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.
* By Joe Hagan
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.' "
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
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
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.
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
"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
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.
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
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
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
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.
Find this article at: