Skip to content Skip to navigation

Focus on the Big Picture in Civic Work – But Don’t Forget the Details

Tomorrow's Academy

Message Number: 

NOTE:  This is the last posting prior to our annual December holiday break.  The next posting will appear on Friday, January 3, 2014. Season\'s greetings to everyone!

Rick Reis  

\"So I went to Ball to ask if I might join his office, and he hired me as his assistant. My primary responsibility was to write policy analyses and speeches.  In retrospect, it sometimes seems to me that I spent much of the first half of my life writing words for others to say and letters for others to sign, and much of the second half of my life giving speeches that others wrote and signing letters that others prepared.  In fact, however, my year with Ball taught me that a good speaker and writer will never simply take the words of another.  Rather, at its best, a real partnership develops.\"  



The posting below, a bit longer than most, looks at how student public service has changed over time from the perspective of two individuals 57 years apart in age.  They are Thomas Ehrlich who has held a number of public-service positions since the administration of President Kennedy, and Ernestine Fu, an undergraduate student at Stanford University*. Their book, Civic Work, Civic Lessons: Two Generations Reflect on Public Service, is published by University Press of America, ® Inc. Copyright © 2013 by University Press of America, ® Inc. An Imprint of the Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group 4501 Forbes Boulevard, Suite 200, Landham, Maryland 20706. UPA Acquisitions Department (301) 459-3366. All rights reserved.  Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis




Tomorrow's Academia

---------- 3,129 words ----------

Civic Work, Civic Lessons: Two Generations Reflect on Public Service 


Tom and Ernestine

All too often we have both found that civic leaders use either a civic telescope or civic microscope without recognizing the need for a balanced approach.  Some have a grand design for their civic ventures but ignore the concrete steps that must be taken to achieve that design. Alternatively, some are caught up in the weeds of their program and fail to look far enough ahead to develop both a vision of their civic aims and a realistic plan to achieve those aims.  Ernestine learned this lesson at an early stage in her role as a civic leader.  As she recounts in her section of this lesson, she had committed her non-profit organization to a Halloween festival that would include many hundreds of people of all ages whom they had been serving, as well as a large group of their student volunteers.  The festival was widely publicized with the goal of bringing all these people together and showing their common sense of humanity through sharing music and programs that they could enjoy together.  But Ernestine needed a space to hold so many people and their activities.  No such space was readily available and she realized that the whole grand scheme, and the many benefits it would promote, would be lost without attention to this detail.  Fortunately, she found a space through the generosity of a senior executive at a television studio.  But she learned through that experience to take the time and care to work through such details before announcing a dream that might end up as a nightmare.  Tom learned a related lesson, as he tells in his section, when he worked for Under Secretary of State George W. Ball and realized too late that his wife, Ellen, might have inadvertently leaked to a reporter with whom she was having dinner a key detail about the American strategy in the Vietnam War: the start of a major U.S. attack.  Everyone knew the broad outlines of the U.S. strategy, but the details were top secret, and when Ellen revealed that Tom was still working with Ball late into the night, the reporter immediately guessed-correctly as it turned out-that an attack was about to be launched.  More generally, Tom also saw one president, Jimmy Carter, with whom he worked directly, get much too caught up in the minutia of foreign-aid particulars, while his successor, Ronald Reagan, was too little involved to realize, for example, that some of his key lieutenants were planning and executing an illegal operation to provide support to rebels in Nicaragua.  In the pages that follow, we stress the ways that civic leaders can keep their eyes on both the big picture and the details, ensuring in the process that those who work with them are prepared to be similarly sensitive. 


Repeatedly during my civic work over the years, and in reading and hearing about the civic work of others, I have come to appreciate the importance of focusing on the big picture.  President Carter was justly, in my view, accused of failing to follow this precept, and I saw this failing first-hand when I worked for him, as I'll discuss a bit later.  A big-picture focus is important and difficult to achieve when there are powerful pressures pressing in multiple different directions, as is so often the case in civic work.  But it is also important, as I came to learn, not to forget the details. 

An experience I had when working for Abram Chayes while he was State Department Legal Adviser reinforces that point. McCarthyism was still alive and well in 1962, and charges were frequently made that State Department officials were \"soft\" on Communism.  This was especially true in the office of Abba Schwartz, a good friend of mine and the Assistant Secretary in charge of passports, visas, and similar matters.  The Senate Internal Security Subcommittee was actively engaged in witch-hunting for alleged Communists.  The Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, had become increasingly concerned that someone was tapping telephones inside Schwartz's office because confidential comments that he had made on his telephone were regularly the subject of questions by the Senate Subcommittee staff.  I was charged with finding out what had happened.  A former employee in Schwartz's office was working in our London embassy, and I was dispatched there by Secretary Rusk-with only an hour's notice-to interrogate the former employee.  I spent several hours questioning the man in a tiny basement office of the embassy.  At the end of the session, I was convinced that, whatever else, this man had not been involved in tapping Schwartz's telephone, and that he knew nothing about anyone else doing so. 

To my great embarrassment, a few days later the same man appeared in my Washington office with his lawyer to confess that he and another employee had copies of Schwartz's telephone conversations and had passed them on to the Subcommittee staff.  They had not tapped the telephones.  Rather, they had planted \"bugs,\" tiny electronic receivers, in the Assistant Secretary's office.  In short, I had focused on the big picture, but neglected to pay attention to the details, as my failure to distinguish telephone \"bugs\" and \"wiretaps\" makes clear. 

Chayes told me in the Spring of 1964 that he would have to return to teaching at Harvard or lose his tenured position there.  I immediately thought that I would like to work for George W. Ball, who had been at the State Department since the outset of the Kennedy Administration, first as Under Secretary for Economic Affairs and then as Under Secretary, the second ranking person in the State Department after Secretary Rusk.  When Chayes left the State Department I knew that I would soon try teaching law.  But since I had come to Washington, I had admired Ball as the best craftsman of policy and words in the State Department.  I could not forgo the chance to work for him if he would have me. 

So I went to Ball to ask if I might join his office, and he hired me as his assistant. My primary responsibility was to write policy analyses and speeches.  In retrospect, it sometimes seems to me that I spent much of the first half of my life writing words for others to say and letters for others to sign, and much of the second half of my life giving speeches that others wrote and signing letters that others prepared.  In fact, however, my year with Ball taught me that a good speaker and writer will never simply take the words of another.  Rather, at its best, a real partnership develops. 

With one exception, I never wrote a single piece of prose for Ball that he did not revise by at least a few words. That one exception, ironically, was a short introduction to a volume titled, A Practical Guide to Effective Writing (Random House, 1965).  The guide was written by a retired government official who taught writing to others in the government.  The substance of what I wrote in that guide was based on lessons I learned from Ball: 

I was taught to believe that the statement of an idea is no less important than the idea itself.  Clarity of expression can never replace thought, but no thought can be expressed with full force unless it is clearly stated.  Few of us can write gracefully, but all of us can write intelligibly.  Yet I have observed both in private and in public life that many papers are written to conceal ideas-or the lack of them-rather than to communicate any thought or purpose. 

Those who take pleasure in words and the meanings of words enjoy their use.  They find satisfaction in the plain statement of a complex problem. But this virtue seems lacking in the authors of many papers that, over the years, have crossed my desk. 

I am dismayed at the inability of people in all walks of life, including the Government, to express themselves.  They cross swords with syntax in almost every sentence.  They apparently regard the conception that a sentence should have a subject and a predicate as outmoded, if not subversive.  I persist in my simple faith that the unadorned declarative sentence is one of man's noblest architectural achievements.  But it is also one of his rarest. 

Sometimes Ball would draft and I would edit. More often, he would edit my drafts.  But either way, we worked together as a team.  He had a distinctive voice, a pattern of putting together words and phrases unique to his mind and pen.  He cared deeply about words and the meaning of words.  His bibles, like Judge Hand's, were Fowler's Modern English Usage and The Elements of Style by Strunk and White.  Ball enjoyed finding the right word for a particular point almost more than knowing whether the point was right. 

Ball had a remarkable ability to concentrate on key issues in American foreign policy and to bear down with an intensity on those issues.  He believed passionately that the future of the United States depended primarily on a close partnership with a united Europe and with Japan.  The major enemy was the Soviet Union and the partnership was essential, primarily through NATO, in defending our vital interests.  Other issues could be important, but this was the top U.S. priority and he did not want the U.S. in its foreign policy to lose sight of that big picture or to be diverted to less significant concerns. 

On one of the trips to Europe when I accompanied Ball, we spent a day talking with Jean Monet, the great architect of the Common Market, and during that day I gained understanding and commitment to the European-American alliance.  Ball was much less concerned about relations with developing countries, not because he lacked compassion for those in need of help from the United States.  He was strongly supportive of giving that help. Rather, he was concerned that the United States not be diverted from its main foreign-policy objectives.  In Ball's view, South Vietnam was a diversion because the U.S. had no dominant interests there or in its survival as a country.  For that reason, he thought that the United States involvement in the escalating war between North and South Vietnam was a mistake from the outset.  The French had failed there and had been forced to leave.  Ball thought we should learn from the mistakes of the French and not get entangled in a war we could never win.  He was convinced that the public interest required our prompt withdrawal of military personnel in South Vietnam. 

While I was working for Ball, I also learned an important lesson about dealing with reporters.  Ellen and I were close friends with the White House reporter for the New York Times and his wife.  We were scheduled to have dinner at their home one Saturday night, but at the last minute I could not come because of an issue concerning the Vietnam buildup.  Ellen innocently told our hosts that I was detained in a meeting with Ball at the Defense Department.  Our New York Times friend immediately guessed that a rumored U.S. attack on North Vietnam was underway and called his newspaper colleagues to track down the details of the story, which they did.  No one learned that Ellen and I were the immediate cause of the \"leaked\" story, but we learned a valuable lesson-good reporters may also be good friends.  But when they smell a story, their journalistic instincts will trump friendship. 

When I started working for Ball in June 1964 the United States had military advisers in South Vietnam, but our country had not committed to a significant troop build-up.  The Vietnam War was going poorly for South Vietnam and the U.S., however, and President Johnson was considering sending large numbers of troops.  General William Westmoreland became head of all U.S. troops there that June. 

Much of the year that I worked with Ball was spent in drafting various plans to help the United States extricate itself from South Vietnam.  These documents were so sensitive that usually only four copies existed: one for the president, one for Rusk, one for McNamara, and one for Ball.  They were responsible for ensuring that no other copies were made.  This was, of course, long before the era of the Internet and even before rapid copy machines were common, so secrecy was much easier to maintain than it is today. 

Although the huge U.S. troop buildup had not yet started there were increasing pressures from Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to send more U.S. soldiers there and he was supported by Secretary Rusk and President Johnson's National Security Advisor, McGeorge Bundy, Bill Bundy, brother of McGeorge, was Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs and another advocate for escalating the war.  Ball was the only senior official who was a strong opponent. 

Early in my time working for Ball, an apparent attack by North Vietnam occurred on a U.S. ship in the Gulf of Tonkin.  I worked closely with Ball in drafting a resolution authorizing the use of force against North Vietnam, which was rapidly passed by Congress.  The attack was reported to the president and the State Department by the Department of Defense, which claimed no doubt about what had happened. We learned only later, however, that the attack was misreported and the intelligence from the Defense Department about the incident was significantly off-base.  McNamara would not have supported retaliation, he later said, if he had known the true facts. 

Over the course of the year I was with Ball, I helped to write a series of lengthy secret memoranda to President Johnson spelling out the strongest case we could for why escalation was a mistake.  Ball organized an informal group of State Department officers who had similar views and great expertise in Vietnamese and Chinese history and politics.  The major argument that was made by the pro-buildup advocates was that Communism, backed by China, would roll over Asia \"like dominos\" unless the U.S. stopped it in South Vietnam. The Chinese were supporting North Vietnam as a first step, these advocates claimed, in what would become a massive strategic power shift.  President Johnson was persuaded by Rusk, McNamara, and a group of generals, along with his own National Security Advisor, McGeorge Bundy, that this argument was correct. Johnson did not want \"the dominos to fall\" on his watch as president, and he felt that the Vietnam War could derail the War on Poverty unless he acted decisively by sending all the troops that the Pentagon generals wanted. 

Ball made the case-forcefully and, in my view, persuasively-that this \"dominos\" view was the wrong \"big picture.\"  He argued that vital United States interests were not at stake in the conflict between North and South Vietnam.  To the contrary, our vital interests focused on Europe and Japan, and it was there that our \"big picture\" future really lay.  The French defeat in Vietnam illustrated the difficulty of fighting Vietnamese in their own territory.  And the ancient enmity between China and Vietnam meant that Vietnam would never agree to be under Chinese domination any more than it would under U.S. control. These were crucial details that Johnson, Rusk, and McNamara were all over-looking. 

One of my last experiences working for Ball was to take a top-secret withdrawal plan to Saigon and to present it to our ambassador and the military leaders there.  I was recovering from the flu when I boarded a plane for the long flight that took me to Bangkok.  I recall getting on Pan American Flight 1 from Washington and falling promptly asleep for most of the next twelve hours.  Then I climbed into a fighter plane for an ear-popping trip across Cambodia and Vietnam to Saigon. Unfortunately, my trip failed; the U.S. military and civilian leaders there, led by then Ambassador Maxwell D. Taylor, who had been Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were adamant that more U.S. troops were the only answer, and President Johnson accepted their judgment. 

In urging U.S. troop withdrawal from Vietnam, Ball was a great informational lawyer arguing his case for the public interest before the chief judge on the issue: President Johnson.  And Ball was as brilliant an advocate as I have ever seen in action. Johnson listened carefully to him.  He took seriously the arguments that Ball was making.  But the president ultimately came to rely on McNamara and the generals on the one hand, and McGeorge Bundy and Rusk on the other, and to view Ball as a \"devil's advocate.\"  By the time I left Ball to start teaching at Stanford Law School in June 1965, it was clear that Ball would not succeed. And, in fact, in the Summer and Fall of 1965 the U.S. troop escalation continued at an accelerating pace. 

History has shown to all but a small minority that Ball was right and McNamara was wrong.  But McNamara was an extraordinarily persuasive advocate who could cite statistics with ease and effectiveness to support his case, and he marshalled a potent array of generals as well.  Like Ball, he was able to focus on the big picture, but in the case of Vietnam he failed to acknowledge the key details that made a U.S. defeat inevitable. 

I later had the good fortune to work with McNamara when he was head of the World Bank and I was in charge of foreign-aid policies for President Carter.  I watched McNamara's remarkable abilities marshalled to promote long-term economic development.  But in the Vietnam War he was tragically wrong, as he himself came to understand; much too late in terms of the lives that were lost and the billions of wasted dollars that were spent. 

McNamara's failure in one realm of his civic work-the Vietnam War-and his success in another-the World Bank-underscore an obvious caveat that must be added to Lesson 2, \"Civic Work Must Serve the Public Interest.\"  In both situations, McNamara was passionately convinced that he was serving the public interest.  His human flaws led to his failure to appreciate that his actions jeopardized rather than supported American security and caused appalling losses of lives, both Vietnamese and American, in the process. He lacked the scepticism that marked, in different ways, both Hand and Ball, and instead had a headstrong certitude in terms of his own military beliefs when facing an enemy unlike any American had faced before.  Ad he lived to realize his tragic errors in leading our country into the Vietnam War.  But he, too, like Hand, Chayes, and Ball, did his best to serve the public interest, and it is important not to confuse right judgement with dedicated civic service. 


*Author Information

Thomas Ehrlich has held a number of public-service positions since the administration of President John F. Kennedy.  He was the first head of the Legal Services Corporation and was the director of the agency responsible for foreign-aid policy, reporting directly to President Carter.  He has also served as a president of Indiana University, provost of the University of Pennsylvania, and dean of Stanford Law School.  He is author, co-author, or editor of fourteen other books, including Education Citizen: Preparing America's Undergraduates for Lives of Moral and Civic Responsibility (2003), and Educating for Democracy: Preparing Undergraduates for Responsible Political Engagement (2007).  He holds five honorary degrees and is a member of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. 

Ernestine Fu is an undergraduate student at Stanford, where she has been admitted to the Master's and PhD programs in engineering.  She has been engaged in civic work since she was fifteen when she founded a non-profit organization to bring music to those in need. She has served on a national corporate advisory board to fund youth civic activities.  She has also worked at a venture-capital firm emphasizing investments in high-tech Silicon Valley start-ups.  She was chosen for the Kauffman Fellowship on entrepreneurship and is an active supporter of social entrepreneurs.