Everyone has a favorite book. I read The Best and the Brightest by David Halberstam over and over again, at least once a year. Sometimes, I will pick it up to touch and feel it, reading just a page or two, knowing by heart whole sections.
It took three years for David to research and another two years to write. Finally published in 1972, it tells the tale of the Vietnam tragedy of how the United States went from 15,000 troops in 1962 to over 500,000 soldiers by 1968, spending trillions of dollars in the process and losing over 50,000 American lives.
Arguably, Vietnam was the biggest tragedy for the U.S. since the Civil War. Halberstam was fascinated by Vietnam having won a Pulitzer for his writings on the war early on in '62. So irritated with his questioning of our policy, President Kennedy called Sulzberger, the owner of the New York Times, to ask that the young David be reassigned.
David began his masterpiece with a trip to Saigon in 1967 to cover the escalating war for Harper's. Given the opportunity to write as much as he wanted with an unlimited time limit, he eventually turned the article into a 652 page book -- perhaps the greatest non-fiction political analysis ever written. In my opinion, David Halberstam is the greatest journalist of the last 100 years.
Writing and researching 10 hours a day, David finally finished and the book became an instant best seller with awesome critical reviews as well. I first read the book in 1977 when I had just fulfilled a lifelong dream and became a part of Ford Finance Staff, the legendary group that ran Ford Motor Company and had been created by Bob McNamara, the main character in Halberstam's book. Ford Finance was located on the 10th and 11th floors of Ford World Headquarters located in Dearborn, Michigan, and my office was on the 10th floor in Room 1036, the area of international finance.
Ford Finance staff produced more CEOs of Fortune 500 firms than any other organization other than Harvard Business School. It was clearly the greatest finance department in American business and had done so much to build modern management techniques. It had been developed by the Whiz Kids -- a group of elite Air Force officers who were brought to Ford by Henry Ford in 1946 to help save the company by bringing in advance management techniques.
I highly recommend the book The Whiz Kids for background on this interesting story. The Whiz Kids were spectacularly successful in turning around Ford and much of their success was because of Bob McNamara and my own boss, Edward J. Lundy, the Senior Vice President of Finance.
Bob had become president of Ford in 1960 before being named by President Kennedy to head up the Department of Defense -- becoming the foolish protagonist in Halberstams book.
Halberstam had written over 10 pages on Ford Finance Staff, capturing our culture brilliantly; and in my second year firmly entranced as the treasury analyst of Ford South Africa and Ford Aerospace, Ford Venezuala and Ford Mexico, I made 40 copies of the 10 pages and distributed them to senior finance staff members.
Everyone was quite pleased as Halberstam had brilliantly captured how we felt about ourselves -- The Best and the Brightest. The legendary Lundy called me himself -- by then, I was called "Stevie Wonder" -- to say: "Awesome job, Steve. Great for morale. Although, I felt Bob got a bad rap on Vietnam. It was those generals that gave him bad advice." Not wanting to express my own opinion, I said, "Yes sir, Mr. Lundy, there was a lot of blame to go around."
At Ford, we used tape recordings in our personal meetings. We taped and then listened to people talk in what was called 'face offs.' It was part of our culture and we were proud of it. Finance staff faceoffs were daily through out world headquarters -- like massive therapy sessions, everyone voice was heard literally. Not only was listening and analyzing conversations part of our culture, but we made a lot of the equipment for suvailance at our division, Ford Aerospace, for which I was the financial analyst in the Treasurers Department.
As I was the analyst for both Ford Aroespace and Ford South Africa, I would review the agreement to sell surveillance equipment to places like the South African government.
I though that it was immoral to be helping a totalitarian racist regime and began under the tutelage of Reverend Sullivan, a legendary African-American political activist, to change Ford policy, coming up with guidelines on who we could sell to, prohibiting us from selling to corrupt governments. But that is a story for later so back to my tale of meeting Halberstam...
After I left Ford, I moved to New York City seeking fame and fortune. My plan was to call all the people I had read about in Michigan and go see them. My first call was to Halberstam.
"I think your book is brilliant. I was at Ford and we loved it." I said eagerly.
"Thank you Steve. Any feedback?" he asked. I could not resist." I was curious as to why you never mentioned anything about the use of surveillance at the company. We made all the equipment and sold it around the world, but it was always first tested at Ford world headquarters by Henry himself."
I could see him through the phone, aghast. He thought I was a kook. Feeling uncomfortable, he quickly got off the phone, and I was deeply hurt and embarrassed.
But time and truth were on my side. In 1982, Lee Iacocca published his book, Iacocca. Brilliantly written, it became a bestseller, and everyone was reading it. Sure enough, on page 117, Lee wrote about what I had seen, took part in and told David Halberstam about -- the use of surveillance equipment at Ford.
Lee wrote openly that we made the equipment and Henry Ford himself would test it by seeing if he could hear what was going on in Lee Iacocca's office when he went out to lunch about a mile a way.
Vindicated, I got a copy of the book, marked page 117, and sent a note on top to Mr. Halberstam saying, "here is some investigative research on the issue of surveillance at Ford motor company which we discussed." Probably not one of my finer moments, but it made me feel better to set the history straight. Soon after my phone rang and I picked up.
"Steve Mariotti, it is David Halberstam. You were right about the tapes and I wish I had written about it. How about lunch?"
The very next day in 1982, we feasted at his favorite place, the Harvard Club, and he told me in great detail about writing the first draft of The Best and the Brightest. It was the funniest lunch I have ever had.
We stayed friends for the next 15 years until his tragic auto accident in California.
David Halberstam truly was one of The Best and the Brightest.
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