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Nimble and Steel-Nerved, Zbig Brzezinski May Prove the Big Man in U.S. Foreign Policy

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In May 1975 a former Georgia governor told reporters during a world affairs conference in Kyoto that he was going to run for President of the United States, and he intended to win.

There were smirks and laughs, but not from one onlooker—Zbigniew Brzezinski, a Columbia University professor. Brzezinski watched with interest as Jimmy Carter defended his statement with, as Brzezinski later put it, “dignity and humor.” A few months after, Brzezinski told his Columbia class Carter would be the next President. “They were totally startled. At the time I think he had a national recognition factor of one percent. Recognition! Not support.”

That kind of prescience paid off. “Zbig” (to his friends) Brzezinski went on to become Carter’s foreign policy adviser during the campaign and is now Special Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs.

Brzezinski holds the job from which Henry Kissinger orchestrated his rise to unparalleled dominance of American foreign policy. The leap to the White House is the culmination of a career-long dream of an activist professor largely bored with academia.

And, precisely because of Kissinger’s accumulation of power, the Polish-born Brzezinski, 48, has been under close scrutiny. Will Brzezinski attempt an end run around Secretary of State Cyrus Vance the way Kissinger undermined Nixon’s pal William Rogers? Will he adopt Kissinger’s “Lone Ranger” diplomatic style?

There are certain surface similarities between Zbigniew Brzezinski (pronounced Zbig-niev Breh-zhin-ski) and Kissinger. Both were born in Europe, both became political exiles (Brzezin-ski’s father, a Polish diplomat stationed in Montreal, remained in Canada after the Communists gained control of Poland in 1945), and both studied and taught at Harvard.

But to stress their similarities is to obscure their differences in personality and style. “What strikes me about the mass media,” says Brzezinski in his precisely clipped, accented speech, “is how unhistorical they are. Whenever confronted with a new situation, they always compare it to the previous situation with which they are familiar.” He is seated comfortably in an armchair in the White House office once occupied by Kissinger, not far from the boss’s Oval Office.

“When Kissinger came to the White House, all the comparisons were with Walter Rostow and how he would repeat what Rostow did. Then he did something quite different,” Brzezinski says, toying with a silver wristwatch, his crossed legs revealing the beginnings of a hole in one of the soles of his conservative black shoes. “I would not want to emulate what Kissinger has done, nor do I think the historical circumstances call for that. I think the challenge is to prove that a team can work together. We have such complex problems confronting us that one would have to be very foolish to think that one could succeed on his own.”

Even if he had Kissinger-like ambitions, Brzezinski would be deterred by the Carter administration’s apparent intent to create foreign policy by committee—with the President very much in charge. As for Brzezinski—a man not known for his aversion to publicity—he is maintaining a low profile. He refuses most interviews. He spends 16 hours a day working, munching takeout meals from the White House mess, going home late to an apartment borrowed from the Averell Harrimans. (Brzezinski’s wife and three children will move from their home in New Jersey at the end of the school year.)

And yet Brzezinski is not the retiring type, nor is his position without its strategic power base. As head of the National Security Council, which coordinates activities dealing with foreign policy, he commands an overview of the operations of a half-dozen government departments, including State, the Pentagon and the CIA. He confers alone with the President every morning at 8.

To his new responsibilities Brzezinski brings a nimble intellect, intense ambition and a steel-nerved arrogance. (In the 1960s, when students demonstrated outside his office protesting his hawkish views on Vietnam, Brzezinski strolled into their midst nonchalantly chomping on an apple.)

Averell Harriman once quipped he was “too Zbig for his britches.” And Dean Acheson assessed Brzezinski with the comment: “I squeezed him dry—and there was nothing there.” But Brzezinski, who has been attacked both from left and right for his views, cannot be dismissed with acerbic comments. He is a complex man.

He was born in Warsaw March 28, 1928 to a well-to-do diplomat family. Brzezinski’s father was named consul general in Montreal, where Zbig, his two younger brothers and an elder half brother were to grow up. By age 5, Brzezinski recalls, “I used to read newspapers, I used to replay international events with my tin soldiers, I used to read history—it all fascinated me.”

During those formative years at Catholic private schools in Montreal, Zbig was building the self-discipline that characterizes his life. He occasionally slept on the floor and took long hikes without water to test his endurance. On the family farm outside Montreal—purchased to supplement income after the elder Brzezinski resigned his consul job in 1945—young Zbig milked the cows. “I still remember the damn beasts swatting my face with their tails,” he recounts. “So finally I put nails in the ceiling and tied the tails up before milking them.”

That kind of ingenuity led him during his teens to teach himself Russian from Pushkin’s The Captain’s Daughter and earn his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from McGill University in five years. From there he went to Harvard and a standout career as a graduate student and instructor. “He was certainly the most brilliant graduate student around,” concedes Harvard Prof. Stanley Hoffman, who eventually broke with Brzezinski over the Vietnam war. “He had drive, ambition, zest and great verbal skills.”

Others recall a playful side. Brzezinski would sometimes deliver his lectures on Marxism in workingman’s clothes. “He’d come in unshaven and start attacking the students as capitalist lackeys,” said college friend Paul Sigmund, now a politics professor at Princeton. “He was an anti-Communist, but at those times he was a totally convincing advocate for the other side.”

At Harvard Brzezinski met and married Wellesley grad Emilie Anna Benes—nicknamed Muska—a grandniece of Eduard Benes, Czechoslovakia’s last democratic president. Brzezinski and painter-sculptress Muska (which means Little Fly) have zealously guarded their private lives from public scrutiny. Unlike Kissinger, once Washington’s self-styled “secret swinger,” Brzezinski is providing little grist for the gossip mills. The two men were at Harvard at approximately the same time, but Brzezinski left when he failed to win tenure (no seat available in Soviet studies) and went to Columbia. As head of the Research Institute on Communist Affairs at Columbia, he watched Kissinger’s rise. Brzezinski, a naturalized citizen since 1958 and a Democrat, did a brief tour in Lyndon Johnson’s State Department and advised Hubert Humphrey in the 1968 presidential election. “He’s been preparing for the White House for at least 10 years,” says Columbia colleague and admirer Seweryn Bialer. “This is an activist, not an ivory tower academic who can satisfy his interest by teaching.”

Uninterested in frivolity or small talk, Brzezinski watches only news programs on television and hasn’t seen a movie in a year and a half. He likes good wine and French, Italian and Chinese cuisine. His few spare moments are reserved for his family and their menagerie of dogs, cats, birds, hamsters and two snow-white ducks, Napoleon and Josephine. He enjoys soccer, tennis, skiing and sailing with the David Rockefellers, who have a summer home not far from the Brzezinskis in Northeast Harbor, Maine.

Brzezinski’s critics say his drive to have a role in public policy caused him to sacrifice his reputation as a scholar—to become trendy. A prolific writer (11 books and more than 100 articles), Brzezinski moved from Soviet affairs to an increasingly broad (and, some say, thinner) perspective. In recent years his writing has acquired a tendency toward pop phrasemaking such as “technotronics” and “participatory pluralism.” Brzezinski once courted the press, mailing out copies of his monographs to reporters and turning up in newsrooms to talk to editors.

While admitting to some loss of depth in his work, Brzezinski dismisses the more severe criticism as “carping” by envious academics. “You can’t have scope without some sacrifice in depth,” he says, “unless you want to be a Toynbee or an encyclopedist. Integration, synthesis is urgently needed, and you have to make a judgment as to how much depth is necessary to provide the broader picture…. It’s a price I’m willing to pay.”

Brzezinski sees the U.S. continuing to play an international broker’s role. But he also envisions more sensitivity to the concerns of Western Europe and Japan, more accommodation to Third World demands and less of a fixation on the ideological conflict with world Communism. “I think we are now at a stage where we have to do something quite complex and quite massive,” he says. “In the last 30 years the population of the world has doubled, the number of nation-states has tripled. We have to have international structures that take that new political reality into account.”

Exactly what “new structures” he is talking about remains vague. Also undetermined is the extent to which his vision will influence the Carter administration.

There are clues in the fact that Carter, Vance, Vice-President Mondale and at least a dozen others in the Administration were part of Brzezinski’s Trilateral Commission, an international “think tank” he put together four years ago with David Rockefeller. The commission seems more than anything else to have served as a staging ground for the new team’s accession to power.

For the time being, Brzezinski seems at the center of things, and thrilled to be there. Only recently Zbig was asked to deliver an evening lecture to a select group in Washington on the drift of world affairs.

Brzezinski had his staff quickly pull together charts on such diverse topics as the 200-mile zone for fishing, projected world population changes and the SALT talks. Then, for several hours, over an intimate light supper in the Cabinet Room of the White House, Zbig Brzezinski played professor again.

His “students” were: members of the White House staff, Rosalynn Carter (who scribbled notes throughout), sons Jeff and Chip and their wives and, of course, the President of the United States.