The term “whiz kids” refers to any intellectually gifted, precocious young people who possess exceptional talent and the confidence to effectively utilize it in various fields.
Origin of “Whiz Kids”
In politics, the term refers specifically to a group of ten young men hired to work for the Department of Defense in the 1960s. Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defense, chose the men based on their management skills.
He gave them powerful, prestigious positions in spite of their youth.
McNamara himself was a whiz kid as a young man, although in a different field. He was one of ten young Air Force veterans recruited by the Ford Motor Company to revitalize the business. McNamara rose quickly in the Ford corporation, and apparently he never quite lost his reputation as a whiz kid.
When President-elect John F. Kennedy appointed Mr. McNamara to his cabinet, he was lionized as the very model, indeed the very shiny new model, of the modern star business executive: famously, the first non-Ford to be president of the Ford Motor Company, the most brilliant of the 10 so-called Whiz Kids whom Ford had recruited en masse from the Air Force brain trust of World War II, and the first M.B.A. from Harvard Business School to ascend so high in government.
When McNamara took over at the Department of Defense, then, he chose his own crop of whiz kids to help him run the department. His recruits were Ivy League educated men in their 30s and 40s. Some of them had worked for the Rand Corporation; others had a background in physics and were ardent supporters of nuclear power.
The whiz kids introduced a new approach to decision making in general, and budgeting in particular. They favored a data-based method which was known as systems analysis, and which sometimes earned them criticism from others in the department.
Decades later, some of the former whiz kids still seemed defensive about their methods. “The idea was to bring cost effectiveness to the Pentagon,” said Alain Enthoven told the Washington Post in 1981. “We try to illuminate the problems for the people who have to make the decisions. . . It’s not computers, it’s not quantifying things and it’s not a substitute for judgment.”
Of course, whiz kids can be a positive term as well as a put-down. In 2015, some Democrats in Congress applauded the new Secretary of Defense, Ash Carter, for hiring a group of young prodigies.
Politico’s story (“The Pentagon’s new whiz kids”), also praised the new hires:
For decades, Defense Department policy wonks have sought to run the Pentagon more efficiently, especially in the acquisition of budget-busting hardware. But their efforts haven’t always been supported by colleagues from the political or military brass.
Now, Ash Carter’s return to the Pentagon would crown a cadre of leaders seen as technocrats, not politicians, even as President Barack Obama moves to put the nation on a new war footing.’
Clare McCaskill, a Democrat from Missouri, gushed, “It’s a dream team of wonkiness, and I am thrilled.”
Taegan Goddard is the creator of the Political Dictionary.
Goddard spent more than a decade on Wall Street as managing director and chief operating officer of a prominent investment firm in New York City. Previously, he also served as a policy adviser to a U.S. Senator and Governor.
Goddard is also co-author of You Won – Now What?: How Americans Can Make Democracy Work from City Hall to the White House, a political management book hailed by prominent journalists and politicians from both parties.
His essays on politics and public policy have appeared in dozens of newspapers and magazines across the country.
Goddard earned degrees from Vassar College and Harvard University.
He lives in New York with his wife and three sons.