Robert McNamara Was My Neighbor

How much can you really learn about a man by living a few doors down from him?

About thirty years ago I was the summer-lodger in a Washington, D.C. townhouse, which was the pied-à-terre of a nice couple from Richmond, Virginia. I didn’t know them well, or really at all: they were the parents of a friend of a friend who offered me their basement flat for $100 per month in exchange for looking after a small patch of lawn and their two pets—a large poodle and a Persian cat called “sister” (or, “sihstaah”).

The house was on Tracy Place in Kalorama. It is best known today as the neighborhood of Barack Obama, Jeff Bezos, and Javanka Trump, who now live in a house across the street from the one I lived in. “Sihstaah” escaped one day and made me retrieve her from the shrubbery in front of that house. If that were to happen now, I probably wouldn’t be around to write this portrait.

Tracy Place was less of a security nightmare in those days, although it was certainly secure: there were Secret Service and other minders watching over us all the time due to the number of embassy residences nearby. For this reason it was considered a comparatively safe place to live, and particularly so if one were famous, or infamous.

Living a couple of houses down the block from me was Robert Strange McNamara. He had been U.S. Secretary of Defense under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, and was reviled by many Americans as the presumptive architect of the Vietnam War. He had also been head of the Ford Motor Company and, later, of the World Bank; I’m told he was reviled in those places as well, but maybe not as much.

In the 1990s, McNamara was still a well-known and recognizable figure. But not if you saw him on the street. I used to see him often in Kalorama and Dupont Circle, wearing an old, tan trench coat, loose trousers, and tennis shoes; and walking very fast, arms waving, head thrust forward, usually at a slant, with his stringy grey hair at a sixty degree angle to his feet. He carried books and papers in a People’s Drug plastic bag, which bounced against his leg. If you didn’t know him you had to look closely to recognize him, which was difficult to do. Most people, if they cared to notice him at all, perhaps mistook him for a neighborhood wino.

I never saw McNamara at home. On my way to work most mornings, though, I saw another man taking out the garbage. He was always well dressed, of late middle age, and with East Asian features. I never got up the courage to introduce myself, so I do not have better details about him; only to say that he’d sometimes nod hello, then walk back around the side of the house.

Who was this man? Maybe just another summer-lodger like me. Or maybe not. Pulling together the threads above it isn’t difficult to conjure a dark Poe story or an episode of the Twilight Zone about the dotage of a tormented ex-bureaucrat of a fanatical bent, living alone in this big house, pacing its halls in shabby clothing with his People’s Drug plastic bag and the ghosts of his past … But was he really alone? Perhaps not. Perhaps every morning he was awoken by the polite, silent, well-dressed man I saw, playing the role of a courteous Vietnamese manservant, delivering a glass of orange juice and a newspaper, and reminding McNamara each and every day without the need of a single word of the millions of dead on his conscience.

I met McNamara several times, actually—usually once or twice every couple of weeks—at the organization where I worked; he was on its Board and liked to come by. I never told him I was his neighbor. Hearing him in meetings was an even more jarring experience than seeing him in the guise of a tramp. He would seize upon a point and begin speaking more or less on autopilot, making the point with the most impeccable logic. And sometimes you knew the point was wrong, but you could not begin to think of a way to counter it.

And I still wonder if, in that large house, he talked to himself in the same way. Or if, in the presence of the imagined manservant, he was another man entirely.

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Ken Weisbrode

Ken Weisbrode is a writer and historian. His latest book, with James Goodby, is Practical Lessons from US Foreign Policy: The Itinerant Years.