Brent Scowcroft, a career Air Force officer and two-time White House national security adviser who died last week at 95, set the gold standard for running the National Security Council. He established a disciplined and focused process during eventful times, but his true genius may have been how he handled national security duties in the middle of the night: he was the great waker of presidents.
Scowcroft became deputy National Security Adviser under President Richard Nixon at the beginning of Nixon’s second term. It was a challenging time, as the newly reelected president was soon embroiled in the Watergate crisis. In addition, National Security Adviser and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was a hard-driving boss who was notoriously hard on staff.
As the Watergate scandal worsened, Nixon’s drinking became a problem. One evening, in October 1973, British prime minister Edward Heath asked to speak to the president. Scowcroft fielded the request and reached out to Kissinger, who told him, “Can we tell them no? When I talked to the President he was loaded.” Scowcroft tactfully suggested saying that Nixon was “unavailable,” and offering up Kissinger instead. Kissinger, always happy to speak to a world leader, loved the idea, telling Scowcroft, “I would welcome it.”
After Nixon resigned in August 1974, Scowcroft initially remained as national security deputy, with Kissinger still holding the dual roles—the only person to do both jobs at once. With Kissinger busy at State, Scowcroft had heavier duties than usual for a deputy national security adviser, including the authority to wake President Gerald Ford. He did this twice one night during the 1975 Mayaguez incident, at 1 a.m. and again at 2:23 a.m., giving Ford updates on the whereabouts of the American merchant vessel seized by the Khmer Rouge.
Kissinger’s double-hatting eventually became untenable. In the fall 1975 “Halloween Massacre,” Ford reshuffled his staff to limit infighting and demonstrate his control. As part of this effort, he took away Kissinger’s NSA role and elevated Scowcroft to national security adviser, putting Scowcroft in the challenging position of having replaced his prickly boss (Kissinger remained at State). Scowcroft succeeded by mastering the foreign policy process and letting Kissinger dominate the headlines.
Scowcroft left the White House after Ford lost the 1976 election to Jimmy Carter, but not before briefing Carter’s incoming national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski. Brzezinski bragged to Scowcroft about Carter, saying, “He’s wonderful. I can give him 150 pages to read at night—and he reads it.” Scowcroft was unimpressed; in fact, he was perturbed, saying, “Zbig, that’s a terrible thing for you to do. Because he doesn’t have time for that.” Scowcroft recognized that the most valuable asset in the White House is the president’s time. He would wake the president at night if he had to, but he also wanted to protect him from unnecessary intrusions that taxed his time or resources.
Between Scowcroft’s first and second stints at NSA, things changed when it came to the politics of waking presidents with emergencies. In August 1981, White House Counselor Ed Meese initially failed to wake Ronald Reagan after U.S. F-14s downed two Libyan MIGs. Meese woke Reagan a few hours later when he had more information, but the damage was done. Nancy Reagan was irate with Meese over the bad press the incident generated, though she was usually protective of Reagan’s sleep. In addition, Meese’s rivals James Baker and Michael Deaver used the episode to take national security issues out of Meese’s portfolio. From here on, whenever anything unusual happened in the world, the press wanted to know if the staff had awakened the president.
When Scowcroft returned to the White House as national security adviser under President George H. W. Bush, the first question he got from the media concerned when he would consider waking the president. Bush, who had served as vice president under Reagan, was keenly aware of how the Libya incident had changed expectations and declared his intention to be a “wake me, shake me” president. Scowcroft would get many opportunities to do just that.
During an attempted coup in the Philippines in December 1989, Scowcroft had Chief of Staff John Sununu wake Bush with an update. When Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, Scowcroft called Bush at 10 with the news, saying, “It’s clear, they’re across the border.” Throughout the Gulf War, Bush would go to bed at 10:30, but Scowcroft had standing orders to wake Bush with important news. And in August 1991, Scowcroft notified Bush after midnight that Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev was supposedly sick and might have resigned. Details were sketchy, so Bush told him, “Well, call me at 5:30 in the morning and we’ll figure out what to do.” When Scowcroft called him back that morning, it appeared that a coup was underway. Bush observed that American intelligence seemed to have been taken by surprise. Scowcroft replied, “Yes, so was Gorbachev!”
All this nocturnal activity took place on top of a busy daily schedule that had Scowcroft arriving at his office at 7 a.m. (reading newspapers on the way in). Meetings and phone calls would continue through 6 p.m., followed by paperwork, which would keep him in the office until 9:30 or 10:00. Little wonder that Bush created a mock award known as the “Scowcroft Award for Somnolent Excellence.” The award, Scowcroft noted, was not for the relatively easy task of falling asleep, but instead for “the way you do it, the way you recover, whether you do it with a start, whether you start talking as if you knew exactly what was going on.”
Brent Scowcroft sacrificed many hours of sleep in service to America, and he always knew exactly what was going on. Over the years conservatives, including this one, could wonder about and even take issue with his views about various foreign policy matters, but there was never a doubt that he was a patriot devoted to the United States. Few public servants have more richly earned their rest.
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