What Politicians Must Do When Protesters Attack

Learning from Robert McNamara's mistakes and magnanimity


In June, Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen was heckled out of MXDC, an upscale Mexican eatery in the nation's capital. In September, Sen. Ted Cruz (R–Texas) and his wife were hounded from Georgetown's Fiola. In each instance, protesters associated with the group Smash Racism D.C. entered the restaurants and harangued their targets until they left.

The incidents provided further fodder for a newly heated national conversation about "civility" under Donald Trump's presidency. Critics of the protesters bemoaned the radical left's lack of good manners, while defenders argued that, with family separations at the border and the confirmation of an accused rapist to the Supreme Court, the time for politeness had passed. Both sides seemed to think the other was crossing lines that had previously been inviolable.

But such a claim is historically illiterate at best. The U.S. government has done worse, both domestically and abroad, and America's public servants have faced much harsher blowback.

Consider former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, today remembered as the overseer of America's disastrous war in Vietnam. On November 2, 1965, he was in his office at the Pentagon when a young Quaker from Baltimore named Norman Morrison parked 40 feet from McNamara's window, stepped into plain view, and doused himself in kerosene while holding his own infant daughter. As the story goes, Morrison tossed his daughter to a bystander seconds before burning himself alive to protest America's military presence in Southeast Asia. McNamara watched him die; even three decades later, talking about the incident with his literary collaborator Brian VanDeMark "brought him to tears."

While Morrison's death was more jarring than any heckling visited on contemporary D.C. power holders, McNamara would face a still more physical and intimate protest a year later, when he traveled to Harvard to speak at the business school, which he'd attended, and to address undergraduates in an off-the-record seminar hosted by the Harvard Kennedy School's Institute of Politics.

The American ground war had just officially begun, and the radical-left Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) wanted McNamara to come clean about civilian casualties in Laos and Vietnam. When the SDS was denied a chance to question him at the Kennedy School forum, they decided to confront him as he left for another speaking engagement. Some 800 protesters surrounded McNamara's car, which contained only the secretary and a driver armed with a pistol. (In his 1995 memoir, In Retrospect, McNamara says the car also featured a tear-gas dispenser shaped like a pen, with which he once gassed Eunice Kennedy Shriver during a backseat demonstration.)

That's when "all hell broke loose," McNamara recounted. The protesters managed to block the car from the front and the back and began to rock the vehicle with McNamara inside. He had to stop his driver from running down the students, and then concluded that the only way to resolve the impasse was to step outside. Unguarded, he emerged into a furious crowd, where he agreed to answer two questions posed by Michael Ansara, the president of the Harvard SDS chapter.

What happened next depends on whose history you're reading. McNamara writes in his memoir that in order to prevent the protesters from becoming violent, he told them that he, too, had been politically engaged during his undergraduate days at Berkeley. "I was tougher than you then and I'm tougher than you today. I was more courteous then and I hope I am more courteous today," he claims he said.

Ansara remembers the moment a little differently. In a 2017 retrospective published by The Harvard Crimson, the former student activist told reporter Laszlo B. Herwitz that the toughness line was a response to Ansara asking McNamara if he wouldn't disclose civilian casualties because he didn't know or because he didn't care.

"He started shrieking, 'I was tougher then and I'm tougher now,'" Ansara told Herwitz, claiming that McNamara put his finger on Ansara's chest as he said it. (Both men agree that McNamara didn't say much else before jumping off the car's hood and rushing through Quincy House, escorted by a student named Barney Frank, who would later go on to a 30-year career in Congress.)

After McNamara returned to Washington, D.C., he received a letter from Harvard College Dean John Munro, apologizing for the students' behavior. McNamara wouldn't have it. He wrote back to Munro that "dissent is both the prerogative and the preservative of free men everywhere."

In fact, McNamara endured dissent pretty much everywhere he went during his tenure as defense secretary, and he typically handled it with the same magnanimity. At the Seattle airport, a fellow traveler spat on him and called him a murderer. In Aspen, Colorado, a woman approached him and his wife at a restaurant while they ate dinner and called him a "baby burner." McNamara recalled these incidents as stressful and upsetting, but he never once suggested that the people who confronted him were out of line, and he certainly didn't feel they were endangering him. (Even when he actually was in danger, as was the case in 1972, when a young man tried to throw him over the railing on a ferry headed to Martha's Vineyard, he refused to press charges.)

McNamara defended Americans' right to protest and to petition the government for a redress of grievances. While he and his family likely felt that certain parts of their lives should be off-limits, he seems to have understood, in a way contemporary wielders of bureaucratic and political power seemingly do not, that public servants should not expect the people they serve to observe government office hours.

To say they don't make them like McNamara anymore would not exactly be true. The American war machine is chugging right along, and American politicians and bureaucrats will occasionally cop to their bad judgment once they're no longer in power, as McNamara did in his memoir.

Even in real time, McNamara had his doubts. He writes that he knew the Vietnam War was a bad idea before the U.S. deployed a ground force, and he knew that bombing Laos into oblivion wouldn't stop the flow of supplies and people from the North Vietnamese Army into South Vietnam. He did not do enough to stop President Lyndon Johnson from wading deeper into the conflict, and he accepted that the American public would make him pay for it.

Perhaps that's what is missing from today's debate about civility. Public confrontation is a historically normal—if unpleasant—response to the immense power wielded by office holders. Our leaders have become incessantly sanctimonious, almost eager to be victimized. They seem not to understand, and certainly not to accept, the tradeoffs that come with their positions.

In a 2004 interview with the Harvard Business School, McNamara, then 88, insisted that America's ruling class—its politicians but also its private sector leaders—lacked integrity. "Integrity," he told Garry Emmons, "is the fulfilling of one's responsibility to all constituents."

Likewise, integrity means suffering the protesters during dinner, at the airport, at the grocery store, because every person affected by a power holder's decisions is his or her constituent, regardless of party ID. And if the interruptions and catcalls are too much, our rulers can do what McNamara arguably waited too long to: relinquish power and return to life as a private citizen.