The Once and Future Kissinger

Photo: Taryn Simon

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.’ ”

With President Richard Nixon on Air Force One, July 1973.Photo: Bettmann/Corbis

Even Kissinger’s advice that “victory over the insurgency is the only meaningful exit strategy,” which appeared in a column under his own byline, is an “accurate sentence out of context,” he says.

When all is said and done, Kissinger has done such a thorough job of rebutting Woodward that it starts to worry him. After all, he is not one to alienate the powerful—including a certain famous and well-connected Washington Post journalist. And so later, after thinking it over, Kissinger calls to edit the record yet again.

“I thought about one exchange we had this morning, with respect to the Woodward quote,” he says, in a friendlier tone. “My view is, I have no recollection whatever of ever having said anything like this in connection with Iraq. On the other hand, I think Woodward is an experienced journalist who wouldn’t invent quotes.”

He wants to retract the “totally untrue” comment.

“I don’t want to make it as a flat statement,” says Kissinger.

In saying so little, it seems, he has already said too much.

You can see why this Iraq business so vexes Kissinger. He hardly needs another quagmire around his neck—especially after he played this one so carefully. When the neoconservatives began driving foreign policy after 9/11, the consummate realist hedged his bets and supported the decision to invade Iraq. There were caveats galore, of course: Kissinger said postwar reconstruction of Iraq would require U.N. involvement and international diplomacy and that he was opposed to occupying a Muslim nation in order to “reeducate the country.” He also said preemptive war as a doctrine was a bad idea, except in rare instances.

His standing on Iraq was so nuanced the New York Times included him in a list of prominent Republicans who objected to the war—only to print a tortured editor’s note amending the report after right-wing critics attacked the paper for misrepresenting his views. “I’m not sure the Times got it wrong,” says Walter Isaacson, the president of the Aspen Institute, a former Time managing editor, and the author of the biography Kissinger. “They just pinned him down when he wanted to stay unpinned.”

At New York dinner parties before the invasion in 2003, Kissinger related to friends that he was “very concerned that there was no plan for what happens after they bring it down and topple it,” recounts one associate. “He predicted to a group of people at a dinner that it would end in civil war.”

Despite private reservations, Kissinger openly supported the war. It was no wonder. The public dissent of Brent Scowcroft, Bush Sr.’s national-security adviser and Kissinger’s longtime friend and former business partner, got Scowcroft cut off from the White House inner circle. For Kissinger, this wouldn’t do.

He was already bitter about being largely ignored by the previous two presidents, especially the first Bush administration. “I think there was little question that the first Bush did not engage Henry in any meaningful way. And that soured Henry on the first Bush. He would prefer to be consulted,” says Lawrence Eagleburger, the former secretary of State under Bush Sr. and a Kissinger friend. “If he does a Scowcroft, he’s out in the cold.”

But the second Bush was clearly willing to bring Kissinger in from the cold. In 2002, he appointed Kissinger chairman of the 9/11 Commission, a position that would have put him at the forefront of the national debate on U.S. intelligence failures and capped a long public career with a crowning achievement.

In the vetting process, however, Kissinger ran into a snag. Five years after he left office, the former secretary of State had founded the consulting firm Kissinger Associates and established himself as a kind of diplomatic fixer who could work the back rooms of Moscow, Beijing, and Riyadh for corporations needing influence. He charges $200,000 (a reported $50,000 just to walk through the door) to consult for companies like Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc., a mining company with assets in Indonesia. As much as Kissinger wanted to be the nation’s healer, he valued his business interests more. When Congress requested that he reveal his consulting firm’s client list, he stepped down from the commission.

Nonetheless, Kissinger remained a favorite administration ally, appointed by Donald Rumsfeld to the Defense Policy Board, the outgoing secretary of Defense’s personal think tank. And Cheney told Woodward last year that George W. Bush is a “big fan.” He’s not alone, of course. Kissinger is, after all, a foreign policy genius emeritus, whose exacting skills as a strategic thinker have made him an indispensable adviser to many leaders of the free world. And he’s certainly the guy you call when you’re planning to wage war in the world’s most complicated geopolitical hot spot.

With George W. Bush in Austin, Texas, July 2000.Photo: Birchum Jana/Corbis Sygma

That Kissinger should now want to distance himself from the war in Iraq should come as no surprise—every hawk from Richard Perle to David Frum is doing the same thing. But Kissinger’s maneuvering is more artful than most.

“I have basically supported the objectives of the strategy, and I want it to come out well,” Kissinger tells me, but he adds that the views expressed in his syndicated newspaper columns “don’t amount to a cheerleading advocacy of every step that has been taken.”

Asked if the White House now understands the need for international legitimacy and diplomatic solutions, Kissinger says, “I believe they understand it today, yes.”

Suggesting indirectly that the White House didn’t understand it until now is as close as Kissinger gets to criticizing the Bush administration. When I bring up a comment he made on CNN in 2004 remarking that “they want to believe that Iraq could be occupied in the same manner” as Germany and Japan during World War II, but it “turned out to be wrong,” Kissinger suddenly doesn’t recall who “they” are: “I have no idea,” he says. “That was a general view that one could read. You will not get me to talk about any individual.”

When I point out that the foreign-policy advice buried deep in his 2,000-word newspaper articles might suggest a certain displeasure with the execution of the war, Kissinger demurs. “Displeasure, perhaps, is a strong word,” he says. “Uneasiness is a better word.”

Bob Woodward is amused when I tell him that Kissinger believes he “happens to be wrong” about his influence over the Bush administration. “Is Kissinger backtracking on Iraq?” He laughs. No matter. “What I’m reporting is the view of people like Cheney and people in the White House about Kissinger’s influence,” he says, “not Kissinger’s evaluation of his influence.”

Kissinger admitted to Woodward that he has met with Cheney every month and the president every other month since he took office. Whether this constitutes influence depends on your definition of influence: No doubt, Kissinger never minded being seen as influential, but he argues that meeting with the president half a dozen times a year hardly makes him the architect of a policy. Woodward counters that a total of 36 hours over six years adds up to more time with the president than almost any outsider ever.

Kissinger’s advice to Bush and Cheney, says Woodward, was “very soothing. That’s why they talked to him. It’s all part of the refusal to face reality. If you go back to the Nixon tapes, he’s a flatterer.”

Some of Kissinger’s closest friends are skeptical of his influence on the White House for this very same reason: his legendary sycophancy. Kissinger, they say, didn’t tell Bush and Cheney anything they didn’t want to hear.

“It’s good advertising for Kissinger, and it’s good advertising for the president,” says Brent Scowcroft. “They love that—especially Henry Kissinger—if they can go out and say, ‘Henry agrees with us.’ They want his support, they don’t want his views.”

“I think he likes to please people too much,” says Melvin Laird, the secretary of Defense during the Nixon administration. “You’ve got to be a little bit of a son of a bitch sometimes.” (Laird would know: During the Nixon years, he and Kissinger battled so fiercely for influence that Laird had Kissinger’s phone tapped to gain advantage.)

“The tragedy of Henry Kissinger is that he is a very large intellect joined to a very small man,” says Mark Danner, a foreign-policy writer who knows Kissinger. “No one is more brilliant, but in offering advice to policy-makers he invariably lets his obsession with his own access and influence corrupt what should be disinterested advice, tailoring his words to what he thinks the powerful want to hear. As a matter of character, he is more courtier than thinker.”

Kissinger, of course, takes issue with the notion that he’s a man who favors power over speaking truth to power. “It’s wrong,” he says. “It will make you popular with your friends in the New York intelligentsia if you say that, but it’s totally wrong.”

If Kissinger is, in his own careful description, uneasy about the execution of the war, and if he is not afraid to give the president an analysis that he might not want to hear, then what exactly was he telling Bush?

I frame the question by recalling Dean Acheson, Harry Truman’s secretary of State, whom Kissinger wrote about recently in The New York Times Book Review, mischievously calling him “perhaps the most vilified secretary of State in modern American history” (thereby relieving himself of the distinction). Acheson was one of a group of former statesmen dubbed “the Wise Men” who famously met with President Lyndon Johnson during the Tet Offensive in 1968 to tell him the Vietnam War was lost and he should pull out. Did Kissinger do an Acheson?

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).

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.”

As for Kissinger’s involvement in the current international debacle, McCain, taking a subtle dig at the White House, points to the outcome of the war as evidence that Bush and Cheney have never really listened to Kissinger. “I think the question should be asked how much they consulted with him before the invasion was initiated,” he says. Even if Kissinger had advised Bush to change course, it’s doubtful the famously bullheaded president would’ve listened anyway, he suggests. “I’m not sure Kissinger, if—and I emphasize if—he felt that way, it would have that effect.”

Unprompted, McCain, who has known Kissinger since 1973, says of their friendship, “I’m not at all embarrassed about it; I’m proud of it.” (But during the 2000 presidential race, his handlers opted not to have the two appear publicly together, fearing the legendary obfuscator would taint the image of the “Straight Talk Express.”)

Asked if he’ll support McCain if he runs for president in 2008, Kissinger says, “Very likely.” Then he corrects himself: “Almost certainly. I don’t have to qualify that.”

It’s the most unequivocal thing he’s said to me yet.

Kissinger obsesses over Woodward’s “Don’t give an inch” quote. “To what is it I said we shouldn’t give an inch?” he asks. ‘To whom shouldn’t we give an inch?’

Weeks have passed since Kissinger and I first spoke, and he is still obsessing over Woodward’s “Don’t give an inch” quote. “To what is it I said we shouldn’t give an inch?” he asks. “To whom shouldn’t we give an inch?”

But Kissinger himself is starting to give an inch. The world—or at least the political climate—has changed. Americans’ approval of Bush’s handling of Iraq has dropped to an all-time low of 31 percent. After taking control of both houses of Congress, Democrats are pushing for troop withdrawals within months. And the White House is making noise about “flexibility” and being open to new ideas on Iraq (although Bush, in Vietnam recently, was still oddly echoing old-school Kissinger doctrine: “We’ll succeed unless we quit”).

As the power shifts, Kissinger is shifting along with it. Now that the Iraq Study Group, led by former secretary of State James Baker and former Democratic congressman Lee Hamilton, is hammering out a new strategy for Bush, Kissinger is carefully aligning himself with the pragmatic fixers coming in from the cold instead of the enablers who supported the war all along.

After arguing for 30 years that Vietnam was lost because a Democratic Congress failed to live up to its promises, he says he now believes the country needs a bipartisan approach to strategy in Iraq. Regarding troop withdrawals, he says he’s never been against the idea as long as it’s “tied to an overall strategy.”

Whatever the Baker-Hamilton report comes up with, he says, “I will stretch to try to support it.” (The study group recently interviewed Kissinger, who is calling for an international conference with Iraq’s neighbors, including Iran.) Of Donald Rumsfeld, Kissinger will only say, “I feel deeply for him at this moment. It’s a very tragic situation to be in at the end of his public life.” On Rumsfeld’s replacement, Robert Gates, a former CIA director under President Bush’s father and a critic of Rumsfeld’s handling of the war, Kissinger predicts that he and Gates will have “probably very parallel views.”

Last week in London, Kissinger even went so far as to announce that he believes military victory in Iraq impossible and that we have to move to “some international definition of what a legitimate outcome is.”

Sounding like an old realist again, Kissinger tells me that the United States can live with a nondemocratic Iraq. “We may not have any choice,” he says. “It’s a worthwhile goal. You just have to understand the consequences of what you’re saying. You cannot say we want to get out in eighteen months and we want a democratic Iraq. We cannot have both.”

And neither can Kissinger. When I point out that he’s hedging again, trying to have it both ways, he smiles and gives me one last spin.

“At the age of 84,” he says, with a twinkle in his eye, “what great ambitions can I have?”

Henry Kissinger, ever the revisionist, is 83.

The Once and Future Kissinger