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THE SPRAWLING Secretary's Dining Room on the third floor of the E-Ring of the Pentagon seemed a somewhat surreal place to a young reporter new to the ways of Washington and its palaces of war.

Manning a battle station at the far end of a table the size of the flattop USS Forrestal, sat Robert McNamara, wielding taut, tight command over his Pentagon press corps.It was one of those Thursday background briefings/soirees that were all the rage back in 1967. The "SecDef," with his trademark Harvard-honed countenance - rimless spectacles, square-jutting jaw, slicked-back hair - was at his trademark best: confident to the point of cocksure.

McNamara countered every question (Why is the enemy fighting so fiercely, year after year, if we are doing so well in Vietnam?) with a rapid-fire barrage of certitude-by-the-numbers. More stats than a scribe could scribble, let alone verify. And that was the point. It was McNamara's not-so-secret plan to win his weekly war with the media. McNamara kept his opposition pinned down with his arsenal of statistics that proved beyond question that the war was being won (as we would see after the next monsoons).

The source of McNamara's near-religious rectitude was his bottomless arsenal of numbers. Including his bizarre faith in "body counts" (of enemy soldiers killed, as though they could be reliably counted in bloody, booby-trapped battlefields and swamps; as though field leaders under fire had the time and wherewithal to be CPAs; as though it was as easy as when he headed Ford Motor Co. and they did swell body counts of Edsels sold). McNamara and his corps of Ivy-educated Whiz Kids produced for America a war-by-the-numbers designed to seem so authoritative that there could be no follow-up, no rebuttal, no challenge.

And no peace.

Down at the far end of that aircraft carrier of a conference table, on that day in 1967 and the remaining days of his Pentagon tenure, Robert Strange McNamara seemed to a young reporter to be the personification of a most destructive trait that can be found in the course of human governance: Hubris. Arrogance of power.

It was the reason the Vietnam tragedy that killed 58,000 Americans and perhaps hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese people came to be called "Mc-Na-ma-ra's War."

Now McNamara has produced a memoir called "In Retrospect" that is must reading for all who choose to understand Washington, or report on Washington, not to mention run Washington.

Hubris. Arrogance of power.

McNamara, when challenged, never seemed to have a doubt about the rectitude of his policy or his course; damn the reality torpedoes, full steam ahead.

Even now when you read his memoir and hear his teary interviews, you'll find that he still doesn't quite get it. His memoir is being called, in the buzzword of book reviewers in The Washington Post and Newsweek, a "mea culpa." But it actually should be called a "we-a-culpa." For when McNamara confesses to culpability, he writes, again and again, sentences like: "I want Americans to understand why we made the mistakes we did."

Hubris. Arrogance of power.

The reason McNamara's tome must be read and digested today is that we must all be alert to recognize the trait that plagues Washington still.

Hubris. Arrogance of power.

We saw it recently in Hillary Clinton as she convinced herself that she could become an instant expert in health policy and politics and could remake the system without compromising.

Hubris. Arrogance of power.

It exists today, even as we speak, in the swagger and attack politics of Newt Gingrich - with his rhetoric about balancing the budget even as he demands we cut taxes for folks who make $200,000.

Maybe even worse. For Gingrich, a veritable man for all heritages, manages to co-mingle the worst of two traits: the Greek' "hubris" and the Yiddish "chutzpah."

On CNN the other day, Gingrich promised his balanced budget would include cuts in defense spending. And then, lest his far right followers get out of joint, he tried to make you think it was the liberals who spent too much on Pentagon budgets all these years. (Cap Weinberger, call your office!)

"The Department of Defense is on the (budget cutting) table," said Gingrich. "Robert McNamara built an enormous bueaucracy. Every conservative for 30 years has said there's too much bureaucracy in the Pentagon."

Leave it to Newt to do the undoable.

He has transformed Robert McNamara into a man maligned.