In 1992 David Halberstam wrote a new introduction for the 20th anniversary edition of “The Best and the Brightest.” He wrote that his favorite passage of the book was a conversation between Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson and House Speaker Sam Rayburn.
Johnson was effusive in his praise of the intellectual brilliance of President Kennedy’s cabinet. “You may be right, and they may be every bit as intelligent as you say,” Rayburn responded, “but I’d feel a whole lot better about them if just one of them had run for sheriff once.”
“The Best and the Brightest” is the story about how brilliant, successful, well-intentioned but politically inexperienced men created the American disaster known as the Vietnam War. Applying this lesson to the latest attempt to restructure the government of St. Louis city and county does much to explain the demise of Better Together, which has withdrawn its ballot petition but vowed to try again.
If you asked informed St. Louis political actors to name the senior staff of Better Together, they couldn’t do it if their life depended on it. The same would be true for the members of its task force.
Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but they are not entitled to impose that opinion on the public. When you propose to offer your opinion for public consideration, the public has a right to ask: who are you, and why should your opinion be given serious consideration?
If you want to know what kind of experience is needed to be the architect of a government, consider the drafters of the Unites States Constitution. Most Americans believe the United States was founded by your average yeoman farmer, who took some time to fight a war of independence, drafted a constitution for a new republic, then returned to the farm. The reality is totally different.
They weren’t in Philadelphia to create a new government but to fix a broken one. The Constitution is their fix to the Articles of Confederation. The white men who assembled in Philadelphia in the summer of 1789 were many things, but they were all seasoned, cold-blooded political operators, with deep experience in governing.
Eight of them had signed the Declaration of Independence. Twenty-five had served in the Continental Congress, which was the governing body for the 13 colonies during the American Revolution. Fifteen helped draft state constitutions for the newly independent colonies. Forty served in the Confederation Congress, the national legislative body for the newly independent British colonies.
There were no political amateurs in Philadelphia in the summer of 1789.
While not framers of the U.S. Constitution, there are people in St. Louis with extraordinary knowledge of the structural inadequacies of city and county government and how these deficiencies impede the effective operation of government. There are people with well-informed ideas about what can and should be done differently.
The region’s former mayors and county executives represent a unique resource. When you add the people who served them as senior policy and operational executives, you have a diverse, comprehensive first-person overview of every facet of city and county government. This is the kind of experience you should want in the room when redrawing the map of local government.
This helps to explain the demise of Better Together. No one associated with this project has served as an elected executive. None has served as senior policy or operational staff in the office of an elected executive at any level in the last several decades. In today’s political environment we confuse campaign operatives with political professionals skilled in the art of governing. Better Together consisted of well-meaning amateurs and operatives.
There is another critically important skill that can only be developed in government: turning an idea or proposal into policy and practice. Even if the Better Together idea had merit, their incompetence at developing a consensus and forming the coalition necessary to execute its proposal was a function of their inexperience and a lack of the required political skill set.
Politics and professional sports have a great deal in common, in that they both are performed in public, covered by media 24/7, and have large, active fan bases. In sports and politics, anyone can observe the action, but unless you have been a player, you don’t have a clue about the inside game. In both politics and professional sports, what you observe is the result of the players’ intellectual understanding of how the game is supposed to be played in that moment.
To continue the sports analogy, this Better Together team hasn’t even played high school ball, let alone on a professional farm team. Nobody in their right mind would trust them with restructuring a professional franchise in a diehard sports town like St. Louis.
Mike Jones is a former senior staffer in St. Louis city and county government and current member of the Missouri State Board of Education and The St. Louis American editorial board. In 2016 and 2017, he was awarded Best Serious Columnist for all of the state’s large weeklies by the Missouri Press Association, and in 2018 he was awarded Best Serious Columnist in the nation by the National Newspapers Association.