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Henry Kissinger always took care of his image, even with his obituary

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“David,” Henry Kissinger told me one day in the summer of 2017, after a long interview for the obituary published Wednesday evening in the Times. “Are you writing one of those articles that will appear when I can no longer challenge its premises?”

» He said it with a mischievous sparkle in his eyes. In a series of conversations spanning about seven years, I had told Mr. Kissinger, when he asked, that I was “writing about your life.”

The master of diplomatic nuance knew exactly what that meant. Few people interviewed for their own obituary want to be reminded, too explicitly, of their mortality. But Henry Kissinger did not become Henry Kissinger without taking care of his image, and this time he was waiting for an answer to his question.

“Mr. Secretary,” I said finally, “knowing you, you’ll find a way. He laughed and we left.

There is no way to write about the life of Henry Kissinger without angering almost everyone. His story is remarkable: an immigrant who arrived in New York among the last Jews to escape Nazi Germany, who became secretary of state, and who, in four decades, did more than anyone to shape diplomacy and geopolitical power of his adopted nation. in the 20th century.

In the mid-1990s, it was hard to imagine that this hunched cold warrior, whose deep accent and often imitated mumbles made him difficult to understand, could have stirred up such passions for decades.

But if Mr. Kissinger’s tone softened with age, it was, like almost everything else about him, highly calculated. He knew that many who were in high school or college when he was in power saw or participated in protests that portrayed him as a war criminal.

The truth, of course, was more complicated, and it lay in a series of compromises he made, both personal and professional, that determined whether you thought of him as a man who turned a blind eye while dictators sent thousands of people died. , or the one who saved the world from a nuclear calamity. The fires he started lasted for decades. This struck me every time I interviewed his friends, his enemies, and his friends-turned-enemies.

Yet it was clear that no matter what one thought of him – as an architect of postwar American power or an unapologetic defender of the world’s worst dictators – assessing his life would require extensive reporting.

That meant interviews with Mr. Kissinger himself and with those who worked with him, those who conflicted with him, those who admired his vision and those who despised his tactics. And it wasn’t like his work had stopped: At 95, he could sit at the table until 11 p.m., discussing everything from what Donald Trump doesn’t understand about the world to how the world Artificial intelligence could destabilize major powers and make it more likely that they will use their nuclear arsenals.

Since I had never covered Mr. Kissinger when he was in government — I was 16 when he left the State Department — the assignment to write his obituary was an opportunity both to learn and pass judgment on its role in the creation of the post-World. The order of World War II is being challenged by America’s adversaries.

I had excellent raw material: a long, carefully nonjudgmental draft of an obituary written by Michael Kaufmann, a Times foreign correspondent and editor who died in 2010.

But time had passed him by, and editors said Kissinger’s legacy needed to be reevaluated. Competition with Russia was turning into open confrontation, and even before the invasion of Ukraine, Mr. Kissinger was issuing prescient warnings about the direction Vladimir V. Putin was heading.

China had grown at a speed that even the man who engineered the U.S. overture to Beijing had never imagined — and the relationships he nurtured for so many years were now in sharp decline. Russia and China were developing a partnership, exactly what he was trying to prevent in the early 1970s.

Kissinger himself began to think about new challenges: At age 95, the man who, six decades earlier, had written one of the first popular books about how nuclear weapons were reshaping world power, began a series of articles and books on the threat posed by artificial intelligence. Do the same thing. I had problems with his argument, but then I thought: How many nonagenarians are writing about the global implications of ChatGPT?

It was Henry Kissinger’s contradiction. Few had used raw national power more crudely, nor thought about it more subtly.

He wrote voluminous memoirs for the same reasons as Churchill: he wanted to be the first to present his role in the best possible light, omitting almost all of his ugliest moments.

His mistake lasted so long that piles of his old diplomatic memos and cables were declassified, including those that exposed his most vicious actions. Still, one couldn’t help but admire the way he was constantly thinking about new challenges that didn’t fit the world he once knew.

My goal in talking to him was to get him to talk about both the past and the future. Some days I had more success than others.

In 2012, Richard Solomon, one of Kissinger’s former aides and then-president of the U.S. Institute of Peace, asked me to conduct a public interview with the former secretary at a major event. I had Kissinger on his talking points, defending every decision, deflecting every challenge.

He was much more revealing when I played the same role in 2018 at the Wilson Center for International Scholars, when he spoke about his calculus in playing on Mao’s vision for China and how he would have handled the today’s much more complex environment.

In the process, I barely became Mr. Kissinger’s friend; we knew each other’s role in this strange dance and I kept a professional distance. But as I wrote and rewrote, I couldn’t help but think of strange intersections.

He had grown up in prewar Germany, in a town about 40 miles from where my father’s family had fled in the mid-19th century. While reporting in Germany, I visited the apartment building where Mr. Kissinger grew up and walked in the park across the street where he played soccer. (On the day I visited, it was filled with Syrian refugees.)

And the first time I heard about Mr. Kissinger was in a story by my grandmother, Dorothy Samuels. It turned out that shortly after the Kissingers sought refuge in New York, my grandmother often hired Paula Kissinger, the mother of the future Secretary of State, to host small dinner parties on East 88th Street. As Mrs. Kissinger buzzed around the kitchen, she talked about the genius of her young son, then at George Washington High School.

“We just nodded, thinking it was like all proud mothers,” Ms. Samuels recalled years later. “It turned out she was right.”

Decades later, when I learned political science from Kissinger’s former academic colleagues, I quickly discovered two camps: those who admired his manipulation of American power and those who despised him. There wasn’t really a middle ground. “You should always speak gently about the dead,” one of them told me when I interviewed him for the obituary. “Except in this case.”

One of my most revealing private interviews with Mr. Kissinger took place in 2017, in Kent, Connecticut, where he had a second home. We were both attending a conference and agreed to spend about an hour together on a late summer afternoon. My son Ned, then a freshman in college, was with me, and Mr. Kissinger invited him to join the conversation.

He began talking to Ned, first about the dog Mr. Kissinger had hidden for a semester in his dorm room at Harvard, then about his dealings with Richard Nixon in the final days of his presidency. Next, Vietnam – with some of the most revealing comments I’ve ever heard him make about America’s faulty assumptions about the roots of the conflict. Ned asked a few questions, and it was as if the decades had melted away: Professor Kissinger was back in the seminar room, mixing anecdotes and geopolitical observations.

I just kept quiet and took notes.

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