The Brent Scowcroft I Knew

5 mins read

In these days of rampant public cynicism and a fashionable aversion to saying something nice about someone, especially politicians, there’s still no other way to say it:

Brent Scowcroft was a very nice guy.

Scowcroft, a retired Air Force general and trusted national security adviser to presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush, died Friday. He was 95.

While Scowcroft was neither a headline grabber nor a limelight seeker, reporters who covered the White House valued him as a quiet but savvy confidant, personally close to the presidents he served.  If he told you something, on or off the record, you instinctively knew he was telling the truth and not spinning some tale to mislead or put a positive face on a bad situation.

Scowcroft never told tales out of school under the cloak of anonymity, as many government insiders these days have honed to a fine art. Scowcroft was a straight arrow.

“Austere in his personal habits and utterly averse to publicity” is how he was described in his Washington Post obituary.

Few outside Washington knew it, but Scowcroft was a key architect of the carefully crafted Bush White House policies that managed the Persian Gulf War, demise of the Soviet Union,  fall of the Berlin Wall and peaceful unification of Germany, all in a short period of four years. Had Scowcroft not been there the world might be a different place.   

Bob Woodward, in his book “The Commanders,” described Scowcroft as a “Mormon who avoided the Washington social scene and had a priestlike dedication to his work. It was his one interest.”

But Scowcroft had another interest – golf.  He and the first president Bush remained close friends and golfing partners long after they left the White House. 

In their 1998 book, “A World Transformed,” they wrote about their statecraft during those tumultuous years when the elder Bush was at the helm.   As a USA Today White House reporter, I was dispatched to the Bush summer home in Kennebunkport, Maine, to interview the authors. When I arrived, they had just returned from an early-morning round of golf. The duo greeted me at the door.  “Come on in.  I’m starving,” Bush announced, leading Scowcroft and me into the kitchen.

There, the former president put on a pot of coffee and began making toast.  While the coffee brewed, Bush kept feeding the toaster, two slices at a time. As a pile of toast started to build, a wide-eyed Scowcroft looked at me as if to ask, “Who is going to eat it all?” When Bush finished, he had a teetering stack of whole wheat toast sitting on the plate looking like it was about to tumble.

Scowcroft rolled his eyes as Bush put the coffee and toast on a tray and led us to the living room where picture windows framed a sparkling blue Atlantic. As I admired the view, Bush and Scowcroft exchanged wisecracks over who played the better golf game that morning. Each declared himself the winner, a routine they seemed to have down pat.

“Brent, don’t tell Bar [wife Barbara] that I put all this cinnamon on my toast,” Bush giggled. “She’ll kill me.”

You never saw two men of such high standing more at ease, relaxed and comfortable with one another. It was a side of Brent Scowcroft the world rarely saw. But although he was too modest to say it, he was the right man in the right place at the right time. We could use more Brent Scowcrofts now.

Richard Benedetto is a retired USA Today White House correspondent and columnist. He now teaches media and politics at American University and in The Fund for American Studies program at George Mason University. Follow him on Twitter @benedettopress.

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