Zbigniew Brzezinski

An active, impatient man who evolved a steady, long-term view.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, then in his late 40s, briefs reporters on Middle East talks between President Carter and Syrian President Hafez Assad in Geneva, Switzerland on May 9, 1977. He died yesterday at age 89.
Zbigniew Brzezinski, then in his late 40s, briefs reporters on Middle East talks between President Carter and Syrian President Hafez Assad in Geneva, Switzerland on May 9, 1977. He died yesterday at age 89. (AP)

I started off on the wrong foot with Zbigniew Brzezinski, which is why I hope I will sound all the more sincere in saying how much I came to admire him, how great a contribution he made to America and the world, and what a loss his death represents.

I got off on the wrong foot mainly for structural reasons. During the 1976 Jimmy Carter presidential campaign and then in the White House, I was a relatively powerless young speechwriter, and he was the very powerful National Security Advisor to the president. Long before he met Carter in the early 1970s and helped introduce Carter to international leaders, Brzezinski had been a prolific book and magazine author as well as a college professor, and for years had written a regular global-affairs column in Newsweek.

The Newsweek role was a prominent position in those days, and in addition to bolstering his renown as a policy-intellectual it reinforced his own self-image as a writer. This in turn meant, from the underling-speechwriters’ point of view, that not only could he give us instruction (properly) on the content of a speech but also he was full of thoughts about the ideal phrasing. From his perspective, I was some annoying pinko kid-staffer making trouble for him on speeches. From mine, he was a person whose first language was not English.

As I say, the tension was structural. The main amicable bond we had in those days was via tennis. Carter himself was a surprisingly effective if not classically stylish player. His Georgia comrade and initial budget director Bert Lance had a big, booming serve; I was fairly high-up in the ranks of staff tennis players; and Brzezinski had a style of play that to me symbolized his larger approach to life. He tried to put away practically every shot. He hit a winner, or he pasted the ball into the back fence. He went for it, in all ways.


The late 1970s were a tough time — for the world, for the United States, for Jimmy Carter, for us all. But as the years after that went on and I observed Brzezinski not as a workplace-superior (nor a tennis-court partner or adversary) but as an analyst of international affairs, I was more and more impressed by his long game, in all senses of the term. He was physically and intellectually active well into his late 80s. He sent the Tweet below, his last, three weeks ago at age 89.

Brzezinski’s last tweet.

And conceptually he increasingly stressed the sustainable, long-strategy goals the U.S. should pursue with China (where he had advised Carter on full normalization), the Middle East (where he had been a central figure in the Camp David accords of 1978), Latin America (he had been part of Carter’s crafting of the controversial but strategically necessary Panama Canal transfer), the Soviet Union and then Russia (he had been a Cold War hard-liner), and in most other parts of the world you could name, naturally including management of the U.S.’s own internal affairs. During the Carter days, Brzezinski had been the architect of an improbable-in-retrospect “global emerging powers” tour, which took us in one exhausting swing to: Poland, Iran, India, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, France, and Belgium. And not long after, another to: Venezuela, Brazil, Nigeria, and Liberia. I think these were originally planned to be one super-long trip. The sweep was representative of the way in which he saw and thought about large, long-term patterns and trends.

He thought big, and he thought wisely. Most “respectable” figures in foreign-policy-land lined up behind the Iraq war. Brent Scowcroft — Brzezinski’s predecessor as National Security Advisor, for Gerald Ford, and then his successor in that same role for the first George Bush — was one exception. Al Gore, who gave a remarkable and prescient anti-war speech a few months before the invasion, was another. And Zbigniew Brzezinski, then in his mid-70s, was a third. After the war, he called it a “historic, strategic, and moral calamity,” and in his case that was not simply wisdom of hindsight.

He continued to warn against needless hostility toward Iran, and about over-reach in the “war on terror.” A man who had been considered a hawk early in his career became a notable exponent of soft power, of strategic patience, of thinking ten moves ahead. We would be better off if more people had heeded him in recent years, or would study his example now.


I am reminded in composing this item that Zbigniew Brzezinski has a difficult-to-type name. Thirty-five years ago I wrote the Atlantic’s first-ever article about personal computing, in which this exact typographical challenge played a role. I said that I had hired a “professional” typist named Darlene to help me with a very long story manuscript:

But five hours after Darlene's arrival, I glanced at the product of her efforts. Stacked in a neat pile next to the typewriter were eight completed pages. This worked out to a typing rate of about six and a half words per minute. In fairness to Darlene, she had come to a near-total halt on first encountering the word “Brzezinski” and never fully regained her stride. Still, at this pace Darlene and I would both be dead—first I'd kill her, then I'd kill myself—before she came close to finishing the piece. Hustling her out the door at the end of the day, with $49 in wages in her pocket and eleven pages of finished manuscript left behind, I trudged downstairs to face the typewriter myself. Twenty-four hours later, I handed the bulky parcel to the Federal Express man and said, "Never again."

Yes, it’s been a while. Then I mentioned the magic of the first macro/keyboard-shortcut key, in a an early word-processing program I was using called The Electric Pencil:

I have not yet stooped to the politician's trick of programming the computer to write standard letters of reply. I have, however, discovered a few other sneaky word-processing feats. Suppose you are writing an article in which an unusual word appears frequently—let us choose “Brzezinski” once again. When writing the draft, you simply type a certain character, say * or + , each time Brzezinski should appear, and then when you're ready to print you signal the computer to insert “Brzezinski” in place of the character.

Zbig — as he was known, and as he chose for his Twitter handle — made the world safer and better, and also livelier and more interesting. I might not have said that 40 years ago, which is why I go out of my way to offer respects and admiration, and sympathies to his family, now.