I witnessed a very powerful illustration of the vanity of the pride of the world the other day, or at least I witnessed it until I realized that I was probably wrong. My office is kitty-corner to McPherson Square in Washington, DC, which means that I am just a couple of blocks north of the White House. On Tuesday afternoon, I had promised to meet my wife and son down town and I found myself waiting for them on Pennsylvania Avenue between Lafayette Park and the White House. Lafayette park is one of the oldest portions of the District. It is ringed by wonderful old Federalist era houses on the east and the west. The White House, Treasury Department, and Old Executive Office Building are to the south. To the north is one of the oldest churches in the District. On Tuesday it was foggy and raining as I stood there watching the tourists walk by and the purposeful people scurry in and out of the employees entrance to the West Wing.
I turned around to look for my wife and son and I saw shuffling toward me an old man. He was dressed with the complete disregard for fashion common amongst the old: white sneakers and faded white pants covered by an overcoat. In his hand was clutched a canvas book bag of the kind favored by elementary school librarians. He was clearly not a tourist, and he looked very out of place amongst the happily self-conscious â€œinsidersâ€? traipsing in and out of the White House and the beautiful old houses around the park (these houses are now almost completely filled with â€œWhite Houseâ€? staff). I was struck by what an obvious â€œoutsiderâ€? this man was, completely disconnected from the world of political power represented by the White House and the tourists who had come to snap pictures at it. The man came closer and walked by within two or three feet of me. I got a long, clear look into his face. It was Robert McNamara.
In his time, Robert McNamara was probably one of the most powerful men on the planet. From 1960 until 1968 he served as Secretary of Defense in first the Kennedy and then the Johnson Administrations. He was one of the inner circle that during the Cuban Missile Crisis sat in the West Wing and looked for a way to avoid nuclear Armageddon. He was later one of the architects of the Vietnam War, which ultimately destroyed his political career and drove him out of the Pentagon.
Watching him shuffle across Lafayette Park, I thought, â€œOh, how the mighty are fallen! There goes a man who was once at the very center of it all, and now he shuffles across the pavement of Pennsylvania Avenue shut out by the fences and the guards just like the rest of us. The ultimate insider is now the ultimate outsider! A tired old man trudging through the rain.â€?
As I was savoring this Christian insight, my cynical inner voice began battling to reassert itself. â€œOh get over it,â€? the voice said. â€œMcNamara no longer places nuclear missiles on alert, orders the mining of Haiphong harbor or the sits in the White House picking bombing targets with presidents, but he is hardly a wasted old man!â€? After leaving the Pentagon, McNamara crossed the river and took up residence in the World Bank, which he led until 1981. He still sits on the boards of powerful corporations and gives lectures at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. He remains an insider. Still, the power of the Christian symbolism that I imposed on the shuffling figure in the rain in Lafayette Park lingers, and for the last couple of days I have been trying to puzzle out which of my inner voices is right.