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whiz kids

Technically, “whiz kids” are any brainy, precocious young people with talent and the confidence to use it.

Often, though, 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.

As the New York Times reported:

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.

The piece read:

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.”

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