Even a dinner held in a luxury hotel and featuring some of the heaviest of heavy hitters can encounter a bump in the road, and the hosts can only sigh when whatever it is becomes the joke in remarks by not one but both guests of honor. On a stage in the ballroom of the Ritz-Carlton, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft each began with references to breakfast—as in, maybe it was time for breakfast to be served—because the evening had gone on so long. There was knowing laughter and some applause among the 150 guests, at least those who hadn’t slipped out. How late was it? Oh, only 9:35. But this is Washington, where people want the salad course with the opening remarks, the entrée with the main speeches, and dessert done by the benediction.
“At this stage in the evening, I’m sure you’ve wondered when breakfast would be served,” quipped Kissinger when he started his speech. Scowcroft made a similar crack, adding, “It’s late, but I have some things I want to say.” They then put humor aside and talked about the serious issues of defense policy and statecraft and keeping the world safe in scary times, as well as the role played by the evening’s host, the National Defense University Foundation, in teaching the skills to achieve that goal. “When you read about crises, or see it in films,” Kissinger said, “there’s a lot of people running around shouting, picking up telephones, being hyperactive. In the crises I have seen, it gets very quiet, and a lot of people are in foxholes, throwing out statements that they didn’t have anything to do with. It’s essential, then, that a few people calmly try to find out what the situation really is, to develop a course of action, define some protections.” He said Scowcroft is one of those few people.
Scowcroft’s calm hand as White House national security adviser, said Kissinger, was especially essential in the period at the end of the presidency of Richard Nixon and the transition to his successor, Gerald Ford. He said at that moment, the height of the Watergate scandal, the nation’s major adversaries might try to take advantage of perceived weakness. “Brent was indispensable in making sure the government remained steady, and the adversaries realized we had not lost the capacity for action,” he said.
Deputy secretary of defense Ash Carter, a Scowcroft protégé going back decades, quoted Bob Gates, a former defense secretary, in describing what they both viewed as Scowcroft’s virtues: “civility. Mutual respect. Putting country before self, and before party. Listening to and learning from one another. Not pretending to have all the answers, and not demonizing those with whom we differ.” Carter said Scowcroft, now 87, continues to be “the magnetic force that attracts people of all ages” to the NDU. For his part, Scowcroft thanked Carter for attending the dinner, “for taking time off from problems I wouldn’t wish on anyone.”
Scowcroft, who received the university’s first ever International Statesman and Business Advocate award, said his two years at NDU were invaluable, especially in learning strategy. He said today the world is more tactical than strategic, but strategy is no less essential. “The world is a very different place than it was at the time I was a student. There is no overarching strategy; the international system itself is changing,” he said. He mentioned China, calling it one of the “great powers” in the world today, but adding, “It does not have the sense that we do about what the world is.”
The National Defense University prides itself on taking promising officers and civilians from the battlefield, putting them in a classroom, and enriching their fast track with rigorous study of strategic philosophy both from the past and geared toward the future. The NDU’s leaders will tell you what they give their degree candidates at the Eisenhower Institute and the National War College, both at Fort McNair in DC, makes them the leaders they need to be for whatever global crises are ahead. The NDU Foundation’s chairman, Al Zimmerman, is quite frank. He says what they teach young captains and lieutenants and foreign service officers will save lives.
Because it was a defense industry dinner, guests were attired in colorful uniforms, gold braid, and medals that were only slightly outdone by the titles of some of the corporate guests. For example, sitting together or near one another at dinner were Ginny Rometty, the CEO of IBM; Rex Tillerson, the CEO and chariman of Exxon Mobil; Bob Stevens, chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin; Tom Enders, the CEO of EADS; Sean O’Keefe, CEO of EADS North America; and Jack London, the CEO of CACI. And they were just the corporate cream. There were other big corporate names in the room, including representatives of the principal sponsors of the dinner: Qualcomm, the J. Willard and Alice S. Marriott Foundation, Deloitte, and SAIC.
The Kissingers and I were at the same table, and Henry seemed quite comfortable and happy to have table hoppers come by for a handshake or photo as his wife, Nancy, kept a watchful but non-intrusive eye. Also at the table were NDU’s president, Major General Gregg Martin, Susan Eisenhower, and a few board members, including Dr. Chester Chung of Santa Monica and Todd Wilcox, CEO of Patriot Defense Group in Maitland, Florida. Wilcox planned to be off to Afghanistan by Thursday morning. He goes regularly to look in on one of his businesses, affectionately called the “pony express” because it handles getting mail from the states to the troops. Chang is a pilot and career-long FAA official who over the years was based in far-flung parts of the world, and who was honored by the Saudi government and President George H.W. Bush for his role during Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm. He lectures at Cal State LA and Embrey Riddle Aeronautical University.
With all those heavyweights in the room, the atmosphere was surprisingly relaxed and convivial, and absent any attitude. Only Rometty of IBM had a communications person at hand, Clint Roswell, who vetted some who tried to get near to her and made clear she was “not doing any interviews.” But when I reached around him to introduce myself, she was accessible and smiling, though she didn’t lean in. Roswell said they were in town only for the night and then would head back to IBM headquarters in Armonk, New York. We can only imagine the glut of corporate jets at Reagan or Dulles on Wednesday night.
While the dinner did run long (for Washington, and for old warriors) it was smart to stay late to hear the speeches. Whatever you think of either man—and it seems of the two that Scowcroft is the most universally respected while Kissinger is becoming even more revered—their careers span a significant chunk of 20th-century American history. When they refer to World War II and Vietnam, and cite comments from Nixon, Ford, or Reagan, it’s because they were in the room with those presidents, making the defense and foreign policy decisions—or, as Kissinger said of Scowcroft, “preventing bad events from happening” for more than 50 years.