Kissinger the courtier

Very nice piece by Joe Hagan in New York Magazine in which he attempts to deconstruct the man I once described (in my Observer column) as “the patron saint of cement mixers”. It opens thus:

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.

Most of Hagan’s interview reminds him of playing chess with a grandmaster — except in this case, Kissinger is a master of obfuscation. There’s a lot of to-ing and fro-ing over a quote in Bob Woodward’s book, State of Denial, which 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 portrays 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. Kissinger flatly denies this to Hagan, who then goes on to write:

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.”

En passant, Hagan reveals that Dubya

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.

Hagan also reminds us of Seymour Hersh’s assessment of Kissinger: “He lies like most people breathe.” And of the fact that he was once a great friend of Conrad Black.