Happy Birthday, General Scowcroft

“Brent has a great propensity for friendship,” former President George H.W. Bush said of his friend and National Security Advisor, Brent Scowcroft.

On his 90th birthday, some of those friends join the Atlantic Council in wishing General Scowcroft a very happy birthday.

Fred Kempe, President and CEO of Atlantic Council

Dear Brent,

How does one engage in a “job interview” for the Atlantic Council (I thought to myself now nearly a decade ago), as I walked into the office of the only man to ever have served two Presidents as National Security Advisor?

How I really wanted to use this rare audience was to ask how you pulled off German unification and the Cold War’s end alongside President Bush (without a shot being fired), how you acted with such conviction in steering the decision to drive Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, and how you maintained personal modesty through such heady accomplishment.

After sighing in relief after a lengthy conversation that you wanted me to serve, I shifted to sell mode and made five “asks” of you, including the role you took up as International Advisory Board Chairman (to this day), though you had already served as Chairman. If all in DC and the world saw General Scowcroft in such a role, I reckoned, none could doubt the seriousness of the mission. Since that day, you have characteristically delivered on at least a hundred of those five asks.

I am among those whose lives have expanded and been enriched because of your wise counsel and friendship. Where did you ever get that rare mixture of consistent judgment, mental toughness, modesty, integrity, clarity, and generosity? Having disagreed with you in earlier years about NATO enlargement, I asked you in that interview how we would settle that sort of difference at the Council. You answered, with a Yoda-like smile, “Make sound arguments.”

The Atlantic Council survived and is thriving in no small part because of decisions you made when it struggled. You understood the challenges for the transatlantic community weren’t over after the Cold War, and then you characteristically went operational (with the indomitable Ginny Mulberger). Yet for you, it was enough to do the right thing—never seeing much value in being recognized for having done it.

So we at the Atlantic Council decided that’s what birthdays are for—we gathered thoughts and testimonials from some of your friends to recognize you for contributions to the United States and the world (and so many individuals and institutions) that you are too modest to acknowledge yourself.

Happy birthday, Brent!


Zbigniew Brzezinski, former National Security Advisor

What do you say about a guy who is universally acclaimed as the best NSC director ever?

  1. You concur—somewhat reluctantly—saying “yes, yes, one of the best.”
  2. You walk away, pretending not to hear.
  3. You give Brent a big hug, and yell “Happy Birthday, Brent Superman!”

Of course, number three!


Richard Haass, President, Council on Foreign Relations

I have known Brent Scowcroft for at least three of his nine decades. We worked as closely as two people can work together during the four years of George H.W. Bush’s presidency. My prediction and conviction is that history will judge the forty-first President to be one of the country’s finest, and when it does, a decent share of the credit will go to Brent Scowcroft, his National Security Advisor during all four of those years.

There have been more than a dozen National Security Advisors over the decades, but Brent is the gold standard. Somehow he managed to get the difficult balance right: representing the view of others, ensuring due process, and providing honest and wise counsel to the President. I used to tease him that was only because he got to do the job for two different Presidents and had the chance to learn from his own mistakes. The real reason, though, is that Brent brought to the job both strength of character and strength of intellect.

Brent is also a gentleman, but no one should mistake his politeness for anything other than that. He has convictions along with the courage to speak and write them.  The country is better off—make that much better off—as a result. 

Bob Gates, former Secretary of Defense

Usually, when asked to say something about Brent, my usual response is immediately to recount the history of the Scowcroft Award, devised and promulgated by President Bush 41 to recognize and honor the senior American official who most obviously fell asleep during a meeting with the President of the United States. Or, I tell about the time when I rescued him from pitching forward from an Oval Office sofa into the coffee table flower arrangement when he fell asleep in a meeting with a foreign leader.

But the occasion of Brent’s 90th birthday requires a more serious commentary, a couple of observations intended to augment, if not correct, the public perception of him—observations truly reflecting the enormous affection and admiration I have for my best friend.

First, many younger people, and some not so young, do not fully understand Brent’s role as National Security Advisor to either President Ford or President Bush 41.  What they know is that he was an honest broker in the national security arena, trusted by all the principals faithfully to report their positions on issues to the President. And that he ran an objective decision-making process, in which everyone had a chance to weigh in and be heard by the President. Both assessments are true. But many believe Brent, the honest broker, did not have strong views on issues and did not inject those into the process. That assessment is completely wrong. On many issues, Brent had very strong views, whether it was on the need for more far-reaching arms control proposals and troop drawdowns in Europe during 1989-1990, or even questioning the military’s strategy for ejecting Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, and more. What made Brent special, perhaps unique, was his ability to run a fair and objective interagency process AND to try to shape outcomes along the lines he thought best for the country. To deny Brent’s persistent efforts to press for policies he favored is to deny him deserved recognition for his strategic sense and insight during one of the most momentous periods of the last half of the twentieth century. What makes him unique was his ability to earn the trust of those with whom he might disagree to represent them fairly before the President even as he was arguing for his own preferred choices. 

Second, Brent’s calm demeanor, personal humility, and sense of humor masked the fact that General Scowcroft could get mad, really angry.  And his temper nearly always was ignited by the same match: whenever senior officials in the White House or elsewhere in government placed their personal interests above those of the President. Brent always has had deep reverence for the office of the President.  He suffered when a President disgraced the office. But his fury was reserved for others whose actions added to the President’s burdens or flouted the authority of the President. 

Third, Brent loves to argue. He and I argued all the time when I was his deputy, and still do. He argued with Larry Eagleburger, Condi Rice, Bob Blackwill, Richard Haass, Ginny Lampley, Arnie Kanter, and so many more—he relished the give-and-take with people he respected and liked. And, on those rare occasions when he yielded a point, it was always grudging. But, however demanding, he always treated everyone with respect, dignity, and kindness.  Those he argued with the most, loved him the most.  And that is telling.

Fourth, who would ever imagine that the ascetic-looking, high priest of national security really and truly likes a good vodka martini—Chopin, very dry, with a lemon twist.

No one not present in those momentous years, whether 1974-1976 or 1989-1992, can ever fully appreciate the magnitude of Brent’s contribution to this country and his role in helping shepherd us through truly perilous times. 

Happy birthday, Brent.

Your friend,

Bob Gates

Colin Powell, former Secretary of State

I was a young Lieutenant Colonel and a student at the National War College in 1975 sitting in a comfortable auditorium seat getting ready to nap through another lecture. I didn’t get a wink. The lecturer was Brent Scowcroft. Of all the lecturers I heard from that year Brent was the most memorable. Not just because of what he said, but the person himself. Calm, determined, slight in appearance, but large in presence, he was a guy I wanted to learn from and emulate. How could I imagine that decades later he would replace me as National Security Adviser for his second tour. I moved on to become Chairman of the JCS and work closely with him through the Panama invasion, Desert Storm and the end of the Cold War. We were part of President GHW Bush’s “Gang of Eight.” Over the decades we have become the very best of friends. I am still learning from that long-ago lecture. Happy 90th birthday Brent, dear buddy.

Jim Jones, former National Security Advisor

General Scowcroft and I first met while he was serving as President George H.W. Bush’s National Security Advisor. Since that date, he has been an influential mentor to me and has set a great example for me to follow in positions I have held both in and out of government.

It’s no secret that every National Security Advisor who has followed in Brent Scowcroft’s footsteps has viewed him as a role model to emulate. When President Obama appointed me to the position in 2009, I sought to replicate his methods and practices, particularly his commitment to fostering a bipartisan foreign policy. I followed his advice to the letter and, as you can readily see, it has led to the spectacular successes we see unfolding before us every day!!!!!! Kidding aside, during my two years in the White House, we regularly convened the former National Security Advisors, Democrats and Republicans alike, on a quarterly basis, to solicit their advice on foreign policy matters. General Scowcroft never missed a session, and he always offered thoughtful insights, which President Obama and Vice President Biden found to be very helpful in our policy deliberations. The quality I appreciated the most in these meetings was the fact that they were truly about what was good for the country.

In matters great and small, General Scowcroft has always been a steady influence in all that I have been privileged to do in the past decade or so. I am proud to call him my mentor and friend and am delighted to wish him a happy 90th birthday.

Stephen J. Hadley, former National Security Advisor

There are few men or women in my experience in Washington D.C. who are as respected and revered as Brent Scowcroft.  It is not just because of what he has done, it is because of who he is.

It is said that Henry Kissinger is the author of the National Security Council system that is still with us today. And that is largely true, although he had some considerable follow-up help from Zbig Brzezinski. But Brent is the author of the modern National Security Advisor. He established the model: the honest broker, respected by his national security colleagues, running a fair and open national security decision process; the trusted counselor, sharing his advice privately with the President; the modest professional, working largely behind the scenes and off stage; a power player to be sure, but with his ego well in hand; ready to share credit for success and accept blame for failure.  In my day at the NSC we had a saying: If something went well, it was because the President or a Cabinet Secretary was brilliant.  If something went badly, it was because the National Security Council failed to coordinate the process. And Friday meant that there were only two more working days until Monday!  That was the code of service and commitment that Brent established and bequeathed to his successors as National Security Advisor.

And that is why Brent is such a hard act to follow as National Security Advisor. Rarely has someone’s personality and temperament better fit the model he established.  He perfectly embodied the role. A humble man, but a man with enormous personal and intellectual gifts.  A gentle man who treated everyone with respect—from foreign leaders to personal staff, but a man strong in his conviction that America at her best could be a force for good in the world. A confident man who attracted the nation’s finest to his NSC staff—and was secure enough to listen to them, but a man who always brought a unique perspective to the conversation while insisting upon intellectual rigor and a sense of strategy. A man of bipartisan instincts—who worked across the political aisle and across Pennsylvania Avenue, but a man who staunchly defended and advanced American interests. And finally, that rarest of commodities—especially in Washington—a wise man, a man to whom it was worth listening—and a man much loved by all who worked with him.

Happy Birthday, Brent.  And Here’s To Many More!

Barry Pavel, Vice President and Director of Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security

At the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security, we are deeply indebted to General Scowcroft and strive continually to live up to his standards of strategic thinking and commitment to US leadership in the world. 

For my own part, I have never come across such an extraordinary statesman who has contributed so much for so long to this nation’s security and the vitality of our alliances, yet one who has done so with a modesty and humility that belie his historic achievements. That we in the Scowcroft Center have the honor and pleasure of engaging General Scowcroft in our work and carrying his name on our efforts marks us among the most fortunate people in this community.

We wish Gen Scowcroft the very best on his 90th birthday.

Please email us at digital@atlanticcouncil.org to share your thoughts about General Scowcroft.