I’m not sure what I was thinking the first time I met Zbigniew Brzezinski on the set of “Morning Joe,” but 10 years later, I recall that encounter all too well. Mika had strongly warned against inviting her feisty father on our new show, but like FDR at Yalta, I overestimated the impact of my political charms on the foreign policy giant. Despite his storied diplomatic past, Brzezinski was in no mood for peace overtures from his daughter’s new co-host. He coolly dismissed all of my policy pronouncements as “stunningly superficial.”
Nice to meet you too, sir.
Even after that inauspicious start, Brzezinski, who died last week at age 89, quickly became our favorite foreign policy guest and the person to turn to when faced with difficult decisions. Several years ago when Mika and I were considering leaving “Morning Joe” for another network, he expressed concern that giving up our expansive format would take away from the show’s intellectual heft.
“If you go to CBS, will you be able to interview me on foreign policy for 15 minutes straight?”
“Well then, stay where you are!”
Mika and I laughed at his playful response but understood the larger point. That insight ended weeks of agonizing, and as usual, the passage of time proved Mika’s father right.
Critics could sift through the cracks and crevices of Brzezinski’s half-century of public life for miscues while serving six presidents, authoring dozens of books, penning hundreds of evocative articles and occupying a preeminent space at the center of America’s foreign policy debate. But history will record that on the greatest foreign policy challenges of his time, Brzezinski got it right. Just as LBJ will be remembered for Vietnam, Kissinger for China, Carter for Camp David and Bush 43 for Iraq, Brzezinski will be remembered for his visionary responses to the Cold War and America’s disastrous lurch into Iraq.
From the start of his public life, this Polish immigrant was a fierce Cold War hawk who correctly predicted that U.S. pressure on the Soviet Union would cause its empire to crumble from within. Those hawkish views often clashed with his own party’s orthodoxy, but with the Berlin Wall’s collapse in 1989, Brzezinski enjoyed ultimate vindication.
George W. Bush’s buildup to the Iraq War in 2003 turned the cold warrior from hardened hawk to fearsome dove. Brzezinski was one of the few foreign policy heavyweights to oppose America’s invasion of Iraq without equivocation and without pause. His opposition was all the more unusual given that so few who championed confrontation against Soviet expansion dared to speak out against a war supported by 70 percent of Americans and one that came 18 months after the 9/11 attacks. But once again, his iconoclastic views placed him on the right side of history.
The sweep of Brzezinski’s life was breathtaking. His earliest years were spent in Germany, during the rise of Adolf Hitler. His father was a Polish diplomat whose next posting was in the USSR during the height of Stalin’s Great Purge. And while he lived to see the collapse of those two totalitarian regimes that occupied his homeland for 50 years, Brzezinski spent the last two decades of his life warning against the dangerous drift in U.S. foreign policy. Even into the age of Twitter, he remained prescient. His first tweet, in 2013, warned of future cyberwars, while his last tied the rise of global instability to the absence of sophisticated U.S. leadership. In the final week of Brzezinski’s life, Mika shielded him from the torrent of bad news breaking daily because her father knew better than anyone the damage that was being done to America’s reputation abroad. Unfortunately, few in government today possess the talents of Brzezinski and his contemporaries. But that kind of strategic vision is needed now more than ever to restore America’s standing around the globe. It is a challenge Brzezinski would have loved to have taken head-on.
The Christmas after my own father’s passing, I once again turned to Brzezinski for guidance and support. I told him I was feeling especially overwhelmed that holiday and had become the parent not only to my four children but seemingly to all those around me — including my own mother. At home and at work, the burden of everyone’s well-being increasingly felt like it was being placed squarely on my shoulders.
He responded cheerfully and with a twinkle in his eye. “I know. Isn’t it great to be trusted by God with such tremendous responsibility?”
I smiled back at him. “Yes sir, Dr. Brzezinski. It certainly is.”
Thank you, Chief.
Joe Scarborough is starting a new weekly column for The Post. It will ordinarily appear on Fridays.