The only time I ever felt sorry for Henry Kissinger was when an editor offered me his biography to review.
The opening sentence of the dust-jacket copy alone is enough to make you want to rethink your faith in democracy: “By the time he was made Secretary of State in 1973, Kissinger had become, according to the Gallup Poll, the most admired person in America.”
But what strikes you then about this wonderful, entertaining, definitive biography by Walter Isaacson is its unyielding fairness. Isaacson, an editor at Time magazine, begins by stating the obvious--that some people loathe Kissinger while others revere him--and then announcing that he, Isaacson, is going to try to please both groups. He says he just intends to get Kissinger’s story down once and for all, pro and con--and he does, with a splendid ear for yarns, irony and humor.
Being fair to Kissinger obviously required relentless dedication, and at times Isaacson shows the strain of his undertaking. But there is no passage where he doesn’t offer us for consideration the most sympathetic gloss on Kissinger’s deeds, however foul.
When Kissinger dumps his wife and the mother of his children, we are reminded that history had suddenly required Kissinger to socialize with the Rockefellers and Kennedys and that his wife just wasn’t up to their standards. When Kissinger knifes in the back his loyal and unsuspecting protege at Harvard (Leslie Gelb, now of the New York Times) by going to a publisher to torpedo a successful book proposal of Gelb’s because it might conflict with a book Kissinger was thinking of writing (and then didn’t write after all), we are immediately reminded that despite such duplicity, Kissinger’s “brilliance, creativity and persuasiveness” also engendered “deep respect . . . among many who knew him.”
When failure dogs American plans to overthrow Chile’s democratically elected president, Salvador Allende (“I don’t see why we have to let a country go Marxist just because its people are irresponsible,” Kissinger said), and our Chilean co-plotters wind up devising an assassination on their own, Isaacson accepts Kissinger’s assertion that it was not his plot that worked, but some replacement, and absolves Kissinger of the bloodshed. When Kissinger repeatedly violates the instructions of his boss, Richard Nixon, in their constant struggle for credit (for example, Nixon wanted Kissinger to avoid Beijing on his advance mission to China so that Nixon himself would be the first American official into the Chinese capital; Kissinger double-crossed him), we are always reminded of ultimate accomplishments that might compensate for his perfidy.
As we are told how Kissinger now exploits his taxpayer-provided contacts and prestige to collect huge fees from corporations, and how he fails to disclose that his public pronouncements on foreign policy coincide with the interests of the businessmen who are quietly paying him $8 million a year, Isaacson reminds us that this is in no way illegal, and offers us examples of others who have done worse (although I didn’t notice any who had made more money).
We are given every possible opportunity to view Kissinger’s amorality sympathetically. We are told of his need to hide the truth to avoid antisemitic discrimination in childhood. We see him learning about the Nazi death camps while in the U.S. Army after World War II (though he arranged a posh life for himself while on duty in Europe). From survivors of the camps, he concluded that only by steeling oneself to live a life of single-minded deceit could one survive against tyrannical enemies (the theory might be appropriate for stays in concentration camps, but as a guide for White House officials?).
At times, Isaacson will take several pages to document, painstakingly, what is so clear: that Kissinger lies without hesitation, without real necessity, for the slightest convenience, almost for the sake of doing it. Yet these accounts are always delicious, never tedious. Isaacson also unmasks a Kissinger-inspired predilection for intrigue and perfidy that spread like a virus among various Washington officials, including Alexander Haig, former Defense Secretary Melvin Laird and certain Congressmen--perfidy used for nothing but petty bureaucratic one-upmanship, sometimes at cost to the taxpayers.
Perfidy against the Humphrey camp is what brought Kissinger to Nixon. Continued skill at perfidy is what endeared Kissinger to an appreciative Nixon, leaving them in their slow, fascinating dance of simultaneous mutual suspicion and dependence.
In the end, being fair was the most devilish, underhanded trick Isaacson could have played on Kissinger. Valuable as Seymour Hersh’s aggressive frontal assault on Kissinger (“The Price of Power”) was 10 years ago, Isaacson’s disarming, balanced approach reveals Kissinger’s essential loathsomeness (for all his brilliance) much more successfully than Hersh’s book did. There is no defense to Isaacson’s kind of reporting.
It brought to mind two thoughts on Kissinger left me by my late wife: that he was the smartest and probably best teacher she had at Harvard, and, second, that he must have adopted his heavy European speaking style as a device upon entering national politics in 1968, because he had spoken much more like an ordinary American two years earlier.
At times, even Isaacson has to pass some unabashedly harsh judgments. Try though he does to find in his extensive interviews and combing of the record any justification for the intense bombing of civilians in Hanoi on Christmas, 1972, he cannot. He shows that Kissinger wanted the bombing as a means not of persuading North Vietnam to do anything but of saving face for our allies in South Vietnam who wouldn’t go along with the settlement he had negotiated. He lied about his intentions to the North Vietnamese, to the American public (sometimes suggesting that he had actually opposed the bombing) and to his colleagues. Isaacson doesn’t spare the reader the blunt conclusion that in real terms, only mass death was accomplished by the bombing, and that Kissinger’s reputation suffered accordingly and appropriately. But Kissinger eventually got South Vietnamese agreement to end the war (a suicidal pact, he knew full well), and a Nobel Peace Prize--a prize his North Vietnamese counterpart rejected.
The biggest excuse for those who made mistakes on Vietnam--Kennedy, Bundy, Rusk, Johnson, McNamara, Halberstam, etc.--is just that: They made mistakes. Kissinger, we learn, thought all along that the war was un-winnable but kept it going for appearance’s sake. That was not a mistake but a reprehensible moral judgment. Of course, he still lies about that.
So much has been written about these events--and I don’t pretend to have read it all--that it is difficult to be sure what is newly disclosed here and what is simply put in good context. But the footnotes show a wealth of new interviews, and there was certainly much that seemed new to me.
Perhaps the most intriguing insight, oddly, was into Kissinger’s relationships with women. During his years as most-admired American, we read constantly of his companionship with actress Jill St. John and various beautiful starlets. Kissinger loved the attention, arranging to tryst and hold hands in trendy restaurants where he and his curvy companions were sure to be noticed. He arranged for his friend, Robert Evans, head of Paramount, to more or less pimp for him, arranging dates with starlets in exchange for the publicity it got them and whatever benefit Evans received from being a Kissinger insider. Kissinger boasted of these exploits with his famous purloined quote that “power is the greatest aphrodisiac.”
Yet we also learn that none of these liaisons, apparently, was ever consummated sexually. St. John says wistfully that her relationship with Kissinger never got beyond the platonic. Some starlets downright complained to Isaacson that he resisted their most determined efforts to lure him into bed--even into their homes at all--after a public display of affection at dinner. He made excuses sometimes as far-fetched as the difficulty the Secret Service would have providing security for them. Even in the case of his eventual second wife, Nancy Maginnes, he concluded their public dates by spending no more than 20 minutes with her in her apartment--before returning to a bachelor pad in Washington that Isaacson describes as startlingly plain, unkempt and laundry-strewn.
What does all this mean? That men ordinarily seek power to get women, while Kissinger sought women to get power? Maybe a good psychiatrist could tell us more. (Nixon seems to have sincerely thought Kissinger needed one.) With Kissinger’s penchant for duplicity, it’s hard to say. The most frustrating part of the book is that Isaacson never speculates about this. On the other hand, his lack of speculation, his tireless, hard-to-argue-with reporting, always coupled with his sense of what a mass audience needs in the way of entertainment in order to stay glued, makes this a great contribution to the history of our times.
It is the second-best biography of Henry Kissinger I know. The best is a song written about him in the 1970s by the troubadour Tom Paxton. The opening verse, and chorus, goes:
You are flying to Vienna, there’s a phone aboard your airplane
And you sit at oaken tables and you speak in solemn tones
While the leaders of all nations keep a deep respectful silence
You are moving pawns and bishops made of flesh and blood and bones.
Oh, the white bones of Allende, and the scattered bones of Chile
Are the screams that break the silence of the thousands blown away
Oh, the white bones of Allende, and the scattered bones of Chile
Are not silent. They are screaming. They’re your peace prize, Dr. K.
BOOKMARK: For an excerpt from “Kissinger,” see the Opinion section, Page 3.