Henry Kissinger’s death yesterday at the grand, round age of 100 was greeted with a broad chorus of “It’s about times” and “good riddances” and “go straight to hells.” I have always been fascinated by the intensity of the animus toward the man. And to be clear: that’s not because I necessarily disagree with the verdict.
In the quickest possible summary, during his roughly eight years as first National Security Advisor and then Secretary of State, Kissinger spearheaded or oversaw two broad policies which account for most, but by no means all, of what that vituperation is about.
First there was expanding the Vietnam War into Cambodia and Laos. This expanded the war, escalated the war, dramatically lengthened the war and killed vast numbers of people, all with an eventual conclusion to the core conflict in Vietnam, which certainly could have been had in 1969 when Kissinger first took over US foreign policy. But perhaps without all the subsequent death and destruction. Then there’s the support for and help in bringing to power brutal military dictatorships in Chile and Argentina. This sparked a generation of repression and vast numbers of people disappeared and killed.
Whatever the costs, the latter policies at least had a logic and some real success within the conceptual framework of the Cold War. The US didn’t want Argentina and Chile to go communist and they never did. In Vietnam, the US drove policies which led to the deaths of an unimaginable number of people and even on its own terms, the conceptual logic of global containment, accomplished basically nothing.
There are a whole bunch of other coups, assassinations and generally bad things that I don’t have time to get into.
There’s a lot to hate.
What has always been uncanny to me, though, is that diplomats and foreign policy hands just seldom ever figure so prominently in popular culture one way or another. Kissinger on the other hand seeps so far into the culture he might almost be like a rapper or some particularly reviled Reality TV star. Notwithstanding the slow-speeched, diminutive person he was in person, he snaps and crackles across the TV screen of history.
It’s hard to figure at some level.
The other thing that doesn’t quite fit is that Kissinger worked for two Presidents who were ultimately responsible for everything he did, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. Nixon certainly had a whole generation of haters too. And he was deeply involved in foreign policy. But in some ways even he, the bête noire of a whole generation, didn’t generate quite the intensity. Ford meanwhile … well, nobody seemed to mind him.
Meanwhile, for all the hits Nixon takes on the foreign policy front and, let’s say, his imperfect management of the rule of law in the US, his reputation is usually at least bracketed by detente and the US opening to China. But Kissinger was certainly just as involved in those arguable successes too.
So what’s the deal?
The answer, I think, is two or threefold.
First, Kissinger managed to have some very prolific and popularizing critics. Not just people who made a good case, but who wrote or spoke or published in ways and in venues that went way beyond normal historical or foreign policy debates. The best, though by no means only example of this, is the late Christopher Hitchens and his 2001 book, The Trial of Henry Kissinger, a literal book length indictment of the man for all manner of war crimes. That was followed a year later by a 2002 documentary based on the book.
In the wake of Kissinger’s death, this scathing passage from the late celebrity chef and writer Anthony Bourdain has reemerged and is making the rounds on social media. Bourdain didn’t get his hatred of Kissinger from reading books. He got it from spending time abroad, especially in Cambodia. “Once you’ve been to Cambodia, you’ll never stop wanting to beat Henry Kissinger to death with your bare hands,” Bourdain wrote in his 2001 memoir, A Cook’s Tour: Global Adventures in Extreme Cuisines. But I wondered on reading Bourdain’s comments whether visiting Cambodia alone would have spurred his focus on Kissinger. In Cambodia I have to imagine that the shattering of Cambodian society and the subsequent rise of the Khmer Rouge is something the United States did, not the US National Security Advisor. How many people ever know who the National Security Advisor even is?
Did Hitchens book focus Bourdain’s animus on Kissinger specifically? The two books both came out in 2001. So while it’s possible that Bourdain read Kissinger, the timing is a bit tight. But like with many of his targets Hitchens’ had been on Kissinger’s case for a long long time.
After I’d written most of this post a colleague of mine made clear that for him it was definitely from Bourdain that he learned that Henry Kissinger totally absolutely sucked. So who influenced who is really beside the point. They are both examples, in far flung parts of American popular culture, of the same phenomenon. Kissinger made enemies of a series of highly prolific and engaging writers and popularizers who did a very good job at spreading a very dark view of Kissinger far and wide through the culture.
From yet another vantage point, Kissinger is at the heart of bookshelves of books that a generation of baby boomers wrote about Vietnam and Watergate, two of the three formative events of their generational memory (the third being the Kennedy assassination). Many of those books are quite good. If you haven’t read Time of Illusion by Jonathan Schell, absolutely go read it. Everybody may hate the baby boomers now. But in their day, with their admittedly sometimes self-obsessed wrestling with the things that happened in their 20s, the early baby boomers generated quite a lot of literary and popular culture heat. Kissinger managed to do enough when relatively young enough to be at the center of a lot of that heat and then live enough into the age of social media for all that heat surrounding him to … well, splatter all over everything in a new way before he finally died.
The other part of the story is that from the start of his time on the national political stage, Kissinger inserted himself into the popular culture in ways that were then and remain now all but unheard of. Kissinger was a single man from 1964 and 1974 and he made sure you knew it. His personal life was the topic of the gossip columns and intrigue. Late last night The Washington Post published this article, The surprising dating life of Henry Kissinger, a West Wing ‘playboy’. He reputedly dated countless high profile actresses and female celebrities. He made appearances at Studio 54. He’s publicly credited with originating the phrase “power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.”
Is this getting awkward?
Well, this all happened. Really.
The point is that Kissinger, unlike really any diplomat in American history, pushed himself into the popular culture, the celebrity pages, TV, everything. Just after leaving office he was made an honorary member of the Harlem Globetrotters. The Times says that Kissinger appeared on the cover of Time magazine — back when that was a thing — no less than 15 times. If concern about him seems weirdly pervasive today, it was really like that, albeit in a different media age, from the beginning.
The final part of the equation is money and longevity. When Kissinger died yesterday he hadn’t held any position of formal power for almost half a century. But during that time he all but invented the business of prestige ‘geopolitical consulting.’ He routinely met with foreign heads of state until very, very late in life and made a huge amount of money doing it. That money clearly rankled everyone who took a dim view of Kissinger: If you believe the darkest view of Kissinger, he was a global war criminal who made vast sums of money off that history for decade after decade.
And then there’s the prestige and respect. While Kissinger had been the toast of the town and a most eligible bachelor in office, over time he became the ultimate wiseman, the mentor and advisor to seemingly every future Secretary of State and most Presidents. He was almost a German Jewish Billy Graham. He made so many visits to so many future chief executives, a kind of mutual association with greatness that suited both men’s purposes whether it was Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton or George Bush or Barack Obama or Donald Trump. Official Washington couldn’t quit Henry Kissinger.
And then there’s the longevity. Few prominent people make it to 100. Kissinger might have died in his 70s at some point during the Clinton administration. The fact that that didn’t happen is key. It’s hard to imagine that Hitchens would have written his book if Kissinger were no longer alive. What would be the point? Old guy who’s not even alive anymore was super bad. Who cares? The point was precisely that he was still alive, still making bank, still operating at the pinnacle of respect and prestige at least in Washington, DC and in global corridors of power. Richard Nixon was just as responsible, really more so in most ways, for everything that Kissinger did under Nixon’s presidency. But there wasn’t a chorus of people still around saying Nixon was awesome, paying him tons of money and giving him a nonstop list of awards. It was precisely in Hitchens’ transgressive nature to punch him right in the face, at least in literary terms.
In short, Kissinger’s life of wealth and respect was simply too jarring a contrast with his detractors’ account of the chaos, suffering and death he left in his wake. He lived long enough for making the case against him to remain relevant for decade after decade. As they did, that bill of particulars against Kissinger took hold in the popular culture in a way that would be unthinkable for any other diplomat or government official because Kissinger had placed himself there, unlike any in history, right at the beginning of the story.
I wanted to flag to your attention this post by John Ganz, someone who, if you’re not familiar with him, is well worth becoming familiar with. Ganz and I see the questions about Israel, the Palestinians and Zionism differently. Indeed I disagree with the title of the post I’m sending you to. But what is most important in writing, especially in commentary, is not that it be “right” but that it be illuminating. Reading what is “right” is often reading a more polished version of what we already think — the utility of which is limited. Ganz manages to approach these questions with insight as well as texture and elegance, no simple feat.
On that matter of disagreement, I want to note something about what I have written on this issue. If you read carefully, I seldom make positive arguments for any particular position or question on this topic. I tend to point up what I see as disconnects or inconsistencies in pat arguments and responses. This is partly temperamental. I don’t like making arguments or claims that aren’t packaged with strong and concrete defenses. It’s also because with all the internal media and imagery there’s a huge amount of what is going on that we simply don’t know. One such question is whether Israel’s retaliation in response to the October 7th massacres is justified.Read More
I had a clarifying moment this early afternoon sharing notes with TPM Reader MH via email. This was about the situation in Israel/Palestine but more particularly how it is impacting both people’s views and politics in the United States. What I think has happened is that the events, which began with the Hamas massacres in southern Israel on October 7th and has continued with Israel’s merciless retaliation, has pushed the discussion among not just Democrats but everyone to the left of the 50 yard line of American politics from “should Israeli policy be different” to “should Israel exist.”
The first is fairly unifying. The second is profoundly divisive and, for a non-trivial chunk of the Democratic coalition, existential.Read More
We’re back to another of those comical developments in the Republican Party and it’s relationship with its leader, Donald Trump. This morning the Koch Network announced it is supporting Nikki Haley, former South Carolina Governor and the latest forlorn hope of the billionaires who fund the GOP. She joins the heap of broken political bodies like Ron DeSantis, Glenn Youngkin and others. It raises the question: Does this completely not matter or mostly not matter? It may surprise you to learn that I’m only at “mostly doesn’t matter.” There may actually be some limited significance.
When I first started writing this post I decided to double check the latest polls. Haley is in the midst of a meteoric rise in pundit and GOP elite esteem. Lots of observers point either to polls or other evidence suggesting that if only Haley could win the nomination she’d be a lock to beat President Biden. (I actually doubt that’s true. But that’s a different story.) Candidly, I was surprised by just how much Trump is now crushing the entire GOP field. Trump is no longer sitting at about 50% or so in a big field, what by really any measure is more than enough to make him nominee. He’s now consistently 10% or 15% higher. He’s no longer at 50% support. He’s now usually 50% or more ahead of the second place vote getter.
What Haley is now accomplishing is being on the verge of surpassing the crumpled carcass of Gov. Ron DeSantis. Enough to win the small trinket, not the full stuffed animal at the fair.Read More
November 13th marked our 23rd anniversary at TPM. During these past 23 years I’ve managed to write as much as I have because I kept to a simple approach, which was following whatever aspect of US politics and political culture interested me most. This worked because it combined the exertion and mental energy most put toward ‘work’ with the off-hours hobbies, life, downtime and, if possible, fun we do outside of work. One might also call this obsession. But it worked in terms of productivity, focus and drive. Indeed, for those who enjoy the Editors’ Blog one of the things that makes it compelling is following the idiosyncrasies of my interests and particular storylines I latch on to. Or, so many are saying …
But over the last couple months that pattern has shifted for me in that my mind has been heavily preoccupied by something that isn’t US politics. The Israel-Hamas war has a clear bearing on US politics. Some people think it could turn the 2024 presidential election, though I suspect its salience will decrease dramatically over the coming months, as most big news stories do. At the moment it’s the dominant national news story in the US and has been for weeks. But it’s not really a US story. More importantly my interest in it goes far beyond its bearings on US politics. So I’ve been aware that my focus has shifted from things at the heart of US politics toward subject matter that is, in many ways parochial, communal and personal. And that’s not what TPM is about, at least not in its current iteration.
And it’s not like we’re in a slow period in American politics. But there we are.Read More
While we’re still in the extended Thanksgiving weekend, I wanted to take a moment to thank all of you, especially our members but all of our readers, on behalf of everyone at TPM. We literally couldn’t do it without you. It’s a member funded publication. The overwhelming percentage of our revenue comes directly from your monthly and annual membership fees.
We are, paradoxically and oddly at this point, a huge success story, in this strange relative sense of moving forward, having stable finances and getting ready for a hugely consequential election. This would be normal and unremarkable if not for the fact that almost everyone else is struggling or going under. It’s entirely because of our readers and their dedication to what we do. You’ve consistently been there for us. Which is amazing. And we thank you for it.
In addition to keeping us solvent it has also been a liberation for us inasmuch as basically our entire focus, both editorially and in terms of our business, is reader satisfaction. That should be the case for any successful publication. But when most of the revenue comes from advertising much of that focus is only indirect. You need to keep readers happy because without happy readers you can’t keep the advertisers happy. They’re the source of the money.
If you’re looking to do us another solid, let me remind you we’re trying to hire a new reporter and we’re looking to spread the word. You can see more on that here.
Thank you and have a great rest of the weekend.
After an email exchange TPM Reader TW flagged to my attention this Times symposium on the Oslo Process. It’s quite good, better than we usually have any business expecting from daily journalism. If you’re too young to remember the Oslo years or aren’t familiar with it, you’ll learn a lot from reading it. It’s quick and conversational, not a challenging read. If you are familiar you’ll probably learn some new nuances and details. The gist and one many of us know is that peace was genuinely sought after by both sides and I think it was really possible. History is full of contingencies, things that might have gone one way or another. Those contingencies build on each other to create what is usually the illusion of inevitability. But there were also basic structural flaws to the process and the standing participants which led to failure.
The core structural flaw was that the process was open-ended. In theory there was a five year deadline, but just what was supposed to happen over that five years or what end state it would arrive at at the end of five years was never clear. That meant that enemies of the process on both sides had plenty of time to destroy it. And they were able to do that because the players in power on the both sides were weak.Read More
In a few recent posts we’ve discussed the question of whether one state or two states is the most logical or possible resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (You can see my argument here.) A few days ago TPM Reader RC sent me this April Foreign Affairs article, Israel’s One-State Reality. It was written by three scholars at GW and another at the University of Maryland. The piece was interesting to me because it illustrates a lot of what the one state argument is really about. As the title suggests, the article is not so much an argument that one state in Israel-Palestine is a solution to anything but an assertion that it is the current reality.
In other words, Israel’s not a country that functions as a democracy while controlling occupied territories whose final status will be decided at some point in the future. It’s a single country in which all Jews have political and civil rights and most Palestinians have limited civil rights and no political rights. Given that the post-67 occupation has persisted for 56 years, this argument has many merits to it. But what is the import of that assertion? In itself it’s simply a definitional claim. That part comes next. It’s an argument for the withdrawal of US support and some escalating framework of sanctions to compel Israel to come up to international standards in which one ethnic group or most of it facing systemic legal discrimination just isn’t okay.Read More
I recognize that this post is somewhat preaching to the choir. But I wanted to discuss Elon Musk’s lawsuit against Media Matters for America. If you haven’t followed this closely a brief recap: Since purchasing Twitter, Musk has been in a battle both to make the platform a free-fire zone for racists, Nazis and other violent and bad actors and keep advertisers, who don’t want to be associated with those people, on the platform. He has made the matter more coherent by, incrementally over the last year, himself becoming the most prominent of those racists and Nazis. This is not hyperbole. He now routinely promotes and explicitly agrees with the most ghastly and dangerous forms of antisemitism and racism.
The pattern is consistent and clear: 1) Musk either promotes or parrots racist or anti-semitic speech. 2) Activist groups catalogue the prevalence of such speech on the platform and in some cases records advertisements appearing immediately adjacent to those posts and speech. 3) Advertisers get upset and pull their ads. 4) Elon Musk gets upset and sues (or threatens to sue) the activist group. It has the fixed pattern and regularity of cellular respiration, only with money and bad people.Read More
In case you were feeling too rosy about the state of the world, it’s worth reading this new article by Zvi Bar’el in Haaretz (sub.req.) about “day after” scenarios in Gaza. You can believe, as I do, that Israel is and was justified in and in fact obligated to destroy Hamas’s de facto army in Gaza after the events of October 7th. Here Bar’el goes into some depth about the utter lack of any realistic plan about what comes after that happens, assuming it does happen.
I’ve already noted the malign role of the disgraced Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He is of course ideologically opposed to any move toward self-rule or statehood for any of the Palestinian territories. At the moment what is equally important is that he sees leaving the military and “day after” questions unresolved being in his personal and political self-interest.
That is only the beginning of the problems.Read More