This article was originally published by the Harvard International Review on 11 December, 2015.
In Sparrow’s narrative, the private and the public are intimately related, interconnected, and form a unity to explain relevant chapters of the American past.
Political scientist Bartholomew Sparrow has written what might be considered an unconventional work, The Strategist, a biography of Brent Scowcroft. His book is unconventional because biographies, even political biographies, are not typically written by political scientists – they are written by historians, journalists, or amateurs with a lot of energy and a fine pen. The political science community does not reward this work. We are scientists, not storytellers. We write about the science of politics, not about the lives of politicians. We are scientists who want, as professor Dietrich Rueschemeyer stated in Capitalist Development and Democracy to “go beyond conventional history’s preoccupation with historical particularity and aim for theoretical generalizations,” and consequently, the specific, the detail, and the particular are unnecessary and avoidable. Almost twenty years ago the eminent political scientist Margaret Levi argued in A Model, a Method, and a Map: Rational Choice in Comparative Historical Analysis that “the rationalists are almost willing to sacrifice nuance for generalizability, detail for logic, a forfeiture most other comparativists would decline.” In this view, Sparrow’s biography of Scowcroft is not only unconventional, but is also an anomaly in political science.
Likewise, through a detailed description of Scowcroft’s daily activities, we are able to observe important elements in the functioning of the American government; the nature of the intra-bureaucratic struggles within American institutions, in particular within the presidency; the function of the president and his subalterns in the making of American security policy; and the seductive role that knowledge and ideas play in American politics. Scowcroft’s biography provides a great window to perceive and evaluate politics and policies. This is possible because in biographies, the microcosms of an individual (in this case Scowcroft) are connected with the macrocosms (American foreign and security policy). In Sparrow’s narrative, the private and the public are intimately related, interconnected, and form a unity to explain relevant chapters of the American past.
But Sparrow privileges the public over the private. Often the impact of Scowcroft’s private life on his performance as a public servant is not fully explored. For example, we do not have any insights into how the death of his mother and wife affected his life. We do not know how his religious formation as a Mormon affected his worldview. We do not know whether his faith shaped his decisions on public policy or not. In Sparrow’s narrative, history prevails, and the personal and the private are subordinated.
Biographies are almost by definition a history of many histories. Following in this tradition, Sparrow has written a biography as a layered text; a history not only with a capital “H” (the global history of a country) but also with a lowercase “h” (the personal history of an individual). Throughout the pages of his book, we not only learn about Scowcroft’s behavior as a National Security Advisor during two presidential terms, but also about West Point and the life within this military academy. We learn about the reunification of Germany through NATO, and also about the disagreements between Kissinger and Nixon, and certain features of the personalities of both. We learn about the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson, but also about his corrupt behavior, using money and governmental facilities for personal advantages. We learn about the role of consummate tacticians like Kissinger, but also about the early steps of Scowcroft’s protégé, Condoleezza Rice. Biographies, in other words, are not the narrative about one subject but the confluence of multiple histories on the shoulders of one human being.
It is a common to find that biographers fall captivated by the main character of their book. This fascination often causes them to overlook other controversial angles of their protagonists. Professor Sparrow seems to illustrate this tendency. Only very occasionally is his perspective critical of Scowcroft. Almost the entire book is flattering of the former National Security Advisor, presenting him as “extraordinary person and policy maker. ”Sparrow even asserts that people of “his kind have always been uncommon.” But quite probably there are thorny issues that could give us a different picture and, at the same time, a more accurate portrait of Scowcroft’s performance as a public servant.
For example, we understand, and Professor Sparrow properly describes, the strong working relationship between Scowcroft and Kissinger. We also know that during the Nixon administration the United States implemented covert operations. It is very well known that between 1970 and 1973, the United States spent $8 million on covert operations in Chile. It is also well known that the main American architect of Salvador Allende’s overthrow was Henry Kissinger. All of this happened at the time that Scowcroft was Deputy Assistant for National Security Affairs, and Kissinger’s right hand. However, we do not know the role that Scowcroft played in American covert operations. What was his perspective and position on Chile policy?
By the same token, Scowcroft was National Security Advisor at the time of “Operation Condor,” a campaign of political repression organized by security services of many South American countries to eliminate so-called terrorist activities. It is well known that the United States provided technical support and military aid to the participants until 1978. What was Scowcroft’s view on Operation Condor? Did he have any role in Operation Condor? Answering these and other similar questions would not only strengthen the book, but also provide a more accurate picture of Scowcroft’s foreign policy views and his role on controversial aspects of American foreign policy.
Quite probably, political scientists will continue to marginalize biography’s role in explaining political phenomena. People interested in this research method are well advised to come up with methodological innovations that would increase our knowledge of politics and that could be more in harmony with the discipline of political science. For instance, we need more comparative biographies. It is in the essence of both political science and biography to work in a comparative fashion. We need different and innovative forms of comparison, not only between politicians that under similar circumstances made different choices, but also within the life of a single of human being. And we need to use historical time in biography to move from a traditional chronological description to a more meaningful thematic framework.
These are but a few of the changes that would make the biographical form more useful and relevant for political analysis. Biography has much to offer to political science and deserves the discipline’s serious consideration. Sparrow’s The Strategist is a good template for moving the field forward.
Jesus Velasco is the Joe and Teresa Long Endowed Chair in Social Sciences at Tarleton State University. He is the author of Neoconservatives in US Foreign Policy Under Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush: Voices Behind the Throne. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press and The Wilson Center, 2010. He is author of several articles on American politics and US-Mexican relations.