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Letter to Bob McNamara on his 90th Birthday

May 22, 2006

Dear Bob:

I recently had occasion to contrast Bob McNamara with Jim Wolfensohn.  I rather flippantly remarked that if Martin Luther King had gone to Harvard Business School, he would have become Jim Wolfensohn.  But if Martin Luther had gone to Harvard Business School, he would have become Bob McNamara.  I later thought that someone whose name was McNamara might not appreciate being compared to Martin Luther, but the parallel is there – the importance of doing good works and questioning longstanding authority and to do so publicly.  Bob, you always nailed your theses to closed doors.  You spoke against apartheid in South Africa.  You argued for population control at Notre Dame.  You made an impassioned speech about the gap between rich and poor at the New York Bond Club.  You insisted on the first World Bank loan to Vietnam.  You spoke in America’s heartland for greater international agricultural trade and an end to subsidies.  It was almost as if you were looking for ways to subject yourself to criticism, if not penalty.  A Freudian would say that you are an Albigensian.  Perhaps it was only your need to confront controversy face to face.  You always were more comfortable in taking positions not in front of those already converted, but before those who were opposed.

You once told me—after drawing a simple chart with a vertical axis (power) and a horizontal axis (time)—that when one took on a new responsibility, one had the greatest amount of power at the very beginning, but that power diagonally sloped to the right as time passed so that at the end, one had little power, few friends, little influence—but the job was done, the goals fulfilled—irrespective of one’s personal diminution of authority and prestige.  Again, it was an example of someone whose sense of meeting their responsibilities should trump external reputation.

But perhaps more than anything what stands out is that you never took credit.  Indeed, you blamed yourself for what you perceived to be failure.  You admitted to mistakes—often when there were none.  You were visibly upset when, for example, after the war, the Vietnamese would not confirm your admission that you made a fundamental error in evaluating China’s intentions.  You even blamed yourself for the failures in Africa.  No, for you, it wasn’t the weather, the corruption, the absence of infra-structure or political consensus or the lack of external investment.  It was as if you believed your responsibility was to somehow compensate for those overwhelming negative circumstances.  You, therefore, constantly pressed all of us and yourself, to make a difference.  If the glass were 99% full, you would shrug and concentrate on the 1%.  Robert Kennedy put it this way:

“Think how our world would look to a visitor from another planet as he crossed the continents.  He would find great cities and knowledge able to create enormous abundance from the materials of nature.  He would witness exploration into understanding of the entire physical universe, from the particles of the atom to the secrets of life.  He would see billions of people, separated by only a few hours of flight, communicating with the speed of light, sharing a common dependence on a thin layer of soil and a covering of air.  He would also observe that most of mankind was living in misery and hunger, that some of the inhabitants of this tiny, crowded globe were killing others, that a few patches of land were pointing huge instruments of death and war at others.  Since what he was seeing proved our intelligence, he would only wonder at our sanity.  It is this monstrous absurdity that must be target of the modern revolution.”

He spoke for you.  The fact is—the truth is—you were incredibly successful, like it or not.

You also taught us to admit to vulnerability; admit to the possibility of mistakes;  admit to uncertainty; admit to risk; measure opportunities lost; seek different points of view; talk to the experts, not their “superiors;” realize that the center might not hold and that things could quickly spiral out away from predictable outcomes.  You taught us to be careful, that we were not the center of the universe and that things were not always the way they seemed.  You taught us to question authority.  And then – act.  And if things turned out badly, don’t cover up.

A final remembrance:  you often remarked that the Greeks, just 300 of them, made an enormous difference in the world, and affected civilization for millennia to come.  You suggested if 300 Greeks could do it, why couldn’t we at the World Bank make a similar difference.  As the Vice President and Treasurer of the Bank, I did not believe that.  I remember arguing that the Greeks were almost the entire world at the time, and we at the Bank were but a small cog with uncertain influence.  But you protested that we could make a difference.  I was reminded of a poem by Robert Herrick, the 17th century English poet:

“She by the river sat, and sitting there,
She wept, and made it deeper by a tear.”

That was your lesson.  He too spoke for you. 

My own feelings about my years at the World Bank are best reflected in a poem by Robert Bridges, which I sent to the staff when I left the Bank.  Thank you for giving me the opportunity to participate:

“I will not let thee go.
I hold thee by too many bands:
Thou sayest farewell, and lo!
I have thee by the hands,
And will not let thee go.”

Kindest regards on your 90th birthday,

Gene Rotberg