Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Bartholomew Sparrow's "The Strategist"

Bartholomew Sparrow is a professor in the department of government at the University of Texas at Austin where he teaches American political development. He has received fellowships from the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University, and the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library, and has been awarded the Leonard D. White and the Franklin L. Burdette Pi Sigma Alpha awards from the American Political Science Association. He received his PhD in political science from the University of Chicago.

Here he shares some reflections about possibly adapting his new book, The Strategist: Brent Scowcroft and the Call of National Security, into a miniseries:
I never really thought about making The Strategist into a movie, perhaps because General Scowcroft is a reserved man and doesn’t relish being in the limelight. Notwithstanding the fact that he’s been involved with a number of key events over the course of US national security policy from the 1970s through the early 2010s—events such Nixon’s resignation from office, the collapse of the Soviet empire, repairing US-China relations after the Tiananmen Square massacre, and his dissent against going to war on Iraq after 9/11—however, Scowcroft’s quiet and multi-faceted life doesn’t readily lend itself to a movie version. As a man of nuance and subtlety who has been involved nuclear strategy, national intelligence, the management of national security policy, and other issues of highest importance, his life story—he will be ninety years old this March—would be hard to capture on film.

But if The Strategist were to work as cinema, I think it would have to be made into miniseries, one at least half-dozen episodes long, so as to capture the range of his considerable achievements and the remarkable span of his career. I would begin with an episode based in Ogden, Utah, featuring an unknown child actor, which would give a sense of Brent’s world as he grew up in a well-to-do and loving family, where he was the youngest of three children and only boy and where his family was among the oldest and most prominent of Mormon families in the state. It was in the context of his safe and happy childhood that the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor came as such a shock to Brent as a teenager and that helped cement his decision to attend the US Military Academy.

The second episode would need to be about at West Point during the war years, and would capture the pressure, discipline, and dehumanization that the US military academy—and older students—imposed on Army cadets. It was a difficult time for him, yet he persevered. He did well, managed the undefeated Army football team, and showed such character that West Point administrators wanted to bring him back to teach once he had been out for a little while.

The other episodes would have make some tough choices as to which events they showed. In the book itself there was much I couldn’t address for reasons of space--reflecting my conscious decision to focus on fewer key events rather than trying to cover more events less thoroughly—and the mini-series would have to be even more draconian. Still, I think it would have to focus on Scowcroft’s indispensable roles in the evacuation of Vietnam in April 1975, the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 and reunification of Germany less than a year later, the Persian Gulf War of 1991, and the short-lived resistance by some important Republicans in 2002 against the George W. Bush administration’s rush to war against Iraq. An episode on his role as an elder statesman and business consultant would also be needed, it seems, in order to convey his bipartisanship and deep commitment to what he regarded as US interests.

I envision a relatively unknown actor playing Scowcroft (one from the London stage?) since Scowcroft isn’t well known or widely recognized, despite the fact that he is perhaps Washington’s foremost foreign-policy “wise man.” The actor would have to be able to capture the nuances and complexities of national security policymaking, but not overshadow the other actors, just as in real life Scowcroft does not say much, listens carefully, lets others weigh in, and does not typically bring attention to himself (even though he can be very forceful and, on occasion, can show flashes of temper). The other actors could be better known, since they would be portraying Nixon, Ford, the older and younger Bush presidents, Gorbachev, Thatcher, and famous officials such as Henry Kissinger, Richard Cheney, James Baker, Condoleezza Rice, and Robert Gates, among others. It would be ensemble acting, then, since one of the lessons of Scowcroft’s career is just how much White House and Washington politics are a function of group dynamics—with a group that includes members of Congress, media figures, representatives of important interests, and foreign leaders—and interpersonal relationships.
Learn more about The Strategist at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue