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The Once and Future Kissinger

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The question stunned the dinner guests, who included Time Inc. editor Henry Grunwald, who also died last year, and former ABC chairman Thomas Murphy. Grunwald told Jennings the comment was “unsuitable,” but Jennings persisted.

“I tried to change the subject, but it was a very uncomfortable moment,” says Walters. “Nancy reacted very strongly and hurt.”

Kissinger said nothing.

Friends say Kissinger’s entire life since leaving public office has been an incessant justification of his time in power, a meticulous shaping and reshaping of his legacy. “He never stops paying attention to his own reputation and record,” says a New York colleague who has known him since the seventies. “Never.”

Kissinger famously sequestered the taped transcripts of his Nixon-era phone calls in his own personal archive at the Library of Congress until lawyers working with the National Security Archive fought to return them to public domain in 2001 (prompting multiple revelations of Kissinger’s manipulative diplomacy). And his lengthy and detailed memoirs (three volumes, 3,971 pages in all) tend to reshape events to counter the perception that he was too conciliatory with the Soviets or that he enabled dictators to violate human rights.

Three years ago, he agreed to open up his White House diaries, letters, and archives to British historian Niall Ferguson, who is taking five years to write a biography. (Of a working session at Kissinger’s place in Kent one summer, he says, “I’m in Henry Kissinger’s swimming pool talking about his meetings with Mao Tse-tung, thinking, I must be dreaming.”) Ferguson claims that Kissinger wants him to write a warts-and-all biography, but Kissinger has rarely had anything but antagonistic relationships with his chroniclers.

“He wants to control not just what he says,” observes Woodward, who first interviewed him for 1974’s All the President’s Men, “but people’s perceptions of what he says. And it’s kind of like one long book review where he is arguing with the reviewer of his book or his life or his policy.”

Seymour Hersh, who wrote the 1983 Kissinger takedown The Price of Power, is more damning: “He lies like most people breathe.”

When Walter Isaacson’s 1992 biography of Kissinger was published, Kissinger complained bitterly to Isaacson’s boss, Henry Grunwald. According to Isaacson, when Grunwald replied that he thought the book was balanced and down the middle, Kissinger paused a moment, then rumbled, “What right does that young man have to be balanced and down the middle about me?”

Kissinger says the Grunwald incident never happened. “I’ve never read the Isaacson book,” he says, then quickly clarifies. “I’ve read a few parts of the Isaacson book, which I didn’t like. But I understand that there are many parts of the book that are very positive.

“I missed those,” he says with a sly smile.

Isaacson says Kissinger wrote him a series of letters contesting numerous passages. “My view is that if Kissinger reread his own memoirs, he would be outraged that they did not treat him favorably enough,” says Isaacson.

Kissinger claims to be unconcerned about his place in history.

“I cannot affect my legacy,” he says.

And what does he think his legacy is?

“I have no view,” he says. “I can’t control it by what I say.”

I tell him I don’t believe him.

“You’re not in your eighties yet,” he replies.

But many people think Kissinger still has much to answer for, namely his actions during the Nixon and Ford years in Cambodia, Chile, East Timor, and Cyprus, not to mention Vietnam. For Kissinger, the details are always too complex to really hold him to account. Having watched Errol Morris’s documentary The Fog of War, an extended look at former secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s grappling with his failures in Vietnam, Kissinger says, “I thought he sold himself short. I thought he oversimplified and didn’t give himself enough credit.”

Kissinger himself is not one to make apologies. When I ask him if his thinking has evolved since Vietnam, he is quiet for a few moments. Finally, he says, “I mean, you can say there was a harshness to realism that was mitigated over the years; it’s a beautiful thing to say. It does not accord with what my intellectual record is.”

He bristles when I bring up his human-rights critics. “I won’t discuss that,” he says, except to say that “the Hitchens type has no impact on me whatsoever.” (Hitchens says that when he saw Kissinger on a New York-to-D.C. shuttle flight in October, “he walked with surprising speed away. He put on a good pace.”)

But his friend Senator John McCain says Kissinger is privately hurt by the charges that he prolonged the Vietnam War and allowed tens of thousands of GIs to die for nothing. “He’s been so badly stung by the criticism and condemnation over the years, and I understand that,” he says. “But I also think he’s frustrated by his critics because they don’t tell him anything he should have done; they just blame him for it.”


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