A few years back I was spending the weekend with the designer Oscar de la Renta and his wife, and they took me along to dinner at a neighbor’s on Saturday night. We were in rural Connecticut, and the scene and the house we visited were straight out of Norman Rockwell. The dinner party consisted of about 12 people, and my hosts were Dr. Henry and Nancy Kissinger. The wonderfully hospitable Nancy seated me one away from the good doctor, as it was my first time in their house. The Kissinger wine was of superior quality, and I indulged myself.
“May I call you Henry?” I inquired, once the wine began to have its effect.
“Soon he will be calling me Hank,” was the great man’s answer. Then he added, laughing, “Of course you may.” Ever since, Annette de la Renta and I refer to the great man as Dr. Hank. But let’s get down to business: In the long history of American diplomacy, no figure has been more savaged by commentators and cheap-shot artists than Henry Kissinger. As national security advisor to President Nixon and secretary of state during the Nixon and Ford administrations, Henry Kissinger played a pivotal role in negotiating some of the most important agreements of the Cold War. Two of his most vociferous critics were Christopher Hitchens and Arianna Huffington. If one judges a man by his enemies, Henry Kissinger has to be one of the best public servants ever, if not the best. Hitchens was a liar, a phony, an ass licker sans pareil, and master of the cheap shot. His greatest achievement was to drop dead a few years ago. My fellow Greek Huffington is a toady to the rich and powerful, and a woman who knew that Kissinger would never respond to her charges because he wouldn’t ever sink to her level.
The proof that Kissinger was a great public servant lies in the fact that he was demonized by both the left and the right. The former saw him as a Machiavellian figure who duped the country in order to prolong the Vietnam War. The latter viewed him as Metternich, willing to sell out our Vietnamese allies in order to gain a share of the Nobel Peace Prize. Both charges are ludicrous. The Nixon-Kissinger administration’s sole purpose from day one was to end the war with honor and to keep faith with the tens of millions of Vietnamese who relied on us. After Watergate broke, Congress tied the hands of the executive and withdrew all financial support. If anyone is to blame for the fall of the South it is Congress. But try telling that to the Kissinger haters.
No agreement is safe if one party decides to break it, as the North Vietnamese did. Yet addled skulls have blamed Kissinger for the Vietnam debacle, and are still at it, 40 years on. But let’s move on. One of the most vociferous opponents of Dr. Hank used to be the English writer William Shawcross, a friend of long standing whom I first met in Vietnam. He has now changed his tune and has gone as far as to admit his mistake. But Willy was and is a gent, a condition the species that make up the Fourth Estate is not very familiar with.
The latest biography of the good Dr. Kissinger is by Niall Ferguson, the British polymath and historian whose daughter Freya I am honored to be godfather to. In his opus, Ferguson explodes the perception that Kissinger is some kind of—here comes that name again—Machiavelli pulling the strings of a Nixon-Ford puppet. Kissinger, according to Niall, and to the little I know of him, is a self-deprecating, humorous man whose doctoral thesis at Harvard dealt with the work of great thinkers like Oswald Spengler, Arnold Toynbee, and Immanuel Kant. Niall also tells us how young Henry was an idealist who understood the subtlety required during the long Cold War against communism.
Needless to say, the opening to China and the Soviet Union have to be the crowning achievements of both Nixon and Kissinger, achievements that would have elevated other men to unheard-of pinnacles of glory. Just imagine what a self-serving Bill Clinton and his know-nothing secretary of state Madeleine Albright would have cashed in for, had they accomplished such feats. Kissinger was and is above all else a realist. The Chinese leadership of the time was worse than, or at least the equivalent of, Hitler and Stalin. Yet Nixon and Kissinger correctly judged that the world would be a safer place if Uncle Sam sat down and drank tea with them.
The West cries out for leadership, yet we seem to be obsessed with our lowest common denominator, the subhuman Kardashian family. The noxious blowhards of the press took their best shot at Dr. Hank; he not only survived them, but has prospered by giving expert advice to those wise enough to seek it. The disastrous war in Iraq had started the night I dined chez Nancy and Henry. If memory serves, Henry got it exactly right. This will turn into a regional crisis of an unknown magnitude—words to that effect. If only the idiots who led us into war had been there, instead of the poor little Greek boy.