The eyes sparkle with excitement even days later. The arms erupt in sudden sweeping gestures when he talks about it. And that causes the photos -- about a dozen of them -- to fly out of Zbigniew Brzezinski's hands and scatter over the floor of his office as he is speaking.
"Here's Cy... and here I am... and there is Teng right between us.... "
Brzezinski is talking in that quick. clipped, excited style that is his way, and he is pointing at one photo that remains in his hand while he bends to scoop up the rest, talking all the while.
"It's amazing, when you think of it. The leader of a billion people -- having dinner in my house just two hours after he arrived in this country!
"I mean, it really is rather amazing!"
President Carter's national security adviser is proud, and understandably so. For Teng Hsiao-ping has come to America; U.S. -China relations have been normalized; and Zbigniew Brzezinski has been born again as a highly visible -- and, his critics fear, dominant -- maker of foreign policy.
It was only last spring that Brzezinski had been dealt a lowered profile by his boss, the president. This had happened after a very upset Secretary of State Cyrus Vance complained to Carter about Brzezinski's hard-line public utterances of policy (mostly concerning the Soviets and the Cubans in Africa and a warning about "proxy wars"). Vance had said he could not function effectively as secretary of state under such conditions; some close to the president thought Vance would even quit. And so Carter had let Brzezinski know that he was to stay in the background, and Brzezinski did just that.
Until the coming of Teng Hsiaoping.
When asked now, Brzezinski responds by saying all the right things about how the visit of Teng was really "an accomplishment of one man most of all -- the president," and how it was "a team effort on the part of the president, Cy, myself and.... "
But that said, Brzezinski is keenly aware of what the Teng visit has meant to his own career. And he has been aware for some time.
He was aware last May, when, at his private talks with Teng Hsiao-ping, he first invited the Chinese leader to come to his home outside Washington for dinner as soon as the normalization of relations was completed. The gesture, he knew, would be unprecedented in the annuals of summitry.
And he was aware, more recently, when he requested that he be included in the formal receiving line for Teng's arrival at the White House. Traditionally, Brzezinski had stood off to the side at such ceremonies, a staff man and not a Cabinet man, clutching the president's briefing books, shunning the pomp and blending into the circumstance.
But the Teng visit was, for Brzezinski, something special. So Brzezinski assigned himself a prominent, formal role. And the president agreed. "Zbig was more visible throughout this visit because the president -- and others, including Cy -- felt this was a special feather in his cap," explains press secretary Jody Powell.
The normalization of U.S.-Chinese relations affords a significant look at both the influence of Brzezinski on the future of the China policy, and the influence of the China policy on the future of Brzezinski.
I don't know if Teng trusted me "more" than he trusted Cy. But I was reasonably direct in my meetings with him. I don't mince words. (Pause.) Who knows? Maybe it was the Soviets who built me up with the Chinese, back when they attacked me by name (in Pravda). Maybe the Soviets brought us together .
Zbigniew Brzezinski was convulsed with laughter. He slapped both palms down on his knees as he reflected, in his office the other day, on how such a notion will go down with the men of the Kremlin.
It was May of last year when Brzezinski went to Peking to talk with Teng. Cyrus Vance had already been there, almost a year earlier. Vance's talks there had not gone well, as far as the Chinese were concerned. Vance had been exploratory in his approach to the prospect of normalization. What did the Chinese want, what were they willing to give. That sort of thing.
So Teng, in his May talks with Brzezinski. kept questioning whether the United States ever really intended to normalize relations. As Teng saw it, Nixon had promised to normalize in his second term, but Watergate intervened. Then Ford had promised to do it as soon as he won the 1976 election, but Carter intervened.
'If the president has made up his mind to normalize..;" Teng kept saying to Brzezinski in that May meeting. And Brzezinski kept replying, "I have told you that the president has made up his mind..." But a few minutes later, Teng would raise the question again and Brzezinski would go through the drill one more time.
Finally, Brzezinski tossed in a personal gesture for emphasis. He told Teng with finality:
"It will occur. And I want you to come to my house for dinner when it does happen."
It is probably from that point on that the normalization of relations between the United States and China loomed as a major force in the personal as well as professional life of Zbigniew Brzezinski.
Back home, in May, the national security adviser told his wife about who might be coming to dinner. "We kind of knew it was a vague possibility since May," recalled Muska Brzezinski. a vivacious and outgoing woman. "This dinner was something we had both been looking forward to for a long time."
Brzezinski assumed a dominant role in the shaping of America's China policy, in the months that followed. Officially, Vance was always carefully coequal. But the president came to rely heavily on Brzezinski, especially as the secretary of state found himself enmeshed in the complexities of the Middle East and the strategic arms limitation treaty (SALT).
"I think it goes back to the end of 1977," says one high-level policy maker outside the White House. "Zbig felt that Cy would be bogged down in the Middle East. And so he decided to carve out a position of strength for himself with the China negotiations."
It is May and Brzezinski's hosts in Peking have taken him for the ritualistic climb along the Great Wall. "How high did Kissinger get?" Brzezinski asks, according to one person who was there. His hosts point to the spot. "Okay," Brzezinski says, "we'll go higher ."
It must have been especially satisfying to Brzezinski when he came to realize that he could carve his foreign policy niche in that place of Henry Kissinger's most glamorous diplomatic spectacular: the opening to China.
All of his professional life -- at Harvard, Columbia, the Trilateral Commission, and the White House -- Brzezinski has lived in the shadow of Kissinger. He has always been the other European-accented professor of foreign policy. Now he would top Kissinger. He would not go to Pakistan and fake a bellyache, but he would climb higher on the Wall, and more important, he would put the capstone on the bridge to China.
Ten times, in the months that followed, Brzezinski negotiated with the Chinese in Washington.
The negotiations were a tightly held thing. Vice President Mondale and presidential assistant Hamilton Jordan knew that the talks were continuing, but they did not know the details. There was little political input.
For months, the United States pressed the Chinese on normalization, and Brzezinski pressed to climb still higher on the Great Wall. But in the end, it was Peking that finally forced the issue.
There had been this target date -- Jan. 1, 1979 -- and it had been set by Carter back when a SALT agreement looked like a cinch by fall.
Now, suddenly, the Chinese decided to climb aboard just under the deadline. And the Carter officials wound up racing to complete the process; it was not tied down until just hours before it was announced on Dec. 15, in Washington and Peking. (Vance, ironically, was out of the country in those hectic last days.)
Carter's speech was drafted in tight secrecy. Brzezinski's specialist on China, Michel Oksenberg, wrote a draft and Brzezinski made a few changes. White House speechwriter Rick Hertzberg was given an hour and a half to make editing changes of grammar and punctuation and phrasing. That was all. Mondale and Jordan got a chance to read the speech in the afternoon, but there was little time for political input.
The secrecy was ordered because the Carter inner circle was worried about leaks. Specifically, they feared that some Senate conservatives might have moved quickly to try to prevent the president from being able to terminate the U.S. -Taiwan defense treaty on his own. "If we had tiped our hand," says one senior White House official, "you know damn well the conservatives would have tried to beat us to the punch."
In the end, Brzezinski and even the more politically trained advisers miscalculated the degree of political opposition they would encounter on the Taiwan issue -- and, importantly, the direction it would come from.
Predictably, the lack of formal assurance on Taiwan drove the conservatives right up the great wall. But there was also considerable criticism from liberals on Capitol Hill -- and that stunned the Carter officials.
They should not have been so surprised. For the problem was not so much what Carter did as how he explained it. In his speech, prepared by Brzezinski, he gave small mention to the future of Taiwan. He did not mention, for example, sthat the United States will still supply defensive arms to Taiwan And he did not warn that the United States would view with greatest concern any use of force across the Straits of Taiwan. (Nixon had firmly intended to include both in his final announcement, Nixon men now say.)
The Carter advisers lost sight of the appeal that their boss had found so effective during the 1976 campaign: that Americans want to feel good about their foreign policy, that they want to be proud of it again. Americans deserve a foreign policy, Carter used to say from every stump, that is as "good and honest and decent and truthful and fair and compassionate -- and filled with love -- as the American pople are." And that message, though trite, struck a popular chord.
The fact is that there was nothing about the way Carter handled the future of the people of Taiwan that could make Americans feel proud. And the congressional liberals sensed this, and the issue made for an easy way for them to try to restore their ever-flagging standing with the middle-American hard-liners.
"Looking back, it might have helped if we had beefed up that section on Taiwan," said one of Carter's highestlevel political advisers. "We knew there would be a flap from the conservatives. But we got more from the liberals than we expected -- and some of it has a harsh edge. It's just that the decision to normalize and the need for the speech came up so fast and unexpectedly that we just were not programmed for the domestic politics of it."
Brezezinski has convened a meeting of Carter officials in his office to discuss SALT policy, a week after the Chinese announcement. Suddenly, at 7 p.m., he jumps up. "I want to see if Cronkite says anything about China," he says. And the other officials sit there -- the SALT talk temporarily suspended -- while Brzezinski watches the evening news .
Dinner is just hours away.
The big jet carrying the diminutive leader of China will be arriving shortly at Andrews Air Force Base, and out at the spacious two-story white frame colonial home in McLean Zbigniew Brzezinski is worrying about the same thing that all hosts worry about at the last minute:
Liquor. Brzezinski thinks he may not have enough. He calls Michel Oksenberg and Richard Holbrooke and they agree to bring some. Oksenberg shows early, at that country house with the geese and rabbits and a horse and a dog; he has brought two bottles of Chinese vodka. He helps his boss work out the seating arrangement. Sixteen guests: Vance and Brzezinski will sit on either side of Teng; other officials and wives will be alternated around the oval dining table.
Mrs. Brzezinski has cooked the meal and the children, Ian, Mark and Mika, do the serving. She has chosen the menu carefully. Roast beef, "because it is typically American," she says, and cooked well done because the Chinese have sent advance word that Teng likes it that way; crab, "it is something local"; vegetables and a fruit salad dessert.
There is much light banter.
Over cocktails and caviar, Brzezinski says to Teng, "President Carter has had some domestic political difficulties with the normalization. Have you had any political difficulties?"
Teng's reply is quick: "Yes I have. In the province of Taiwan, there has been some opposition."
It goes like that.
Muska Brzezinski comes away from the dinner justifiably proud of the way it all turned out and of the easy, informal relationship her husband seemed to have established with the guest of honor.
"They hit it off," she says. "The vibes were good."
She is careful, as is her husband, not to leave the impression that the evening -- the whole week, in fact -- was any more Brzezinski's than Vance's, or anybody else's. "It was very exciting for my husband," Muska Brzezinski says. "But of course, he was just a cog -- a key cog -- in it."
Days later, Brzezinski sits in his office, still buoyant, flipping a small sofa pillow in tight little circles, heavy with backspin, as he discusses that night at his house with Teng Hsiao-ping. "There is no doubt that the dinner broke the ice in a certain way," he says. "It set a tone for the personal relationships that carried through the later formal talks."
Teng has returned to China, now, and Washington has returned to its normal state.
The Democratic president is battling the Democratic Congress (in that traditionally American custom that confounds people from parliamentarian ways of life). And the Brzezinski people and the Vance people are reflecting separately on how they think the sands of influence and power may have shifted once again.
There is the view from the White House:
"This was Zbig's baby more than anyone else's," said one senior adviser. "For him it was a significant personal milestone -- especially after last summer [when he was handled his lowered profile]."
Then there is the view from outside the White House, from a top policy maker who generally sides with Vance:
"Zbig is really riding high now," he conceded. "He had the central role behind the scenes, and he was all alone in the press play. I'm told... the president thinks Zbig did 99 percent of the work on China... So Zbig is riding high and it will probably extend beyond China and into other foreign policy fields." He paused, and then added the sort of comment that enrages presidential spokesmen: "I'm afraid when Zbig gets his new influence, he's going to be taking it out of Vance's hide."
But officials who spend their time trying to divine who is up and who is down in the mind of Jimmy Carter miss the point about the way their president operates.
He gets different advice from different advisers; at times he plays them off against one another, and at times he just uses them in different ways. So he relied chiefly on Vance, a skilled and experienced negotiator, when things were at their stickiest in the Middle East. And he replied chiefly on Brezezinski, a heralded hard-liner on Soviet policy, when he wanted to push the talks with the Chinese (and Teng would up ricocheting around the U.S.A. sounding the same warnings about Soviet proxy wars that Brzezinski uttered on nationwide TV back when he got Vance so angry last spring).
The president apparently prefers to pick and choose his spots for Vance and Brzezinksi. So it is not really a question who is up and who is down. It is, more likely, that Zbigniew Brzezinski was Jimmy Carter's China card.
EPILOGUE: Still, the president clearly understands how much the visit of Teng has meant to his national security adviser. So it was, one day in January, in that time of anticipation between the announcement of the normalization and Teng's arrival. that Brzezinski took an hour or two out of the weekend to hike in the woods along the Potomac River -- only to have his solitude punctured by the shrill alarm of his emergency beeper.
Quickly, Brzezinski made his way to a pay phone along the trail. Breathless, he called the White House. The operator said that the president was at Camp David, and was trying to get him. Carter came on the line.
"Are you at a secure phone?" Carter asked.
"Not really," Brzezinski replied, explaining that he was at a pay phone in the woods.
"Well is anyone around you?" the president asked.
Brzezinski glanced around. "No," he replied, by now quite anxious.
"Okay -- " said Carter. "The Chinese have decided to cancel the normalization."
Brzezinski was shocked into silence. "You're kidding," the stunned national security adviser finally said.
"Yes," said the president, "I am."