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VIEWPOINT: The Kissinger treatment

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Henry Kissinger passed away Nov. 29 at age 100, a singular, domineering figure in the conduct of our country’s foreign policy.

Controversial and polarizing, Kissinger was celebrated and highly regarded yet he inhabited a kind of political no-man’s land, simultaneously distrusted and often reviled by both left and right.

Michael Fleming

The German-born professor-cum-statesman was a totemic figure for eight years in the Nixon-Ford era, as assistant to the President for national security affairs and then Secretary of State, sustaining a level of influence and fame that will likely never be rivaled by a presidential appointee.

Kissinger was a crossover star, a pop culture icon, his omnipresent, bespectacled visage everywhere in the early 1970s. There was Kissinger with Le Duc Tho in Paris on the evening news … there is Kissinger on Laugh-In cheekily yucking it up Rowan and Martin …there is Kissinger on the town with Bond Girl Jill St. John … there’s Super K with a cape on the cover of Time.

The Kissinger “brand” became synonymous with concepts like ‘shuttle diplomacy’ and the most consequential (the opening to China) and divisive (the bombing of Cambodia) events of the latter part of the ‘American Century.’

He worked the media with relish, leaking with self-serving effect. By day in the West Wing he dished dark dirt with his best frenemy and patron Richard Nixon while cheekily flirting with Nixon’s hated Georgetown set by night.

He was a man of great intellect and ego, both of which I had the opportunity to experience as a young aide to U.S. Sen. Bill Roth, ferrying Kissinger around Wilmington on a fundraising visit in the early 1990s.  I recall him grilling me about the day’s events in his heavy accent:

“Meeester Fleming … vhut ist in store vor us dis evening? Vill der be press at deees event?”

I explained attendance would likely just be local Wilmington reporters – no New York Times or Washington Post up here.

“Vellll, I shood be able to handle dat … but der vas vun sonofabitch in Trrrenton that wouldn’t leave me alone…”

(There is a joke that Henry and his brother Walter, younger by only a year, arrived together in the United States. Henry of course retained a very heavy accent. Walter, however, spoke perfect American English. The reason? He was the Kissinger that listened.)

No modern cabinet official has so inspired the antipathy and fascination of so many (with his old rival Don Rumsfeld possibly a runner-up). It may also be true that no presidential advisor wielded such power, a hand that strengthened as his boss was sucked into the morass of the Watergate crisis that would ultimately destroy him.

Volumes have been written about (and by) Kissinger’s time in government, but “Kissinger: 1973, The Crucial Year,” by British historian Alistair Horne is a particularly instructive study of the immense global complexity Kissinger found himself managing as President Nixon’s focus increasingly drifted to his domestic political woes.

Horne outlines the extraordinary stakes at play: the fraught Paris Peace Talks to end the Vietnam War; a bubbling cauldron in the Middle East with the Yom Kippur War and a crippling Arab oil embargo; Soviet summit meetings and pivotal SALT talks on nuclear arms reductions; deepening engagement with China following the historic 1972 opening; a Chilean coup and confrontation with an increasingly independent Europe.

Throughout the year Kissinger was constantly on the move, hop-scotching the globe on dozens of urgent trips – many of them secret – to Paris for hours of grueling, frustrating meetings with the North Vietnamese, to Moscow for pre-summit negotiations, and to Beijing, Tehran and more.

Kissinger often acted as a State Department, CIA and Pentagon rolled into one. He rarely consulted, and regularly circumvented established bureaucratic channels.

That was fine by Nixon, who did not trust or respect State or the CIA. Confident in his intuitive touch for foreign affairs, he set out to marginalize the agencies and Kissinger was his able and willing partner in doing just that. Both men harbored suspicious and secretive natures. As former Kissinger aide and Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger observed, “They developed a conspiratorial approach to foreign policy management.”

Kissinger had rare authority to act on behalf of the President and used that fiat to conduct a stealth diplomacy that ignored US ambassadors and station chiefs. Yet, in a year of immense peril, calamities were successfully averted, global tensions cooled.

Kissinger ultimately inhabited a rare political island, never finding the embrace of a constituency of his own. The left – including the Harvard faculty and students he had spent years among – believed him guilty of war crimes for his role in the bombing of Cambodia and his fealty to Richard Nixon; conservatives long resented the accommodating tone of the détente he designed with the Soviets.

Yet there is a reputational benefit to outlasting your critics … particularly for someone like the prolific Kissinger. As Churchill said – and Kissinger must have believed – “history will treat me well, because I intend to write it.”

Michael Fleming is a former aide and state director for the late U.S. Sen. Bill Roth.


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