News & Politics

Henry Kissinger Speaks at a Dinner Honoring Brent Scowcroft (Photos)

The Wednesday dinner was a corporate lovefest on behalf of the National Defense University.

Protégé and mentor: deputy secretary of defense Ash Carter with his friend and mentor, General Brent Scowcroft, the evening’s honoree. Photograph by Carol Ross Joynt.

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

“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

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

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.