The Best and the Brightest author David Halberstam’s July 1969 Harper’s magazine profile of McGeorge Bundy ends by describing some of that which Bundy did soon after becoming president of the Ford Foundation in 1966, following his controversial Vietnam-era tenure as President Lyndon Johnson’s national security advisor. Bundy turned his and the establishment foundation’s attention and generosity to New York’s urban problems, including those related to justice in general and race and its troubled education system in particular, as Halberstam describes it in “The Very Expensive Education of McGeorge Bundy” (behind a paywall, unfortunately, but it might be worth thinking about, and reading).
Under Bundy, Ford began to support black-activist groups about which many might have urged more caution. In 1967, moreover, the Ford-funded Bundy Panel recommended and then Mayor John Lindsay began an aggressive program of school “decentralization” that allowed for more local control of schools—which the teachers’ union, led by the combative Albert Shanker, regarded as a challenge to its power.
Bundy “had a dark view of the seriousness of the racial conflict in America, and a belief that something had to be done and done immediately and little doubt about the excellence of the Foundation’s staff,” according to Halberstam.
He felt that the problem in the schools, 50 per cent minorities when Ford had started on the program, now 60 per cent, was growing all the time, and it was only a matter of time before the opponents of decentralization realized this and realized that they must make their accommodations with the reality of city life.
Halberstam briefly overviews the bitterly divisive teachers’ strike over decentralization in 1968, and how Bundy handled himself and Ford during it.
Then, Halberstam concludes the piece in a way that may be freshly insightful—overall, for philanthropy (of whatever worldview) in general, and/or perhaps for some specific establishment foundations. He well-underscores what is often the need for good philanthropy to navigate, or maybe nuance, intensities—of certainty in ideas and causes on the one hand, and of traditions and institutions on the other.
“The world of McGeorge Bundy had never been marked by originality of thought or social view; it was not his particular trademark, for his specialty was really in attempting to follow conventional wisdom in an intelligent manner,” Halberstam writes. “Yet it was one of his ideas, repeatedly expressed, that those who were too intense and too sure in their pursuit of ideas and their causes often did those causes and ideas damage.
“Thus he pointed to William Buckley’s God and Man at Yale as harming contemporary religion,” Halberstam continues. “Thus he saw Douglas MacArthur defeating his own case by his excesses, and thus he saw Joseph McCarthy seriously hurting legitimate anti-Communism by the wildness of his charges.
“And it was on reflection a charge that one might make against Bundy himself,” Halberstam observes, “that in his own intense belief in himself, in his tradition and the right of the Establishment, he would contribute to a disillusion and disrespect and alienation among the young from those very traditions and institutions which he so ferociously believed in.”