Lisa Keller Recounts Her Brief Encounter with Robert McNamara aka "The Guy with Slickum in His Hair"

Robert McNamaraLisa Keller is the author of Triumph of Order: Democracy and Public Space in New York and London and is associate professor at Purchase College, State University of New York. In the following post, which is cross-posted at History News Network, Lisa Keller tells of her run-in with the former Secretary of Defense at a buffet table in Athens in the 1970s.

Athens was a strange place in the early 1980s, where nothing was ever surprising. The new Socialist government led by American-educated Andreas Papandreou spewed venom at the U.S. government and kicked out some military bases, but when no one was looking, played footsie under the table regarding surveillance and radar installations. The memory of the colonels was still fresh, but life went on. Athens was a popular place for visiting dignitaries and Greeks did (and still do) a bang-up job with hospitality.

Two jobs kept me busy: full-time history professor and almost full-time journalist. As the local correspondent for a major American newspaper, wire service, and radio station, I never lacked for stories or those table-laden receptions. The reception that afternoon—I no longer remember exactly the month or year—was at the venerable Grande Bretagne Hotel at Syntagma Square, in the center of Athens, opposite the Parliament. It was hot, but when was it not hot? The GB’s ancient air-conditioning was cranked up to high. I looked around the ballroom to see if I spotted anyone I knew or should know, but I was hungry and headed straight for the food. I was trying to decide what to eat when I realized he was standing next to me, the “guy with slickum in his hair,” as Lyndon Johnson famously described him. Tall with those trademark glasses, he was also surveying the food.

I had that “hair standing on the back of my neck” sensation. As a child of the 1960s, this was the powerful man that my generation had universally hated. Robert McNamara had been the apologist for the Vietnam War, reviled and ridiculed. I pretended to look at the food but kept looking at him. Here was my chance, but to do what? Ask him what had he been thinking? Tell him he had brought shame to America and death to thousands? Request an interview to talk about American foreign policy? The historian and journalist hats on my head were spinning. The Vietnam War seemed a long time ago, even though it had only been a decade. I looked at him, and the words tumbled out: “Nice spread, eh?” To which he half-turned to me and said, “Yeah, nice spread.” I grabbed my food and fled the ballroom. On the way up to the room of a visiting journalist, the tiny elevator was taken over by a large man. I looked up at him. It was Helmut Kohl, the German Chancellor. I thought about saying something, but all I could think of was “Nice weather.” It was time to get off the elevator.

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