The story of loyalists versus outsiders is one that plays out in the West Wing of every administration I’ve had the privilege to cover, beginning with Zbigniew Brzezinski, the Polish-born national security advisor thrust into Jimmy Carter’s inner circle of Georgians.
“Zbig,” as he was known to everyone, passed away last week after a long and eventful life. Listening to the outpouring of praise and some tempered criticism too, I wanted to add my voice of thanks to him for being so generous with his time with reporters.
His inclination to talk to the press often put him at odds with the Georgians who didn’t trust anybody who got too much media attention, a risk for anybody working at a top level in any administration, and one of the reasons the media relies so often on anonymous sources.
Brzezinski had the big corner office in the West Wing that looks out on the driveway by the North Lawn, and backgrounders with him were like extended tutorials.
The Soviets had invaded Afghanistan in late 1979 over the Christmas holidays, making President Carter look like he’d been duped by false assurances from the Soviet foreign minister. Brzezinski, though, was full of bravado as he described how he had assured Carter that Afghanistan would be “their Vietnam,” and the Soviets would pay many times over for their deceit.
He was right but the payment didn’t come due in time to save Carter from losing reelection the following year.
The fast-approaching 1980 election loomed over everything, and Zbig took the lead in pressing for a military solution to free 52 hostages held captive in Tehran since November 4 of the previous year, when a group of Iranian students had stormed the American Embassy compound. The proximate cause for the hostage taking was Carter’s fateful decision, made grudgingly on October 21, to allow the exiled Shah of Iran to seek cancer treatment in the United States.
Zbig had long prodded the Shah to use force against his own people to quell the revolution that forced him from the throne, and now Zbig believed the only way to extricate Carter from the hostage sinkhole was with military action.
“Operation Eagle Claw” was a daring two-night mission involving six C-130 transport planes and eight helicopters that would rendezvous in the desert. The complexity alone made it extremely high-risk, and after the mission failed with a crash and explosion that took the lives of eight servicemen, Brzezinski told me that he had urged Carter to bomb Tehran, in addition to mounting the rescue mission.
That way, he told the President, should the mission fail, the headline would be, “Carter Bombs Tehran.” The failed rescue mission would be just “a sidebar.”
Carter refused, which Zbig clearly thought was a mistake— especially given how things turned out. Moreover, he said that as he walked Carter through the particulars of the rescue mission as it was supposed to unfold, Carter wanted to know if the students guarding the entrance to the embassy could be taken down with a stun gun as opposed to having them killed.
Brzezinski made clear how silly he thought that request was, and I wonder if he shared that reaction with Carter at the time.
Speaking with Brzezinski’s daughter, Mika, on Morning Joe on Tuesday, Carter said Zbig was “the most brilliant person I have ever known and very loyal to me as a person.”
He said he often had to choose between Brzezinski and his Secretary of State, the mild mannered and patrician Cyrus Vance, and that he most often came down on the side of Zbig. Carter threw in for good measure that his Secretary of State’s trip to China to open up relations was “a complete flop” so he sent Zbig, who forged an instant friendship with the leaders of China and later hosted Deng Xiaoping in his McLean, Va. farmhouse where the adolescent Mika spilled caviar on the Chinese leader’s crotch.
Vance was no match for Brzezinski, who was just down the hall in the West Wing and had the president’s ear every morning at eight a.m., and whenever else he sought it. Vance was in Florida nursing his gout when Zbig held an impromptu meeting of the National Security Council securing Carter’s go-ahead for the rescue mission, which took place on April 24, 1980.
Vance was furious at being excluded and out-maneuvered by Brzezinski. He opposed the rescue mission and submitted his resignation on principle, whatever the outcome. Vance’s resignation became public three days after the debacle in the desert, impacting Carter’s views about loyalty these many decades later.
Even when Zbig disagreed, he usually went along with the decision, Carter said. The Georgians gossiped about Zbig’s fondness for publicity, but in the years since Carter’s one-term presidency his stock and that of his national security advisor steadily rose. With Zbig, the outsider and the loyalist were never really at odds, they were one and the same.