No Minister

The Smartest Guy in the Room

with 4 comments

There was a documentary movie made some years ago about an infamous US company: Enron, The Smartest Guys in the Room. It was how they actually referred to themselves and it did not end well for them in the early 2000’s when they went bankrupt as their fraudulent and corrupt practices finally caught up with them.

Fortune named them “America’s Most Innovative Company” for six consecutive years.

I was reminded of this today as I read the following article by Peggy Noonan, who is quite the traditional journalist plugged into all the Washington D.C. networks. She’s of The Ruling Class, with all that that implies. Initially famous as the primary speechwriter and Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, she later supported Obama, and her comments about the sort of GOP voters attracted to Sarah Palin have lived long in the memories of other Republicans. Needless to say she hated Trump.

The WSJ has put her article up outside the paywall for once, but in case they change their mind I’m putting up the full text.

August changed things; it wasn’t just a bad month. It left a lingering, still head-shaking sense of “This isn’t how we do things.”

We don’t make up withdrawal dates that will have symbolism for photo-ops with the flinty, determined president looking flinty and determined on the 20th anniversary of 9/11; we don’t time epic strategic decisions around showbiz exigencies. We wait for the summer fighting season to pass; we withdraw in the winter when Taliban warriors are shivering in their caves. We don’t leave our major air base in the middle of the night—in the middle of the night—without even telling the Afghan military. We don’t leave our weapons behind so 20-year-old enemies can don them for military playacting and drive up and down with the guns and helmets. We don’t fail to tell our allies exactly what we’re doing and how we’re doing it—they followed us there and paid a price for it. We don’t see signs of an overwhelming enemy advance and treat it merely as a perception problem, as opposed to a reality problem. You don’t get the U.S. military out before the U.S. citizens and our friends. Who will protect them if you do that?

The president’s people think this will all just go away and are understandably trying to change the subject. But the essence of the story will linger. Its reverberations will play out for years. There are Americans and American friends behind Taliban lines. The stories will roll out in infuriating, sometimes heartbreaking ways.

The damage to the president is different and deeper than his people think, because it hit at his reputational core, at how people understand him. His supporters have long seen him as soft-natured, moderate—a sentimental man famous for feeling and showing empathy. But nothing about this fiasco suggested kindliness or an interest in the feelings of others. It feels less like a blunder than the exposure of a seamy side.

Does he listen to anyone? Does he have any people of independent weight and stature around him, or are they merely staffers who approach him with gratitude and deference?

His reputational core was only built and enabled by decades of the likes of Noonan bolstering it and refusing to call him out as the Piece-Of-Shit dullard he is.

If he’d had the decency to die a few years ago like Ted Kennedy there would have been – eventually, once it was safe politically for Democrats – some truths leaked out, although Biden’s Kennedy-style behaviour with woman would not have risen to the level of a movie like Chappaquiddick. There’s certainly no shortage of factual, historical stories that paint an opposite picture to someone who is capable of “feeling and showing empathy.

But Noonan points to other stuff that lessor people have also noticed: that there is more than one incompetent in the room.

What happened with U.S. military leadership? There’s been a stature shift there, too. Did they warn the president not to leave Bagram Air Base? Did they warn that the whole exit strategy was flawed, unrealistic? If the president was warned and rejected the advice why didn’t a general care enough to step down—either in advance to stop the debacle, or afterward to protest it?

Did they just go with the flow? Did they think the president’s mind couldn’t be changed so what the heck, implement the plan on schedule and hope for the best? President Biden’s relations with the Pentagon have been cool at best for a long time; maybe some generals were thinking: I can improve future relations by giving the president more than he asks for. He wants out by 9/11, I’ll give him out by the Fourth of July. It is important to find out what dynamics were in play. Because it’s pretty obvious something went wrong there.

The enlisted men and women of the U.S. military are the most respected professionals in America. They can break your heart with their greatness, as they did at Hamid Karzai International Airport when 13 of them gave their lives to help desperate people escape. But the top brass? Something’s wrong there, something that August revealed. They are all so media-savvy, so smooth and sound-bitey after a generation at war, and in some new way they too seem obsessed with perceptions and how things play, as opposed to reality and how things are.

Well at least they’ve fired somebody, unfortunately he’s only a Lt. Colonel, and his sin was asking his bosses to take responsibility for their fuckups.

There has been a lot of talk about Mr. Biden and what drove his single-minded insistence on leaving on his timetable. Axios recently mentioned the 2010 Rolling Stone article in which Gen. Stanley McChrystal and his staff made brutal fun of Biden. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates wrote in his 2014 memoir that President Obama told him, “Joe is over the top about this.” Mr. Obama himself, in his presidential memoir, wrote of Mr. Biden warning him the military was trying to “jam” him, “trying to box in a new president.”

People have been rereading George Packer’s great 2019 book on the diplomat Richard Holbrooke, “Our Man” (great not only as history but as literature). Holbrooke met with Vice President Biden one day during the first Obama term and they argued about Afghanistan. Mr. Biden dismissed Holbrooke’s arguments for protecting Afghan women’s rights as “bullshit.” Their discussion was, according to Holbrooke’s diary, “quite extraordinary.” Mr. Biden said Holbrooke didn’t understand politics, that the Democrats could lose the presidency in 2012 in part because of Afghanistan, that we have to get out as we did from Vietnam.

There was politics in President Biden’s decision, and frustration. Mr. Biden had spent years in Afghanistan meetings, in the Senate during the Bush years, and later in the White House as vice president. He would have seen up close more than his share of military spin—contradictory information, no one with a sustainable strategic plan, and plenty of that old military tradition, CYA.

Afghanistan was emotional for him, for personal reasons. This would be connected to his son’s service in Iraq, and the worry a parent feels and the questions a parent asks. And maybe the things Beau Biden told him about his tour.

For those people who thought that Biden was going to be better for foreign relations and US alliances there is no excuse for their stupidity and ignorance, given that both the Holbrooke material was out, as well the decade-old memoir of former Bush-Obama Defense Secretary Robert Gates where he gently pointed out that Biden had been wrong on almost every major foreign policy and national security issue for forty years.

Soon it will be fifty years. But it’s the next bit that made me laugh.

And I suspect there was plenty of ego in it, of sheer vanity. A longtime friend of his once told me Mr. Biden’s weakness is that he always thinks he’s the smartest guy in the room. I asked if the rooms are usually small, and the friend didn’t bristle, he laughed.


Of course. There’s more than a few politicians like that, both active and retired.

I suspect Mr. Biden was thinking he was going to be the guy who finally cut through, who stopped the nonsense, admitted reality, who wasn’t like the others driven by fear of looking weak or incompetent. He was going to look with eyes made cool by experience and do what needed doing—cut this cord, end this thing, not another American dead.

History would see what he’d done. It would be his legacy. And for once he’d get his due—he’s not some ice-cream-eating mediocrity, not a mere palate-cleanser after the heavy meal of Trump, not a placeholder while America got its act together. He would finally be seen as what he is—a serious man. Un homme sérieux, as diplomats used to say.

And then, when it turned so bad so quick, his pride and anger shifted in, and the defiant, defensive, self-referential speeches. Do they not see my wisdom?

When you want it bad you get it bad.

This won’t happen, but it would be better for his White House not to scramble away from the subject—Let’s go to the hurricane!—but to inhabit it fully. Concentrate on the new reality of the new Afghanistan, the immediate and larger diplomatic demands, the security needs. Get the Americans out, our friends out, figure out—plan—what you would do and say if, say, next November there is a terror event on U.S. soil, and a group calling itself al Qaeda 2.0 claims responsibility, and within a few days it turns out they launched their adventure from a haven in Afghanistan.

Don’t fix on “perception.” Focus on that ignored thing, reality.

Reality? Screw that. There’s plenty more Democrat and Lefty fantasies to be implemented before January 20, 2025.

Written by Tom Hunter

September 7, 2021 at 6:00 am

4 Responses

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  1. Maybe Skynet isn’t science fiction anymore and that what is is behind the fiddling of the 2020 election that put Joe Biden in the Whitehouse and all the other truly bizzaro things that are going on around us

    We are all living in a Phillip K. Dick hallucination IMHO


    September 7, 2021 at 7:23 am

  2. It’s an intriguing thought, and given some recent embarrassing stories about AI decision-making it might explain a lot.

    I should add that I referenced this column merely as a marker for how the Ruling Class in D.C. is thinking about Biden. I don’t have great respect for Noonan’s opinions despite, or nowadays because of her connections in that world.

    She supported Bush 43 until concluding that he was making unwise decisions on matters domestic and foreign.

    Then she went full-bore for Obama, saying that he might be able to change US foreign policy, until, just a few years later, withdrawing her support and claiming that Obama “lacked good judgement”.

    All that I can accept. What I can’t accept is this article presenting as a dawning realisation of hers about Biden and the team. She’s been part of the D.C. circuit for forty years. She must have encountered Biden many times, as well as those politicians and staffers who’ve worked with him. In other words, she knew how awful and useless he was long before she supported him in 2020.

    She accepted the possibility of bad outcomes as a result of this senile moron being POTUS, and ignored many good outcomes happening with Trump’s presidency, because like so many others she couldn’t stand the way Trump had “coarsened” the American body politic.

    He didn’t fit with her world. Biden did – and still does.

    Tom Hunter

    September 7, 2021 at 9:52 am

  3. ““coarsened” the American body politic.”


    The beef that these haughty, puffed up beltway denizens had with Trump is one of aesthetics – and there’s one or two around here with the same affliction, too.

    He got a lot of things done that the “conservative intelligentsia” for years have purported to care about: tax reform, de-regulation, energy independence, Arab-Israel peace accords, an increased budget for the military. But that wasn’t enough. They couldn’t abide someone who wore their ties too high, and had that gauche fake tan, and that hair, OMG !. That uncouth Queens accent, the mean tweets. He favored hamburgers and french fries cooked in beef tallow, and would put ketchup on a fillet mignon.

    And worse still, he didn’t have an Ivy league education so can’t be very smart. Only people with an Ivy League education can be considered smart.

    Porky Roebuck

    September 7, 2021 at 10:17 am

  4. Then Joe claims son Hunter “is the smartest guy I know”???


    September 7, 2021 at 3:17 pm

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