Scowcroft evolves as Bush's top sidekick Critics say adviser neglects paperwork


WASHINGTON -- Brent Scowcroft doesn't have the cowboy-boots-on-the-table and dirty-jokes-over-drinks intimacy of President Bush's longtime Texas pal, Secretary of State James A. Baker III.

Nor has the national security adviser been delegated such power that, like White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu, he felt free to travel all over the country at taxpayer and corporate expense to show it off, forgetting, as some say Mr. Sununu did, who is president.

But as the dust settles 2 1/2 years into the Bush administration, the soft-spoken former Air Force general whose smile somehow seems bigger than he is has emerged as undisputedly the closest of George Bush's top lieutenants, and probably the one person in government with whom the president spends the most time and is most comfortable.

"He was at my side, poor guy, through the [Persian Gulf] crisis; quite literally from the early morning hours on Aug. 2 until victory," President Bush said as he awarded Mr. Scowcroft a Presidential Medal of Freedom last week.

Even in peacetime, "I probably spend more time with the president than Mrs. Bush does," Mr. Scowcroft quipped during a recent interview.

Dubbed by his commander in chief an "unsung hero" of the gulf war, Mr. Scowcroft was first among the president's war council to see the global implications of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and to argue that it must not be allowed to stand.

He is also described by others who took part in those meetings as the author of the decisive "Hail Mary play." That strategic maneuver sent the main body of allied ground forces sneaking past Kuwait to the west in order to surprise and surround Iraqi forces who had been fooled into expecting an amphibious landing in the east and a major land thrust from the south.

But Mr. Scowcroft's heavy emphasis on his role as counselor to the president has drawn criticism from some who say he is neglecting his responsibility to manage the 100-member National Security Council staff, leaving undone mountains of paperwork relating to budding crises around the world.

"He's brilliant, a great counselor; I'm glad George Bush has him ++ by his side," said an administration official familiar with the NSC bureaucracy. "But he's not a manager. With a president who needed a lot more staff support, he might be a disaster."

In fact, Mr. Scowcroft acknowledges that the uncoordinated U.S. response to the abortive coup attempt in Panama in 1989 resulted from the NSC's failure to assure that intelligence information was shared. That problem later was remedied with a committee of deputies from all the national security agencies that met almost daily during the Persian Gulf crisis.

Critics of General Scowcroft in the Pentagon, unhappy that a non-military option to the Persian Gulf crisis wasn't chosen, complain that the NSC adviser spends so much time schmoozing with Mr. Bush that he fails to ensure all points of view are fully evaluated.

"First companion and all-purpose playmate to the president on golf, fishing and weekend outings," is the disparaging title awarded Mr. Scowcroft in Bob Woodward's recent book on Bush military policy, "The Commanders," which drew heavily on Pentagon sources.

A more common view within the White House, though, is that Mr. Scowcroft has emphasized the role of personal adviser and sidekick to the president because that's what he enjoys, what he's good at and what Mr. Bush both needs and wants.

"With this president, there's no time to be writing a lot of staff papers on policy options; he wants information right away, and Scowcroft has to be able to provide it more or less on the spot," said an NSC staffer. "But that doesn't mean everything isn't being considered."

Another NSC official agreed: "This is the most open process I've ever been involved in. I don't think anybody -- from State, Treasury, the CIA or Defense -- can complain they didn't get a chance to make their case."

"In my view, Scowcroft is the first national security adviser to actually perform both roles of counselor to the president and honest broker of various agencies' points of view," this official added.

An intellectual and theorist who complements the president's more action-oriented nature, Mr. Scowcroft briefs Mr. Bush first thing almost every morning, frequently reviews the events of the day with him in the evening and moves in and out of the Oval Office many times in between. When the president travels, Mr. Scowcroft is nearly always aboard Air Force One.

The Bush code of "work hard, play hard" also frequently takes the national security adviser to the golf course, tennis courts and horseshoe pit -- usually in out-of-fashion sports togs that embarrass his aides. Mr. Scowcroft once spent four hours alone with the president in a fishing boat off the coast of Maine debating the shape of the world to come and how they could affect it.

Mr. Scowcroft admits, though, that he hates the paperwork that has cluttered his office in ever more threatening piles since deputy Robert M. Gates withdrew from daily action to prepare for Senate confirmation hearings on his nomination to be director of central intelligence.

"No matter how much you do, it never goes away," he lamented of the clutter.

And neither does Mr. Scowcroft, churning along in his homey West Wing office until late into the evening most nights when the president is in town. He also sticks close by his temporary staff office in Kennebunkport, Maine, when the president is vacationing there.

Travel records released during the controversy over Mr. Sununu's frequent-flier mileage at government expense revealed one personal trip taken by Mr. Scowcroft in 2 1/2 years: a ski trip to his native Utah with his daughter, Karen.

Mr. Scowcroft and President Bush work well together, associates say, because they have the right combination of similarities and differences.

The two men are about the same age and share many common experiences, including service as fighter pilots during World War II. Both have been in and out of government many times over the years -- first meeting during the Nixon administration -- and regard public service as an honorable calling.

They are both considered "prudent," to use the president's word, sometimes to a fault.

For example, a Scowcroft-ordered review of the United States' Soviet policy dragged on so long in 1989 than the Berlin Wall tumbled before the White House was ready to acknowledge that a fundamental change in East-West relations was taking place.

But Mr. Bush and his national security adviser are nearly opposites in tempo.

"Brent will say, 'I see a house here 20 years from now,' and Bush willrespond, 'Yeah, right, I'm going to get the lumber now,' " explained one administration official.

As the two grew closer during the Persian Gulf crisis, the inevitable competition developed with Secretary of State Baker, who is not only the president's closest friend but also more like Mr. Bush in his pragmatic approach to life.

Mr. Scowcroft has become more successful, aides say, in protecting the White House from what he considers Mr. Baker's at times ill-advised foreign policy proposals. At the same time, the Scowcroft camp acknowledges the secretary's keener political instincts.

With Mr. Sununu, there hasn't been much of a contest -- either for turf or affection.

Mr. Bush made it clear early that his chief of staff would have no active role in foreign policy, though he has been delegated broad powers on the domestic front.

Further, the Bush-Sununu relationship is described by insiders as more business than social, clearly lacking the playful warmth of Mr. Bush's regard for Mr. Scowcroft.

Despite this warmth and all their time together, though, Mr. Scowcroft says there is never a time when he lets down his guard and addresses the president by any name more familiar than "Mr. President."

"That's the one line that I draw, even in very informal settings," Mr. Scowcroft said. "I just think that's an important thing, never to forget for a moment who it is you're talking to.

"Because you can't talk to 'George Bush.' It's not possible. He is the president 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Always. And even if you're telling dirty jokes or whatever it is, he's the president. He can't avoid being president, so you ought not to avoid recognizing that."

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad