Henry Kissinger's complexity, brilliance come through in hefty biography

September 06, 1992|By Bruce Clayton

KISSINGER: A BIOGRAPHY. Walter Isaacson. Simon & Schuster. 781 pages. $30. I don't know anyone who is neutral about Henry Kissinger. The flamboyant former secretary of state under Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, now a TV talking head whenever American foreign affairs heats up, prompts a visceral response. Is he a genius with a passion for peace and public service -- or a power-mad egotist who would sell out his best friend to advance Henry Kissinger?

He's both. That's the view Walter Isaacson circles around in "Kissinger: A Biography," a huge, leave-no-stone-unturned life that comes closer to explaining the man than anything yet written by or about him. Mr. Isaacson, an editor at Time, bases his hefty book on extensive diggings in declassified documents and interviews with more than 150 leaders, including Mr. Nixon and Mr. Ford. Mr. Kissinger talked often and freely with Mr. Isaacson about his life and the book, but "Kissinger did not get to approve -- or even to see -- its contents before it was published, nor did he have any authority over what I put in."

No self-respecting biographer could have had it any other way. Mr. Kissinger, a German-born Jew who made as much of a mark on U.S. foreign policy as anyone in recent memory, is extraordinarily complex. He's brilliant, too: Even his toughest critics concede the man's intelligence. His senior paper at Harvard roamed over "The Meaning of History" in 383 pages, daunting even his professors.

His later writings strenuously argued the case for Realpolitik -- realism rather than idealism in foreign policy, balance-of-power diplomacy and a willingness to use nuclear weapons.

An unabashed self-promoter, Mr. Kissinger came to prominence as Nelson Rockefeller's protege and then as Mr. Nixon's security adviser and secretary of state in 1972. Eager to climb the slippery pole to the top, Mr. Kissinger undercut every potential rival with deceit, intimidation, leaks to the press, even wiretaps on his closest friends. All the while, Mr. Isaacson shows, Mr. Kissinger fawned over Mr. Nixon in private (which included having to endure his crude anti-Semitic slurs) and egged on the angry president to be more aggressive in Vietnam. But behind the boss' back, Mr. Kissinger routinely sneered at him as "that drunken lunatic" with the "meatball mind."

The bombing, the troop buildups and, finally, the military withdrawal -- the latter done against Mr. Kissinger's advice -- were public knowledge, to be argued over in the public arena of politics. But America also covertly invaded neutral Cambodia in 1970 and secretly bombed that country for over a year. Critics

of Mr. Kissinger and Mr. Nixon -- Mr. Isaacson among them -- argue that U.S. efforts prolonged a futile war, destabilized Cambodia and helped bring about the rise of the murderous Khmer Rouge, destroyed American trust in the government and ensured the fall of Mr. Nixon. For all of this, Mr. Isaacson argues as dispassionately as possible, Mr. Kissinger was at least partially to blame.

By 1976, when Jimmy Carter unseated Ford, Mr. Kissinger was hated by liberals, scorned by conservatives who distrusted his inherent pragmatism that encouraged negotiations with Communists, and mistrusted as an arrogant, publicity hog by Ronald Reagan and George Bush. Now that his glory days are over, Mr. Kissinger jets around the world as a highly successful (very rich) business and political consultant.

Mr. Isaacson strives always to present a balanced view. He salutes Mr. Kissinger's dazzling range of knowledge, his global perspective, his dedication to his adopted country's needs and interests. But always his "arrogance" intrudes, Mr. Isaacson admits, to diminish an obvious charm and ability.

To far too many in this egalitarian land, he was always "Dr. Kissinger." Admirers called him this respectfully; critics to insinuate that he was an incarnation of Dr. Strangelove. In this Mr. Kissinger aided his enemies by bragging, in his thick Germanic accent, that "power was the ultimate aphrodisiac."

Mr. Kissinger understood power among nations. But it's too bad, Mr. Isaacson laments throughout these pages, that he lacked a true appreciation for "the openness of America's democratic system or the moral values that are the source of its global influence."

Dr. Clayton is the Harry A. Logan Sr. Professor of American History at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa.

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