November 25, 1991 12:00 PM

LAST AUGUST, ON A SUN-SWEPT AFTERNOON off Kennebunkport, Maine, Brent Scowcroft sat with his boss aboard the President’s speedboat, Fidelity, casting about for more than bluefish. Bush and his National Security Adviser were hashing out a U.S. response to the failed Moscow coup, and the President wanted to do something that would show the Soviets he understood the significance of the event. The two anglers caught only three blues but, fortunately for the future of nuclear disarmament, had more success talking than fishing. What they hatched would become apparent several weeks later, when Bush unveiled a sweeping arms-reduction plan aimed partly at prompting similar moves by the Soviets. “There’s just more time up there,” says Scowcroft of Kennebunkport. “When you’re sitting out in the boat, there isn’t much you can do when the fish aren’t biting.”

As usual, when the announcement was made on national TV, Scowcroft—generally regarded as the driving force behind the plan—was nowhere to be seen. “I don’t seek the spotlight,” says the normally tight-lipped retired Air Force lieutenant general. “The National Security Council Adviser should operate from the wings, not from center stage.” At the recent Middle East peace talks in Madrid, for example, Scowcroft again remained in the background while privately planning strategy moves with Bush. As a result of his tireless, unassuming efforts, the slight (5’8″, 130-lb.) 66-year-old, whose usual deadpan expression often gives way to a surprisingly mischievous smile, has emerged from the President’s circle of intimates as one of the chief architects of American foreign policy. “If access is power,” notes a White House insider, “then Scowcroft is as powerful as anybody.” Adds Henry Kissinger, a former Scowcroft boss in the Nixon years: “He’s very unobtrusive, but he’s as tenacious as hell in fighting for his point of view. He’s not a yes-man.”

Scowcroft’s influence first became evident last year, several weeks after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Again while fishing, he and Bush came up with the idea of a “new world order,” an ambitious phrase meant to suggest a new U.S. foreign policy in the post—cold war era. Often teased for dozing during long, uneventful meetings, Scowcroft brushes off such twitting. However, he enjoys acting as straight man to the President (once when playing golf, Bush offered him a trick ball that exploded when hit).

Scowcroft early on convinced doubters that he was strong enough to deal with more than a few grand egos on the NSC (Bush, Vice President Quayle, now CIA Director Robert Gates, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Jim Baker and Gen. Colin Powell). Not only does Scowcroft thrive on long workdays, he also takes frequent midnight jogs—in fluorescent-green shorts, even in chilly weather—near the Bethesda, Md., home he shares with his wife, Marian, 69, now bedridden with diabetes. (Their only child, Karen, 33, is a New York City lawyer.) His job, he says, “is eternally fascinating. Never dull. Never.”

Thriving on four to six hours of sleep a night, Scowcroft even finds time to shop for his own groceries. “Around II one night,” says political analyst and neighbor Norman Ornstein, “I saw this kind of rumpled, frail-looking man with wispy white hair walking down the aisle, picking up milk and soup. He was wearing a frumpy sports shirt. I did a double take—there was Bush’s NSC adviser!”

The son of an Ogden, Utah, wholesale grocer, Scowcroft graduated from West Point in 1947 and soon after served as a second lieutenant in the Air Force—until he broke his back in a forced landing in New Hampshire. He spent two years in a Boston hospital, where he met the nurse who became his wife. Scowcroft’s career has spanned many jobs, from teaching Russian history at West Point to becoming Bush’s resident defense intellectual. Cautious and low-key, he has weathered Washington’s political storms without noticeable scars. “I decided a long time ago,” he says, “that the best way to get ahead is to just do the work and not worry about what you have to do to get ahead.”


JANE SIMS PODESTA in Washington, D.C.

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