Team of Eggheads

In assembling the youngest Cabinet in generations, the 43-year-old president insisted that his appointees think along similar lines and communicate easily. For the first time since the New Deal, an administration was in the hands of intellectuals.

In the sunroom of his father's home on Cape Cod, JFK hosts a discussion of the defense budget in November 1961. (Harvey Georges / AP)

President Kennedy has assembled a remarkable group of men in his official family. The youngest elected president in American history has chosen the youngest Cabinet in this century and probably the youngest since the youthful men who composed the Founding Fathers first guided the American democracy. But the point is not their individual or collective age, nor the number of Phi Beta Kappa keys, nor even how many went to Harvard. The point is the common thread which marks the selections of both Cabinet and sub-Cabinet members. The selection process was lengthy, because Kennedy was not easy to satisfy.

The new president sought not merely men with the same economic or political or foreign-policy ideas. He sought men who could compose a team, men who were on the same mental wavelength, men who would find it easy to communicate with one another. Kennedy confessed to one whose advice he asked that he was hampered in his search by two facts: despite his 14 years in the Congress, he knew remarkably few who served in the executive branch of the government, and despite his father’s business background, he knew few of the top men in industry, the category from which he picked Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara.

Fortunately for newcomer McNamara, he will be backstopped by Roswell L. Gilpatric, a Pentagon veteran, as deputy defense secretary … An outspoken critic of Pentagon organization and strategic concepts, he will be a highly knowledgeable addition to Kennedy’s team.

In meeting for the first time with [Secretary of State Dean] Rusk and McNamara, for example, Kennedy was far less interested in hearing their ideas (he had already read extensive dossiers about them, including their own writing or statements) than in finding out whether they could easily communicate. One prospective Cabinet appointee was ruled out partly because he failed to give concise answers and tended to make encyclopedic replies; another because he was not easy to talk to, despite evidence of great ability at staff work. Both ended up in the administration, where their undoubted abilities will be used, but they did not make the first team.

Perhaps the incident which tells most about the quality Kennedy sought involves his brother, Robert, the new attorney general. During the closing days of the presidential campaign, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was jailed in Atlanta. Both Senator Kennedy and his brother, without consulting each other, reached for the telephone: Robert to call the judge and the senator to phone Mrs. King. Call it instinct or any other name; it is a priceless quality in a team.

Kennedy’s appointment of Adlai Stevenson as ambassador to the United Nations fits into this picture with utmost precision. Kennedy knew that he would deeply wound an important segment of Democratic opinion if he did not honor Stevenson with high office; he knew, too, that Stevenson has a vast reservoir of goodwill in all the free world, an asset not to be lightly dismissed at this time of peril for the nation.

Kennedy did not disagree with Stevenson on policy, nor was there any element of personal pique in passing over for secretary of state the two-time presidential nominee. Rather, it was Kennedy’s feeling that he and Stevenson do not adequately communicate with one another, that they lack sympathy, which brought the decision. Be that as it may, Kennedy has given Stevenson the maximum support in his UN role, a seat in the Cabinet, and a public promise of a part in policy decision making …

Looked at as a whole, the nature of the Kennedy appointments makes it possible to say that the American government once again is in the hands of intellectuals, for the first time since the early days of the Roosevelt New Deal. The opprobrium of the term egghead ought now to be ended, and only in the nick of time. Intelligence, energy, enthusiasm are the key qualities with which the new administration begins.

Free government cannot exist and prosper on these qualities alone, but they are indispensable. In the months and years ahead, there doubtless will be times when not enough intelligence, not enough energy, not enough enthusiasm are applied to this problem or that, foreign or domestic. But as the new year begins, the new president and his choice of advisers have lifted the gloom which has enveloped an increasing area of the national capital over the years since the rude shock of Sputnik I.