The scene at the White House the other day evoked ghosts: There was the President's secretary angrily disputing a newspaper story that suggested that the President's national security adviser might be elbowing aside the Secretary of State.
"Horse . . .!" snapped the press secretary, Jody Powell. White House correspondents said it was the first time since Jan. 20 that Powell had lost his temper.
No wonder. There are few more sensitive questions in official Washington these days. Will Zbig or won't he? as one wag formulated it. Will Zbigniew Brzezinski, the Polish-born professor who reminds some people of Henry A. Kissinger, come to dominate Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance the way Kissinger dominated William Rogers in the first Nixon administration?
People are laying for Brzezinski all over town, ready to pounce on any sign of assertiveness, any hint of a struggle between him and Vance. No one is more conscious of this than Brzezinski, who in turn is laying for his would-be critics.
Not coincidentally, then, The Washington Post, The New York Times, CBS News and Sewsweek were all working last week on stories about Brzezinski and his National Security Council staff.
Brzezinski encouraged these projects, ostensibly because he is anxious to show the world that he and his staff are just a gang of bright, hardworking and - above all - cooperative people who wouldn't dream of asserting themselves at the State Department's (or Pentagon's, or CIA's) expense.
Brzezinski's new slogan is "collegiality," and he appears to be serious about it. There are no indians on the NSC staff, only chiefs - or colleagues, as they keep saying. Brzezinski and his colleagues talk about openness, sharing easy access. They brag about the cordial relations Brzezinski enjoys with Vance and Harold Brown, the Secretary of Defense.
Very well, but some of the snipers lurking in the Washington underbrush point out that one of the people praising Brzezinski's collegiality and self-effacement is his new staff assistant for press and congressional relations, Jerrold Schecter. Schecter, the former diplomatic editor of Time magazine and a well-known journalist, is by far the most visible figure ever to work for a National Security Adviser on public relations.
Would Brzezinski want someone like Schecter at his side if he planned to disappear into Washington's mockmahogany woodwork?
In fact there is a relatively innocent explanation for Schecter's appointment: Brzezinski wanted a man of stature who could carry some of the burden of dealing with reporters, and Jody Powell needed help from someone experienced in foreign affairs. Perhaps that does explain it.
But the questions raised by Schecter's place on the NSC staff are typical of the impressions an outsider gathers by talking to Brzezinski and a dozen or more of his colleagues.
Arguably, everything Brzezinski has done with the small but enormously powerful NSC organization is compatible with his proclaimed intention of reducing its operational influence and re-invigorating the traditional Cabinet departments. On the other hand, there is still more than enough room for Brzezinski to maneuver himself into a dominant position in the national security bureaucracy in the months and years ahead.
The expectation that Brzezinski and Vance are bound to clash eventually is a product of history. Relations were not harmonious between McGeorge Bundy and Dean Rusk in the Kennedy years, and Bundy seemed to win an upper hand.
Kissinger humiliated Rogers during the first Nixon administration, eventually running the State Department by remote control from his White House office. In the process, as one former associate put it, Kissinger imbued the NSC adviser's job with a "star quality" that has inevitably rubbed off on Brzezinski, regardless of his intentions.
But this history does not cover the entire recent past. Brent Scowcroft, Gerald Ford's NSC adviser, worked smoothly and deferentially with Secretary of State Kissinger, for example.
Brzezinski likes to cite the years 1945-50, when President Truman's team of foreign affairs advisers worked harmoniously together to formulate an American policy which survived for 20 years. True collegiality really is possible, Brzezinski insists.
If it is possible, though, it is not inevitable. The pressures that tend to centralize power in the White House - are powerful, and they are already evident in the Carter administration.
The basic pressure is simple: the President needs a staggering amount of information and analysis from the bureaucracy, and he needs it to reach him with a minimum of special pleading. He needs some things immediately, some on short notice. In the foreign policy field, the NSC staff provides a handy, manageably sized and loyal instrument to achieve these goals.
But Brzezinski has promised to restore the influence of the departments. There is evidence that this has worked, at least on occasion. During the Zaire crisis, for example, the State Department played the leading role, according to administration sources. But the new arrangements are not all smooth.
Some NSC officials fear that the State Department is becoming a little "too prideful" about its renewed importance. In a series of interviews, numerous members of the NSC staff told anecdotes about how the State Department had missed deadlines for delivering papers or done poor-quality work on specific projects.
Brzezinski hired his assistants for their brainpower and expertise, so not surprisingly, they are not eager to simply pass ideas and memos on from the departments to Brzezinski and the President. They are constantly tempted to rewrite papers for Carter, and they have the opportunity to do so - a good definition of bureaucratic power.
(During the last administration the White House calculated that 60 to 70 per cent of the pieces of paper reaching the President's desk came from the NSC.)
As one of Brzezinski's younger colleagues said in an interview, "Most of us are motivated by a desire to create something - a new way of looking at a problem or of solving it . . . There's an enormous incentive to build yourself a monument, and you've got to guard against that inclination."
Brzezinski says he is determined that the new NSC staff serve as a "think tank" for the President, producing new conceptions and ideas for his foreign policy, but associates say the press of daily work makes this difficult.
Brzezinski has tried to hold down the size of his staff, and although it is creeping up to the size of Scowcroft's staff usder Ford (there are now about 40 professionals, and more coming) there does seem to be more than enough for everyone to do.
Jessica Tuchman, for example, who is responsible for "global issuse," is handling nuclear proliferation, conventional arms control, human rights, international organizations, population, food and environmental issues.
Tuchman, 30, is one of Brzezinski's more unusual appointments to the staff. A doctor of biochemistry and biophysics, she got into politics on the staff of the House Subcommittee on Energy and the Environment, and was research director in the presidential campaign of Rep. Morris K. Udall (D-Ariz.) last year.
Tuchman says she is working more than 70 hours a week. "It will get better," she says hopefully, though she loves the job. "I haven't had time to read or think much," she said in an interview, but she has had time to discover the symbolic power of her new status. "I was shocked by the speed with which telephone calls are returned," she said.
Tuchman is an example of Brzezinski's desire that his staff reflect the new trends in foreign policy which he has adopted. Unlike previous NSC staffs, this one has offices called "global issues" and "North-South." The idea is to cut across the traditional boundaries of diplomatic thinking, bring economic and environmental considerations into play, and think conceptually.
There are cynics - veterans of old NSC staffs, and a few participants in this one - who doubt that much will really change. One noted, for example, that the North-South office now contains speacialists for South Asia, Latin America and Africa - regions covered by separate offices in the Kissinger and Scowcroft eras.
The secretive NSC setup that Nixon and Kissinger created reflected their personalities; the relatively open one now apparently reflects Carter's. He reads more than previous Presidents, so there is less need to screen out papers or boil them down. He also talks freely with associates, and Brzezinski shares his access to Carter with others on his staff.
Some staff members wonder if this present openness can survive a major crisis, but they all enjoy it. Morale seems excellent, and Brzezinski is praised by his associates for his considerate attention to their needs and feelings.
But there are already hints of the pressures that brought the shutters down around other NSC staffs. Several people complained privately that they can perceive a tendency to keep too many secrets, at the same time they praised Brzezinski for trying to share information around the staff.
The ultimate nature of the NSC under Brzezinski will obviously depend a great deal on his own personality, behavior and ideas. Does he want to aggrandize himself? He insists not, so do his friends.
One White House official who isn't so sure observed last week that President Carter has relaxed the rules about the use of White House limousines so that Brzezinski can ride to and from his temporary home in Georgetown in an official car. The truth remains to be seen.
Brzezinski notes that he, Vance and Brown are trying to have a weekly lunch together. He talks to Vance five to ten times a day by phone, and sees him once or twice besides. His contact with Brown is almost as extensive.
"It should be the norm and not the exception that the principal members of an administration work well together," Brzezinski said in a recent interview. "I am discouraged that people find [this] hard to believe."