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The Once and Future Kissinger

As another failed war threatens to tarnish his legacy, Henry Kissinger attempts to clarify his record—by evading, skirting, stretching, hedging, and stonewalling like the diplomatic master he is.


The elevator doors open onto Henry Kissinger’s offices to reveal a bulletproof bank teller’s window. The carpets are worn, the walls in need of fresh paint, the wing chairs stained by the hands of a thousand waiting dignitaries. In a corner sits a large planter holding the dried stumps of a long-dead bamboo tree. A Ronald Reagan commemorative album and a picture book of Israel collect dust on a shelf next to a replica of an ancient Greek bust with a missing nose. Across from Kissinger’s door his hundreds of contacts—presidents, prime ministers, diplomats, and corporate titans—are catalogued in eight flywheel Rolodexes on his secretary’s desk.

And then you hear it: The Voice, a low rumble from around the corner, like heavy construction on the street outside. When he finally appears, Kissinger—architect of the Vietnam War’s tortured end, Nixon confidant and enabler, alleged war criminal, and Manhattan bon vivant—is smaller than expected: stooped and portly, dressed in a starched white shirt and pants hoisted by suspenders, peering gravely through his iconic glasses. He’s almost cute.

At 83, Kissinger has had heart surgery twice, wears two hearing aids, and is blind in one eye. His once-black hair has turned snowy white. But his presence is startling nonetheless, his Germanic timber so low and gravelly everyone else sounds weak by comparison. He starts our conversation on this late-October morning by placing a silver tape recorder on the coffee table.

“I want a record,” he says.

If Kissinger wants a record, it’s because he wants to correct it. As he nears the end of his public life, yet another disastrous war threatens to taint his legacy. State of Denial, the latest White House exegesis by famed reporter Bob Woodward, depicts Kissinger as privately advising President George W. Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney on the war in Iraq, calling him a “powerful, largely invisible influence.” Woodward’s portrait of Kissinger as a surreptitious Rasputin, cooing in the presidential ear that “victory is the only exit strategy,” urging him to resist all entreaties to change course, has rankled the dour statesman.

“Look,” Kissinger begins, eager to discuss the matter without discussing the matter, “I have had contacts with presidents and secretaries of State since the Kennedy administration. I believe what I can do for them is to give them my views without having to worry about getting into a debate with me afterwards about what I may or may not have said. Therefore, you have to understand why I’m reluctant to talk about what specifically I talk to them about.”

But Kissinger is not so reluctant that he will allow the final chapters of his biography to be written without his input. Therefore, it must be pointed out that Woodward “happens to be wrong.”

So he never told the president, as Woodward reports, “Don’t give an inch”?

“Totally untrue,” says Kissinger. “That quote is untrue.”

It doesn’t reflect his position?

“Read my articles.”

I’ve read them, I say. Can’t he answer?

“The least likely thing I’m going to do,” he explains, “is go around Washington beating on doors and saying, ‘I have a hot idea and it’s encapsulated in one sentence and if you just listen to me and if you just hold on, never give an inch.’ ”

That wasn’t exactly what Woodward said, but I don’t press the point. Instead, I try another angle. In the book, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice appears to confirm Woodward’s account, I say. “I doubt it,” Kissinger says, shutting me down. “She wasn’t present when I talked to the president to begin with.”

Okay, I say, moving on to an event that seems relatively undeniable: the famous memo from 1969 he gave last year to former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson suggesting that withdrawing troops from Vietnam would be like giving “salted peanuts” to the public, who would demand more and more, leading to a premature defeat. The handing over of that memo suggests Kissinger was advising the Bush administration to avoid troop withdrawals, right?

“Gerson, whom I don’t know, didn’t know, and have never met again, came in to talk to me about a speech about withdrawals,” he says testily. “I said, ‘If you’re thinking only about withdrawals, look at this memo to show you that it has its own complexity and the major theme of that memo is, ‘You cannot do it in two years.’ ” This should not be read as indicating that Kissinger is entirely against withdrawing troops; he’s just against a timetable. And in any case, he says, “obviously, if I want to influence policy, I don’t go to a speechwriter I’ve never met.”

It’s like playing chess with a master; I gamely move another piece. What does he make of Woodward’s criticism that Kissinger is fighting Vietnam all over again with advice straight out of the Vietnam playbook? Depends on your definition of the playbook, Kissinger argues. To Kissinger, the playbook was the efforts to extract the U.S. from Vietnam, starting with the 1967 Paris peace talks, “which I invented,” he says. “That doesn’t say ‘Don’t give an inch.’ It doesn’t say remotely ‘Don’t give an inch.’ ”


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