Where did the phrase “the best and the brightest”–if that is the correct quote–come from and who was it being applied to? I think it was from McNamara and a reference to his staff of analyst, but I usually hear the phrase sarcastically applied to people so I don’t know if that was the original intent, or what. Thanks!
The origin of the phrase does apply to McNamara. It may come from his pre-government tenure at Ford Motor, when his staff of whiz kids shook up what was then a dying corporation with modern business and analytical methods. He then brought many of these people and younger equivalents into the government.
The phrase became a pejorative because of David Halberstam’s book of that title, which detailed how the best and brightest nonetheless got us into the quagmire of Vietnam. It was a devastating critique. After that book, the phrase could only be used ironically or sarcastically.
McNamara used the phrase when talking about his tenure at Ford in The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara.
Though it may not have had its current meaning, the phrase, “the best and brightest” has been in use since at least 1921, when P. G. Wodehouse used it in his story, Jeeves in the Springtime. Many of us still use the term in its non-sarcastic Kennedy-era meaning, indicating the most capable people to work with.