Georgie Anne Geyer

A Realistic Optimist

WASHINGTON -- This beautiful white city has gotten a bad name in recent years. Republicans and Democrats in Congress cooperate about as well as tigers and bunny rabbits. Everyday American workers look upon the "elites" in D.C.'s think tanks as arrogant, college-educated blowhards who presume far beyond their capabilities. Nobody smiles at strangers anymore.

Yet, every once in a while, an event confounds our expectations. The memorial to Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski, which I had the honor of attending, was one of these, and perhaps it can tell us not only where we have been, but also where we are going.

Doubtless little-known around the country he loved so well, "Zbig," as he was universally known to his students and White House adepts, was one of those often beloved and always respected people. A tall, slim man who could be ferocious one moment and filled with humor the next, he was born in Poland 89 years ago to a respected diplomatic family, taken to Canada as a child to escape Nazism, then studied at Harvard and became a professor at Columbia University. It was in New York that his intellect and his strategic thinking about foreign policy began to be noticed.

His essentially idealistic nature was also underlain by a persistent tough-mindedness. At the Catholic Mass in the gorgeous downtown Cathedral of St. Matthew, one of his three children, Mark, the former ambassador to Sweden, laughingly but lovingly recalled his father writing him a letter saying, "Mark, you must choose your goals on a more serious basis."

Mark also recalled, "He was inspiring not because there were no setbacks, but because he learned from them."

His famous daughter, Mika, an MSNBC news anchor, recalled smilingly that he once said when she was very young, "She was a difficult student." The third child of thoroughly Democrat parents, Ian, even became a Republican -- we'll let it go at that.

At the funeral, many insights were shared about Zbig, a man whose life was an invaluable lesson on how to live creatively and honorably in difficult periods.

-- "He was a realistic optimist," former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said, as she and others recalled his early passion for human rights and his ever-present suspicion of Russia.

-- "Before we got to the White House, Zbig outlined 10 things we needed to accomplish," former President Jimmy Carter reminisced, recalling Zbig's accomplishments during his time as Carter's national security adviser. Among those 10 things: "Keep the country at peace, bring an end to the dispute in Panama, bring peace between Israel and Egypt."

One of the least-known "events" of Zbig's time occurred when Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, who oversaw the astonishing liberalization of China, spent his first night in America having dinner at Zbig's and his artist-wife Muska's beautiful colonial farmhouse in Virginia. (Zbig also predicted repeatedly that the Cold War would end peacefully, but that the "Soviet Bloc" would come back as the "Russian Bloc," which indeed is what has happened under Vladimir Putin.)

-- "Can you blend the concerns of rational power with principle?" Answering that question, said former CIA Director Robert Gates, was Zbig's inner passion. "He was also proud, after Vietnam and Watergate, that America was again being seen as a moral power."

But then came the Iraq War in 2003. Zbig, a counsellor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the premiere foreign policy think tank in Washington, was unwaveringly against it. Speakers recalled what a lonely position it was.

-- "He strove to provide structure to a world ever tempted by chaos and confusing mirages with vision. ... The world is an emptier place without Zbig pushing the limits of his insights," said former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in a message read at the funeral.

I was honored to have Zbig as a friend and occasional mentor. In fact, he was extremely kind in his support for my work overseas and at home, as he was to many students and adepts. He told me once that he "learned something every time he read my column," which of course kept me going for months.

In its coverage on June 9, The New York Times referred to the funeral as proof of a "bygone political moment." But is it truly "bygone"? I refuse to believe that.

In the crowd, certainly, were many of the Democratic Party "faithful," but there was also Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, head of the Trump National Security Council, walking down the aisle, and conservative icon Pat Buchanan not far behind him. The ideas expressed in memoriam, about a brilliant analyst and scholar who reached far beyond the puny aspirations of political ambition, were not those of one political party.

At the end, we celebrated him by singing together "America the Beautiful." But it was not the end of his beloved country's story.


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