The history of recent presidents’ influential top advisers, heavy on political maneuvering but never dull.
According to the Constitution, counseling the president is the Cabinet’s job. But as the government grew larger in the 20th century, write the authors, presidents often found Cabinet secretaries too partisan on behalf of their various departments. For disinterested advice, they increasingly relied on trusted intimates: Colonel House, “neither elected nor appointed to any office,” served as Woodrow Wilson’s de facto secretary of state at the 1919 Paris Peace conference, while Harry Hopkins was FDR’s primary diplomat during World War II despite holding no foreign-policy position. Unhappy with this ad hoc arrangement, Congress passed the National Security Act in 1947 to create a distinct executive organization, the National Security Council. It remained a minor department until 1961, when Kennedy gave broad, day-to-day responsibility for coordinating foreign policy (and a large office in the West Wing) to a man he had chosen personally, the dean of faculty at Harvard. Like many of his successors, McGeorge Bundy was an academic who had never held a top government position; his overriding qualification was that the president knew him and wanted him. He took advantage of this intimacy to become a major source of foreign-policy advice, overshadowing Secretary of State Dean Rusk. Former NSC staffer Daalder and co-author Destler (Public Policy/Univ. of Maryland), who have both published technical works on foreign policy, deliver a surprisingly lively account of Bundy and his 14 successors, their complex relationship with the president and often-stormy interactions with the cabinet and media. Some advisors (Bundy, Brent Scowcroft, Steven Hadley) ran an efficient department that emphasized delivering policy advice. Others (Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Condoleezza Rice) became powerful figures, opposing and even feuding with the secretaries of state.
A revealing, unsettling look at how our presidents receive advice on foreign policy.