Home » biography, OL Weekly, politics

Book Review: The Strategist

By (February 14, 2015) No Comment

The Strategist:the strategist cover

Brent Scowcroft and the Call of National Security

by Bartholomew Sparrow

Public Affairs, 2015

It’s a pivotal moment in the story being told by the wizard Gandalf to a rapt audience in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring; he’s recounting how he visits his fellow wizard Saruman at the behest of the wizard Radagast, and how once he gets to the stronghold of Isengard, he discovers that Saruman has turned his back on the cause of right and is playing a game of his own, seeking the same domination of Middle-Earth that’s being sought by the dark lord Sauron. Saruman takes Gandalf prisoner and sets him high on a peak of Isengard, leaving him there to pace and ponder – and one of the things he ponders is whether or not Radagast himself was part of Saruman’s plot:

“At first I feared, as Saruman no doubt intended, that Radagast had also fallen. Yet I had caught no hint of anything wrong in his voice or in his eye at our meeting, If I had, I should never have gone to Isengard, or I should have gone more warily. So Saruman guessed, and he had concealed his mind and deceived his messenger. It would have been useless in any case to try to win over the honest Radagast to treachery. He sought me in good faith, and so persuaded me.”

It’s a persistent worry when reflecting on anybody who’s had any contact with truly potent evil. They fly below our defenses at first, and only later, in alarm, do we wonder if we caught something in their voice or eye, some hint that contact with evil had turned them evil. It’s as pervasive a problem in fact as in fantasy; the most evil figures in history often seem to have an uncanny ability to turn those around them to evil. And that’s not the full extent of their weird potency – they’re sometimes able to turn others onto dark paths even long after they themselves have died. Even the most republican-minded researcher, spending too much time in the documentary company of Napoleon Bonaparte, for instance, might find himself writing a long book in defense of the dictator. Histories in Italy have been inching closer and closer to open admiration of Il Duce in the last thirty years. And most notoriously of all, there’s the cautionary tale of British historian David Irving, who delved deep into the documents of Adolf Hitler and returned to the light of day fully under the Fuhrer’s hypnotic spell.

The danger persists, and it’s no more pressing in American history than when dealing with President Richard Nixon, who brought the presidency into a disgrace from which it has never fully recovered – and who, along the way, exercised a dark charisma over the susceptible, a charisma that didn’t lessen its grip even after Nixon himself was called back to Hell. Subsequent American history has been consistently bedeviled by Nixon acolytes, not just around its peripheries by such former speechwriting hacks and errand-dogs as Pat Buchanan, but also right in its heart by stronger Nixonian creatures like Henry Kissinger, Donald Rumsfeld, and Dick Cheney. The particular stamp of Nixon’s evil is patent in these men: they prefer lying to telling the truth even when no lying is necessary, they’d instantly sacrifice a busload of hymn-singing schoolchildren in order to advance their careers half a step, and they are, in all things at all times, vulgar. The impress of “the Boss” is as unmistakable as a fingerprint.

When they write their memoirs, their memoirs therefore can’t be trusted. When they write alleged histories of Nixon’s public life, those histories will be bristling with lies. And when books are written about them, the writers of those books must instantly be scanned in just the way Gandalf doesn’t think to scan simple Radagast, because this is an evil that’s viral in the explicitly biological sense: it exists to find new hosts. Every new Nixon biographer must perforce be thus scrutinized, but the protocols are necessary all the way down the food-chain.

So when Public Affairs produces a 700-page book by somebody named Bartholomew Sparrow about Brent Scowcroft, a former apprentice to both Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, Gandalfian scrutinizing kicks into gear. Sparrow himself, a professor in the department of government at the University of Texas at Austin, is too young to have been tainted directly, so when we scan his book’s Index for the Sparrow surname, we’re looking for – a father, perhaps? An uncle? Some older relative who held some minor position in the Nixon administration and might have communicated the bacillus to our author when he was just a boy? But there’s nothing – there appears to be no such family connection. So Sparrow is a disinterested historian, coming to the admittedly fascinating subject of former US Air Force lieutenant general and former national security advisor (to two presidents) Brent Scowcroft honestly, without agenda. That’s a relief.

But it’s not the end of the scrutinizing. Scowcroft is still alive, after all, and through a series of interviews he helped Sparrow immensely in the backgrounding of this book. Throughout a long career in Washington politics, starting as a general White House factotum, becoming assistant to President Nixon’s National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, rising to become National Security Advisor himself in the administrations of both President Ford and President George H. W. Bush, Scowcroft was the ultimate Beltway insider, and Sparrow makes it clear that he was a formidable presence even from the beginning:

Scowcroft wasn’t simply a silent partner. The more he, Kissinger, and Nixon worked together, especially after Kissinger became secretary of state, the more Scowcroft participated in decision making. Scowcroft and Kissinger “had worked together a long time and their thoughts were similar,” Robert Hartmann observed. The deputy national security advisor substituted for Kissinger at meetings when he was out of town, served as a go-between with the president when the president was on the road, drafted memos and press releases on his behalf, and kept his boss informed. “Scowcroft was aware of what he didn’t have to show Kissinger,” Hartmann noted, “and what he had [to] show Kissinger.”

Given such working conditions, it becomes natural to scrutinize Scowcroft himself for the Nixon virus of outright evil. “To understand Brent Scowcroft, you have to understand his humanity,” Sparrow quotes Daniel Poneman, an NSC colleague and friend of Scowcroft’s, “Not just his intellect. Not even his judgment. But his humanity.” Terrifying sentiments under the best of circumstances, and made much more ominous when referring to a man who never held a position for which he required Senate confirmation, a man about whom Sparrow himself can offer a summary that would without alteration fit any of the satraps of Genghis Khan:

Scowcroft’s instincts and actions are those of a political insider. He believes in working with other influential people out of public view. Somewhat wary of Congress, skeptical of the media, and uncertain about the wisdom of the public, he believes in a national security policy made by mandarins…

Scowcroft distrusted the public, avoided impartial inquiry into his dealings, and, as Sparrow makes clear, worked very hard to keep himself out of the historical record. Sparrow chalks this up to a natural – and virtuous – discretion, and he does as little as he can decently do to acknowledge that such behavior looks identical to the skulking treachery that characterized the Nixon White House where Scowcroft got his beginnings in national politics. So was the man infected? Certainly the outward symptoms are there in the rough outline of every meeting Scowcroft attended, every briefing paper that bore the signature of his thinking if not his name, and his unrecorded counsel on all the most divisive issues of the era, including the most divisive one:

But assessing Scowcroft’s role in Vietnam policy is difficult because of his style as an administrator and presidential adviser. Not only did he prefer to do things quietly, but he liked to discuss issues and make decisions in person rather than in writing. For a trusted aide like Scowcroft, communicating orally was faster and more efficient than writing, and every bit as effective. It was also safer. Memoranda can be leaked. They can die on someone’s desk, get killed through editing and redrafting, or be undermined or counteracted by other memoranda. But the scant written record means that Scowcroft’s historical role and political influence are scarcely visible in the archival record – or in journalists’ and historians’ accounts.

Sparrow so clearly wants to portray a soft-spoken grey eminence standing just behind a whole sequence of US presidents, arms crossed, head dipped in thought, always on call with steadying advice in a crisis. It’s amazing in the course of this long book how many different people, from ordinary secretaries and staffers to cabinet officials to presidents and kings and prime ministers, find occasion to write a quick personal note to Scowcroft for being “a tower of strength in a time of trouble”; one can’t help suspect there were few such notes in Richard Nixon’s keepsake book.

But can it be? Can Scowcroft have handled such mind-boggling (and career-making) volumes of pitch and not been defiled? Can he have remained noble and circumspect and even caring (Sparrow’s account of Scowcroft’s devotion to his reclusive and ailing wife, for instance, is genuinely touching) while gaining his institutional training in the same pit of vipers that gave the country Henry Kissinger, H. R. Haldeman, Donald Rumsfeld, and – as the bete noir of Sparrow’s account – Dick Cheney, whose given the full-villain treatment when The Strategist winds its way to the George W. Bush administration:

Making Cheney’s operation even more effective was the fact that the vice president operated in secret. He worked with assistants that others in the White House didn’t know about – and whose names he didn’t share. He did business behind always-locked doors. He received clandestine visitors whose names were scrubbed from the White House visitor logs.

(Scowcroft called him “the real anomaly in the Administration” and famously told Jeffrey Goldberg for the New Yorker “Dick Cheney I don’t know anymore.”)

Sparrow of course means to praise his subject a bit more highly and discriminatingly than to convince us he’s no Dick Cheney. The effort here – in a long book that reads with confident smoothness – is to present an antidote, not only to Cheney but to Cheney’s dark master, Nixon himself; to give us, in ample detail, a public servant at the highest levels of power, accountable to no electorate, who’s nevertheless not only honorable but valued for his honor even by honorless men; to show us, in convincing detail, that such things are possible not only in the Watergate White House but in the furtive age of power it bequeathed to the world. Sparrow’s Scowcroft isn’t idealized; he’s over-cautious, occasionally toadying, sometimes prone to prickle. But he’s reasonable, contemplative, consistent (a drastically underrated quality in a country controlling a complement of thermonuclear weapons), and above all trustworthy. The Strategist shows us this man the heart of power for half a century, and without browbeating, it succeeds in raising in the reader’s mind the question Scowcroft’s friend the first President Bush asked open rooms of listeners more than once: “You have to ask yourself, how much worse would it all have been, if Brent hadn’t been there?”

We read such things in good faith, and are persuaded.