at 14th and F in the hope of finally meeting Nate Oman in person! Or better still, I could spend more time looking out the window at work (overlooking Lafayette Square) in the hope of witnessing Nate Oman recognizing “fallen” Cabinet Secretaries and thinking: “hey, there’s a post in that somewhere.”

    Seriously though, I see something unequivocally good–and hopefully typically American–about the powerful rejoining the rest of us when their service is done. Certainly McNamara is no Cincinatus or Washington–and maybe his “fall” to a major international organization, corporate boards, and an elite university was rather gentle. All the same, he should be proud of being part of a tradition of giving up power and moving on.

  9. What I thought was interesting about seeing McNamara (other than just “hey cool! It’s Robert McNamara”) is how almost instantly I built up this whole story of vanity and fall from the simple image of him walking in front of the White House in the rain. It was a very powerful moment. Then almost immediately I had this thought, “Wait a second. This story you are telling yourself doesn’t really hold up.” I was struck by how powerfully scriptural images could structure my experience, even when on reflection it doesn’t necessarily make great sense for them to do so.

  10. Nice post, Nate. I disagree with James absolutely. “So you happened to see a famous figure walking near the White House” is a feeble reading, to say the least. What makes your story interesting (and poignant) is obviously the relationship of the juxtaposed images. That McNamara wielded enormous power during two of the most nightmarish phases of American history, that his decisions profoundly impacted hundreds of millions of lives, that he sent hoards of soldiers to their doom, that whole cities were leveled or spared at his command–these are the little things that differentiate your experience from a Brad Pitt sighting.

    An old grey figure in the cold grey rain, shuffling slowly past a kingdom he once ruled, and lost; it is worthy of T.S. Eliot.

  11. Perhaps any reaction to seeing McNamara would have alot to do with your view on the Vietnam war. If, for the sake of argument, one saw that conflict as immoral and McNamara’s involvement in it criminal, this scripture might spring to mind:

    …for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust. (Matt 5:45)

    That, for me, is poignant.

  12. Well, I would have a fine view over the Potomac, if I wasn’t locked inside a vault in the interior of a building . . .

    Nevertheless, I have been re-reading Screwtape Letters lately, and Nate’s story struck me as a rare glimpse inside the theater (interesting dual meaning of the word, especially speaking of the former SECDEF) of the mind where the real battles for our soul occur. ‘Seeing’ the opportunity, envy, pride, and jealousy airdropped onto Nate, seeking to gain a foothold. Fortunately, the Holy Ghost moved in and repelled the assault.

    Nate’s way of saying it elevates the story out of the seemingly juvenile mode that my description works at. Probably a good thing, too. . .

  13. Nate,

    I had a similar experience a number of years ago when I was active politically, and had the same reaction you did. I can remember the argument that went thru my mind about service and how it is viewed by others.
    Then I had a thought of what others will think of me when I am old. Not as one who accomplished and fell, but rather as one who should have accomplished and failed.

  14. Nate,

    I think you showed the pride of the world in dealing with the emerging young scholar and intellectual Ed Enochs. You guys should be ashamed of what you have done to him. You have besmirched the pristine reputation of a great man and emerging talent in the Evangelical world. You should have honored him, instead you tried to discredit an honorbale man who loves the LDS.

  15. you guys are very disrespectful and very cruel for LDS. It may be time to have to speak to Bishops and Stake Presidents. I want you to know irrespective of what “topic” is on board this thread, much of the conduct here is not befitting a member of the church of Jesus Christ Latter-day saints. Complaints are being made to local bishops. I do not think you guys realize the seriousness of what kind of conduct you are in engaged in. Ed Enochs did nothing wrong. Even if he did not meet the format some of you want you treated him with much disrespect and you are accountable as LDS members.

  16. [Whoa! Steady now! Don’t reply to off-topic asinine comments from others. You’ve done that too much before. Stay on target; stay on target.]

    I like Nate’s post. And James, former Defense Secretary McNamara was in white sneakers, for hellsakes!! It IS an arresting image.

    There is one possibly redemptive detail in it: Mr. McNamara was carrying a book bag. I think there’s still hope.

    But I suppose Nate was pointing toward his unconscious, or only semi-conscious, Mormon/Christian worldview that filters his perception of reality. And how it occasionally battles with the more secular worldview which he (and many of us) harbor whose roots spring from modernity (& post-modernity). It’s not exactly schizophrenia but it does produce occasional double-mindedness.

    Yet I think about our culture. No, wrong. We don’t have A culture. We have many cultures but we lack a unifying ideology. Unless it would be our “civil religion” – the one politicians invoke – freedom, liberty, democracy, rights – all that My-Fellow-Americans stuff. But beside that we lack a common cultural core.

    I got thinking about this as I walked through LA in the three months I hung out in the Omni Hotel this summer. The public sculpture did not, as near as I could tell, invoke any core cultural or ideological values and certainly not any spiritual values. It was all abstract. There was nothing akin to Egyptian public sculpture explaining our place in Life & Afterlife. Nor to Mayan step-temple demonstrating to the Maya their central place in the cosmos.

    Unless abstract forms without any spiritual meaning WAS the point. The point is there is no point?

    Our culture lacks integration. It has multiple personality disorder.

  17. The real question is whether that canvas bookbag was one of the freebies you get for contributing $50 to Channel 13 or it’s DC equivalent.

  18. “It may be time to have to speak to Bishops and Stake Presidents.”

    Bring it on, Coffey–buffoon, crank, moron. My bishop, Nate Jackson, presides over the Provo 8th Ward (if you would like to get in touch with him); but I’m warning you, he’s young and sports a really progressive haircut, and reads books.

  19. Thanks, Danithew. I’ve been reading the Aubrey-Maturin novels by Patrick O’Brian, one after the other. They’re fantastic. Also, I gruesomely broke my foot longboarding; which means, having no medical insurance, that I now must work 24-7 to pay off exorbitant medical bills. I figure this thread is dead so I can go off topic to answer your question. Speaking of gruesome accidents, have you seen the extended version of The Return of the King? Watch especially for the moment when Aragorn and Gimli take turns whacking the mutant one-eyed orc lieutenant, Gothmog. Tolkien spins dizzily in his grave. I am reading Ezra Pound’s Cantos through for the second time, and learning to love, really love, Bob Dylan; and I got rejected by a girl.

  20. Kingsley,

    Longboarding without insurance. Tsk tsk. I have insurance, and scarcely do it anyway for fear of getting injured.

  21. Longboarding is one of those things where, once you commit to, say, a hill, you are presented with two options: stay on the board, and live; or fall off, and die, or so foully injure yourself that you wish you were dead. As soon as you realize man, those are really my ONLY two options, a sort of sickening fear sets in, like when you were a kid riding a roller coaster for the first time; you almost want to cry; you start praying: please God; please; just let me get to the bottom and coast to a stop; please; please. And then He lets you and you walk back up the hill.

  22. The wife and I are just starting on the Aubrey-Maturin novels. We saw the unfelicitously titled ‘Master and Commander’ and fell in love.

  23. Kingsley,

    I was responding to you on this thread and then remembered I have your email. So I sent you more of a response that way. Anyways … it’s good to see you pop up again and I hope you keep dropping by occasionally. I hope no one minds us using this thread this way.

  24. Kingsley,

    Would you please drop me a line at davis_bell2002@yahoo dot com? I have a question for you.

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