Monday, April 02, 2007

Kissinger's Back Pages Not Pretty

Vanity Fair has a long article on Henry Kissinger during the Nixon Years written by Robert Dallek who is an excellent historian with a slight tilt to the left, but thoroughly grounded in archives, including telephone transcripts of Kissinger's phone calls to the White House.

I am going to do a sidetrack here and give up a few bits of my little trove of Kissinger anecdotes. [The rest, while illuminative, are more boring than these, but basically follow the theme of authoritarian egomania] After joining the State Dept, I served in Vietnam and then Lyon, France, where I was Vice Consul in a two-man post with Peter Tarnoff, who told me a raft of Kissinger stories. Peter was Ambassadorial Assistant to Henry Cabot Lodge in Saigon in the sixties. Lodge had run for Vice President under Nixon in 1960 and told Tarnoff that he had been asked by Nixon who would be a good person to go to Vietnam and look things over for Nixon, in case he ran for Prez in '68. Tarnoff told Lodge he'd just read a massive tome On Thermonuclear War by a Harvard Prof named Henry K and, Tarnoff recommended him although Kissinger was a Rockefeller protege. Lodge arranged for HK to do on-site Saigon sleuthing to become a "Vietnam expert." Tarnoff became close with Kissinger as did Frank Wisner and Richard Holbrooke, two of Tarnoff's FSO pals in the Embassy. While in Saigon, Kissinger acquired the nickname "Henri le baiser" because of his addiction to Vietnamese bar-girls, whom I can attest are totally seductive.

Nixon was duly elected after the catastrophic Chicago Convention separated Humphrey from the anti-war McCarthy/RFK Dems. [I participated in those festivities as well.] Kissinger became his NSC advisor and Tarnoff by this time had come to the Paris Peace Talks as US advisor. When HK first arrived, he and Peter were in an elevator together and PT asked HK how it was. Peter told me that Kissinger grabbed him by the arm and started effusively gushing "Peter, the president listens to everything I say!" Peter said HK's eyes literally bulged as he said this.

Later, when the Daniel Ellsberg Pentagon Papers fiasco hit, Peter told me that Ellsberg had sent him Polaroid photos of himself in Thailand with small boys. Peter mentioned that other friends of Ellsberg told him they had received the same kind of Bangkok billets doux.

My own experience with Kissinger came while I was Political Officer in Jidda and he arrived during the "Shuttle Diplomacy" days after the Ramadan/Yom Kippur War [the dates coincided]. I was HK's "Control Officer" and when I extended my hand to shake his hand, he looked at me with disdain. A mere FSO. His assistant Peter Rodman treated me with less disdain, as my Arabic allowed me to bargain for him in the gold suk and the weapons suq where I bought him an Arab bunduqiyya, or muzzle-loading musket. Later Rodman would live next door to me in DC, but pretended not to remember me nor my services.

At the Jidda Embassy, Isa Sabbagh was the USIS chief and Kissinger would employ Isa as his personal translator during HK's Arab visits. Isa said that Kissinger would never fail to derogate the Israelis constantly in his conversations with the Arabs, however he always left the impression that the Israelis might have the bomb and could go crazy, so in that sense Isa believed HK was playing good cop to Israel's bad cop.

Another Embassy denizen was Ed "Skip" Gnehm who had served in Damascus and had additional gossip from that embassy on HK's meetings with Assad. Isa Sabbagh said that Hafez Al-Assad and HK got along like gangbusters, with HK telling jokes on how nasty and greedy the Jews were and Assad countering with jokes on how stupid and untrustworthy the Arabs were. The one bright light for Isa was HK's admiration for Golda Meir, whom he left the impression that he highly admired. As for Assad, HK constantly told people that Assad was the smartest leader in the Middle East, period.

Later, I was introduced to SecState Vance's Executive Secretary by Peter Tarnoff, the Executive Assistant to Cy Vance [who remembered Peter when Vance was in charge of the Paris Peace Talks]. She and I became very good friends and I began to get pillow talk from the Secretary's Office. But her most interesting revelations about Kissinger, who would talk to Vance on a frequent basis, concerned her interfacing with her predecessor, Mary Musallem, who had been Secretary to the Secretary of State for everyone since Christian Herter under Ike. Mary was an attractive statuesque blonde who told my friend that HK would make passes at her. When he was spurned, as always happened, he would push everything off his desk and tell Mary to put it all back on the desk precisely as it was before.

My friend Vance's Secretary also became friends with the Russian translator for the State Dept, who sat in on conversations as was legally required with Dobrynin. The translator told her that Kissinger would often take the final transcript of the conversation and alter it so that the historical record would show something different from the actual discussions. Always to Kissinger's benefit, the translator added.

Later, after leaving the State Dept., I did a stint at Georgetown CSIS and had Kissinger [and Brzezinski] as fellow Fellows, although vastly separated by rank and accouterments [I had a cubbyhole]. Zbig B actually was courteous and civil, whereas Kissinger was unapproachable.

Even later, as Foreign Editor of the Oil Daily, I accompanied Anne Louise Hittle, who worked for Kissinger at Kissinger Associates. We were stranded in Vienna together for an OPEC meeting and she recounted her experiences as Kissinger's amanuensis/exec. secretary [she also worked for L. Paul Bremer at K Assoc. as I recall]. Anne was extremely circumspect and only described him as having the biggest ego of any person she had met in her career. And she got a bit poetic, saying it was an ego beyond her comprehension, looking down upon mere mortals as chattels in a game.

Some of these memories may have been slightly off, but back in the day, a lot of things happened that won't see the light of historical day for a while. Good those telephone transcripts couldn't be altered.

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