- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Of the many stories being told after Robert S. McNamara’s passing Monday at age 93, we are reminded of his last few months as secretary of defense.

President Johnson announced Mr. McNamara’s move to become president of the World Bank on Nov. 29, 1967, but the secretary did not leave the Defense Department until the end of February 1968. This excruciating three-month lame-duck period witnessed some of the most dramatic events of the Vietnam War, including the Tet Offensive and the siege of Khe Sanh. The leadership vacuum during that critical period was damaging to the U.S. war effort, and in his autobiography Mr. McNamara claims no ownership of the events, dismissing them in a few paragraphs.

Mr. McNamara’s last day at the Pentagon was a comedy of errors. A grand farewell ceremony was planned on the lawn near the river entrance, and thousands assembled in the freezing rain. Meanwhile, the elevator taking Mr. Johnson, Mr. McNamara and 11 others jammed between floors, and they were stuck for 15 minutes. “What’s wrong with this thing?” the president asked. “Don’t ask me,” Mr. McNamara replied, “I don’t work here anymore.” The party eventually had to climb up and squeeze through a pried-open door and then walked out to the dais. Mr. McNamara had no raincoat, and he and the president stood stiffly under a single umbrella until another could be found.

Mr. Johnson’s remarks were brief and noncommittal; Mr. McNamara’s were flat and perfunctory. The public address system shorted out in the rain, and the soggy crowd could not hear most of the speeches. Commercial jets flying into nearby National Airport drowned out the audible parts and eclipsed the 19-gun salute. At the end of the joyless ceremony, Mr. McNamara’s blue suit was soaked, his rimless glasses were rain-streaked, and his perfectly shined shoes were covered with freshly mown grass.

It was an apt symbol of the gap between inspiration and implementation that typified most of Mr. McNamara’s professional career. Whether it was nuclear strategy, war leadership or promoting global economic development, reality always found a way to vex Mr. McNamara’s best-laid plans.

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