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The Once and Future Kissinger

Kissinger is coy at first, allowing me to believe he just might have had a sobering conversation with Bush. Acheson, he says, smiling vaguely, “didn’t go out and see the press afterwards.”

Pushed further, however, Kissinger tacks the other way. Iraq may not have entered its version of the Tet Offensive, he says. And by the way, he explains, we’ve gotten the Tet Offensive all wrong. Tet was a military victory. “If you look back to the Tet Offensive and at what the media said, and I probably believed myself at the time, it was misunderstood, and it was a big victory for us.”

“It could have even been misunderstood by Acheson,” he adds.

“I could conceive that if our entry into Baghdad were working,” he says, “and if we were winning—and I’m not saying we are—that it might look similar to this.”

So Kissinger told Bush he was actually winning the war?

No, that’s not it either.

“The possibility exists that we talked about other things than Iraq,” Kissinger says, “and the vast majority of the conversation was about other things.

“And the possibility also exists,” he continues, “that the president wanted to get a different perspective, not only on Iraq but also on other aspects,” like North Korea and China.

Anything is possible, I suppose.

When he is not in Washington talking to the president about something, Henry Kissinger divides his time between his Manhattan apartment and his country estate in Kent, Connecticut. Poor health has forced him to cut down on travel and the number of boards he sits on, and he makes it to China just once a year. In what passes for Kissinger’s dotage, he scribbles notes for his next book on statecraft (written entirely in longhand), plays with his Labrador retriever, Abigail, and makes the rounds of Manhattan’s power parties.

“The power of Henry working a room is still seismic,” says Diane Sawyer, the Good Morning America host and former Nixon press aide who dated Kissinger in the early seventies. “All of a sudden everybody wants to step up their game and say something he’ll find interesting or funny.”

Kissinger has a legendary ability to charm when he wants to, and over the years, he has collected a sparkling assortment of high-powered friends—most of them Democrats—in the media, business, and fashion worlds. He is the frequent party companion of Tina Brown and Harry Evans, the latter of whom edited his 1979 book, White House Years. He has close business relationships with Pete Peterson, the chairman of the Blackstone Group, and Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, the former American International Group chief executive, who paid him enormous fees to help AIG gain access to China.

He bonds with Oprah Winfrey over their shared love of dogs (she recommended an artist to paint a portrait of Kissinger’s Lab) and with Alex Rodriguez over their shared love of the Yankees (he and A-Rod had lunch at The Four Seasons last year). He and his wife of 32 years, Nancy Maginnes, spend every Christmas with close friends Oscar and Annette de la Renta in the Dominican Republic. Asked about the nature of that friendship, given the unlikely connection between a former statesman and a fashion mogul, Kissinger says, “These are dear friends of mine; they have no utility.”

Kissinger’s roving among the powerful has occasionally landed him in bad company. He formed a tight bond with former Canadian media mogul Conrad Black, vacationing with him and joining the board of Hollinger International. Kissinger’s role at Hollinger was largely ceremonial, a hood ornament for Black, but when it was discovered that Black had been raiding the company’s coffers to pad his lifestyle, Kissinger joined the insurgency against him. “Et tu, Brute?” said Black on a conference call when Kissinger turned on him, according to the Black biography Shades of Black. (Describing Kissinger’s deep feelings of betrayal, one former business associate says, “He really believed that Conrad was a billionaire.”)

Still, Kissinger finds New York to be a safe haven, a place where he can be loved unconditionally. “Manhattan social life is more generous than Washington political life,” says Kissinger. “It’s not a blood sport.”

Most of the time anyway. Four years ago, Barbara Walters, who calls Kissinger “the most loyal friend,” was entertaining Kissinger and his wife at a dinner party for a D.C. politician when ABC News anchor Peter Jennings, who died last year, suddenly piped up, “How does it feel to be a war criminal, Henry?”

The subject of Kissinger’s past sins was very much in the air at the time. Judges in both France and Spain were seeking Kissinger for questioning as the long-simmering debate over his connection to Chilean general Augusto Pinochet’s brutal killing of dissidents in the seventies returned with a vengeance, not least in Christopher Hitchens’s ringing indictment, The Trial of Henry Kissinger. These developments clearly rattled Kissinger, who had preemptively written a lengthy article for Foreign Affairs decrying the dangerous legal precedent of using universal jurisdiction to try state actors for past actions (the same precedent under which German courts hope to try Donald Rumsfeld).