Do not pity this busy creature Kissinger. Seemingly reduced to a ubiquitous talking head these days, Nixon’s former secretary of state is doing very well. His consulting firm, Kissinger Associates, brings him about $8 million a year for vending his baroque opinions to corporate execs who rely upon his authority to innoculate them and their careers against foreign disaster. As for technicalities like letting viewers know that he derives substantial income indirectly from the Chinese government before admonishing us all that ”political maturity” requires us to overlook the massacre at Tiananmen Square — well, full disclosure has never been the Kissinger method.
But what of Kissinger’s place in history? Will posterity remember him as the greatest diplomat of his age or as the amoral power monger portrayed by writers like Seymour Hersh (The Price of Power) and William Shawcross (Sideshow)? Apparently both, in Walter Isaacson’s view. Having set out to produce what he describes as an ”unbiased biography” of a controversial figure, Isaacson, an assistant managing editor at Time, has labored at immense length to produce the sort of on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand portrait familiar to readers of newsmagazines.
Partially obscured by too-detailed accounts of foreign policy ”crises” long since vanished, Kissinger emerges here as an oddly academic figure — the ultimate faculty insider as it were, bringing to the conduct of state affairs all the backbiting, duplicity, temper tantrums, and astonishing pettiness characteristic of professorial politics everywhere. ”Arrogant and abrasive even by Harvard standards,” in Isaacson’s words, his personality is most memorably captured here by his former student and New York Times columnist Leslie Gelb as ”the typical product of an authoritarian background — devious with his peers, domineering with his subordinates, obsequious to his superiors.” A vicious infighter, he not only had his White House subordinates wiretapped by the FBI (justifying it on the grounds of national security) but made a pest of himself by bursting into the Oval Office to read juicy bits of the transcripts to the President. Even Nixon got sick of him.
The most vivid part of Kissinger: A Biography is Isaacson’s portrayal of the two, the oddest couple in recent American politics. To his face, Kissinger flattered Nixon as a combination of Pericles and Alexander the Great; behind his back he referred to him as ”meatball mind,” and ”our drunken friend.” Nixon reciprocated by muttering about Jewish traitors, to which the ever politic Kissinger, whose parents brought him from Bavaria to New York at 15 to avoid Nazi pogroms, would respond, ”Well, Mr. President, there are Jews and then there are Jews.” While Kissinger played no direct role in Watergate, Isaacson makes it clear that his and Nixon’s paranoia helped create the climate that produced the scandal. History’s judgment of the Good Doctor aside, Isaacson’s book is one prospective clients of Kissinger Associates would do well to read carefully. Among other things, Kissinger’s record as a geopolitical soothsayer is murky at best. A-