BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Walter Isaacson, author of the biography "Kissinger." You say in Chapter 33, Kissinger Associates, that Mr. Kissinger now makes $8 million a year. How does he do it?
WALTER ISAACSON, AUTHOR, "KISSINGER:" Well, first of all, he serves his consulting firm, Kissinger Associates, serves as a sort of private national security adviser and secretary of state, to about 30 major corporations around the world, such as American Express, Freeport-McMoRan Minerals, Chase Manhattan Bank, Volvo, companies like that. And for each of them, they pay about $250,000 a year retainer, plus $100,000 per month for a project fee if there's a special project they want either Dr. Kissinger or the two or three associates--main associates he has in the firm--to do for them. Plus, Dr. Kissinger makes money as on boards of directors. He makes money for his speaking fees. He charges up to $35,000 a speech. And so it all adds up to quite a lucrative post-government work.
LAMB:Two of the people that used to be in Kissinger & Associates, Brent Scowcroft and Larry Eagleburger, are at the prime positions in foreign policy in the Bush administration. Is there any kind of a back and forth between all those people now?
ISAACSON: Well, he's still in touch with Scowcroft and Eagleburger, and they're both still supporters of Kissinger. And the interesting thing is their ideology, their sort of realism, their notions of balance of power, their real politique, that you see in both Lawrence Eagleburger, the current acting secretary of state, and Brent Scowcroft, the national security adviser. I mean, they not only work with Kissinger and Kissinger Associates, but they go way back. Lawrence Eagleburger was Kissinger's right-hand man, his personal aide in 1969 when Kissinger first became national security adviser for President Nixon. And, likewise, Brent Scowcroft became the deputy national security adviser in 1972 or '73. So they go way back with Kissinger, and they share his philosophy of the world, which is one of understanding balances of power, realizing that power rather than sentiment or morality or human rights determines the way the world works. And understanding that America has certain interests and you have to pursue those interests in the world sometimes with a cold and calculating sense of realism.
LAMB:Ross Perot has a little book out that's number one on the best-sellers
LAMB:...of the paperback on The New York Times, and one of the proposals he makes in there is that no one working in government or certainly in the White House should ever have contact with foreign governments once they've left government. He says this has bankrupt our system. What would happen to Henry Kissinger if he wasn't allowed--if that proposal...
ISAACSON: Well, technically, he wouldn't be in too much trouble. He does not lobby on behalf of foreign governments. If you look at the spectrum of influence peddling in Washington, it's not a very honorable tradition, but it's an old tradition in Washington. On the one end of the spectrum, you've got Mike Deaver, say, who, the minute he leaves government pretty much cashes in on his connections as quickly as possible and ends up in legal trouble for it.
On the other end of the spectrum, you have such venerable statesmen as even Clark Clifford or, you know, people like that who make influence peddling seem like an honorable thing. Kissinger is somewhere in the middle, and I say that because he did not lobby the US government for four or five years until after he left office. Still, he does not do any direct lobbying with the State Department or the executive branch. He's not really a lobbyist. Thirdly, he does not represent foreign governments or any government entity.
What he does is he represents corporations. He serves as an adviser and a strategic adviser to them. He doesn't lobby for them in front of the US government, but he helps them get contacts overseas, understand foreign governments, understand what investments they might want to make in Indonesia, who they need to talk to, that sort of thing.
So I think under the Ross Perot--I haven't--I'm not sure of all Ross Perot's rules that he would set up--Kissinger would squeak by. I do think that it does present some conflicts of interest when a guy goes from government to out of government and appears to be cashing in on the connections he made and, for that matter, in Kissinger's case, somebody who serves as a commentator who is was paid by ABC and then NBC as a commentator, now on the board of CBS, appears on CBS, writes a newspaper column. When he's writing, say, a newspaper column or appearing on the news, saying, `We shouldn't impose sanctions on China' after the Tiananmen Square massacre, it would have helped if he would have said, `And, by the way, I represent ARCO, which is doing an oil and gas exploration business in China. I represent H.J. Heinz, which is trying to open a baby food factory in China. I've formed a group called China Ventures with Coca-Cola, which is another client, and a few other clients that are looking to do ventures in China.' And he could say--and I think he'd be right to say--it would be truthful if he said, `My opinions about China aren't influenced because I have these clients there.'
As Winston Lord, one of his great supporters and aides, said--and I'm sure Kissinger didn't like the way he phrased it, but it's true--said, `Henry Kissinger does not need a penny of financial interests in order to support repressive dictatorships around the world. He does it naturally.' So I think he probably would have felt the same way about China if he didn't have these interests. But you get into an appearance of a conflict there when you're going in and out of government, in and out of commentary, in and out of working for private corporations. It would help to be a little bit more open than he is and a little bit more forthright than he is about what his various interests are.
LAMB:If we wanted to hire him, how much would it cost us? Let's say we had a little company...
LAMB:No. I mean--no, the two of us...
ISAACSON: Me and you?
LAMB:...we had a little joint deal...
ISAACSON: Probably a lot, about--if we had a normal corporation, he would charge about $250,000 just to be on retainer. For that, we would only get three or four briefings a year in which he and one of his assistants came and said, `OK, the Brian Lamb-Walter Isaacson Corporation wants to open a copper mine in Indonesia. Here's a briefing on what's happening in the South Pacific and in Asia and what's happening in Indonesia--the trends you should worry about, that sort of thing.' Now if we decided, `Well, we need a mineral concession in Indonesia,' the way Freeport-McMoRan did a few years ago, and we said to him, `Could you come help us set that up?' He'd say, `Sure. I know people in Indonesia.' And he would fly with us perhaps, if we, you know, were able to talk him into it, like he did for the chairman of Freeport-McMoRan. He'd fly into Indonesia, and he would introduce the corporate leaders to the finance minister or the prime minister and other important figures in Indonesia. And for that, we'd pay about $100,000 per month of his time extra.
LAMB:And when he does this, what goes along with it? In other words, you said that when he got out of government, that one of the first things he did was set up a security unit of five people.
ISAACSON: Mm-hmm. Well, I mean, what goes along with it is, first of all, the name Henry Kissinger. If you're a company like ours--say, our new company that you and I have formed--and we're not very well known in Morocco or in Malaysia or in Indonesia or Singapore, if we have Henry Kissinger acting as our consultant, we get entree into the top levels of government. Also, you get the strategic insights. I mean, he is a brilliant man. I know that my book has been interpreted as being critical of him, and he certainly thinks it's far too critical of him, but I hope I also display or show--put on display his ability to understand linkages in foreign policy. For example, how something you do in China might affect the relationships you have in Malaysia. Or how dealings in the Middle East might affect your ability to do
similar dealings in Eastern Europe.
LAMB:What I meant by going along was do you have to supply an airplane for him...
ISAACSON: Oh, I see what you mean.
LAMB:...and does he have his own security, and does he travel like he used to when he was secretary of state?
ISAACSON: Well, you know, he doesn't like to give up the perks that he had when he was secretary of state. There are certain people who, as soon as they leave office, they retire back into that semi-obscurity that is the luxury of people who have already been famous, and they get to go into restaurants unnoticed, they fly commercial, that sort of thing. Henry Kissinger does not like to fly commercial. He does not like to enter restaurants unnoticed. So among other things, if he's going to do something for us in Indonesia, he's going to want to borrow the corporate jet. He's
going to want to be flown around.
He has three or four security guards at all times, which helps. I mean, not only does he have to worry about his own security somewhat, but anybody who enters a meeting with three security guards, two preceding and then one coming after, sort of enters with a bit of a splash. You notice that Henry Kissinger has arrived, and in Manhattan, it means you don't have to wait at the bar for a table at a fancy restaurant if your security guards are coming in with you. So he likes to travel with all the pomp and circumstance that is befitting a secretary of state, and I think that adds to his aura.
I mean, one thing that people ask me when we talk about Kissinger is, `Why is
it, 15 years after he left office, he's still a larger-than-life personality?' He's still somebody who's on all the talk shows, and he's on "MacNeil-Lehrer," or when he enters a restaurant, or when he speaks, he still commands a great awe as well as animosity?' I mean, he arouses strong emotions, unlike, say, Cyrus Vance or Edmund Muskie or, you know, other people who have been secretary of state. And I think the reason is he works at it. He works at keeping his celebrity aura, at keeping his image high. And that comes with flying around with retainers and security guards and being tightly scheduled and making sure you're on TV all the time. So I think he tends to his celebrity.
In this media age, by the way, you know, you look at C-SPAN and networks like this, that has sort of created a new media age, he has learned one of the true secrets of the media age, because all of us knew that if you're powerful, it translates into celebrity. But he realizes it works the other way. If you keep your celebrity or if you're a celebrity, it translates into power because people are more interested in what you say if you're a celebrity. You can command a higher speaking fee. You can command a higher consulting fee. And when you arrive in Indonesia or India or Egypt or Morocco, it's more likely that the prime minister or the king is going to want to call you in and have you in for lunch if you're a big celebrity. So I think that was the secret he understood about the media age.
LAMB:How irritated is he about this book?
ISAACSON: Well, he's upset about the portrayal of his personality, the fact that his methods were secretive, that he had a reputation for being duplicitous as a secretary of state. And these all come from the tales in the book. I think that he's very upset about that. He--I assume he's not too upset about the fact that’s not too upset about the way I present his foreign policy, because I think his foreign policy, especially in
the Middle East--detente with the Soviet Union, the opening to China--were all brilliant moves that helped establish America's role in the world after Vietnam. So he's not upset, I don't think, with the policy in the book.
One of his good lines, if I may paraphrase it, is, when asked about the book, he says, `Well, I hate the book, but I like the title.'
LAMB:By the way, there was another book called "Kissinger."
ISAACSON: Yes. Marvin Kalb and Bernard Kalb did a book in 1973. That was before Watergate and before Nixon resigned, so it came out kind of early--this was about 20 years ago. And it's a favorable book, a sympathetic book to Kissinger, but also a very good book, one that's a very thoughtful book.
LAMB:How long did you work on this?
ISAACSON: About seven years. Getting back to whether he likes it or not, he did get very mad at William Hyland, as you may have heard. Bill Hyland was one of his longtime aides and a very close friend and supporter of Kissinger's. And Hyland, retiring now as editor of Foreign Affairs.
LAMB:By the way, this is Anwar Sadat, not Bill Hyland.
ISAACSON: Yeah. Right. But, anyway, when--Hyland's retirement party, Kissinger was supposed to be the speaker--a week ago. And when Hyland gave the book a good review--my Kissinger biography a good review in Foreign Affairs, Kissinger backed out and got very angry at him. So I think he's angry about the book, but partly, if I may say so, I think if he read it carefully and if he weren't quite so thin-skinned--and he certainly admits to being thin-skinned--I mean, he's notoriously so and jokes about it--he would realize that the book is, on balance, favorable to much of his foreign policy. But at the moment, I think he's pretty angry about the book.
LAMB:When you decided to do this seven years ago, how'd you go about it?
ISAACSON: Well, first of all, I had done a book with a friend of mine called "The Wise Men," which brought us up to the Vietnam period. That was about an earlier group of statesmen--Dean Acheson, Averell Harriman and that crowd. So I decided I wanted to take it into the Vietnam period and I wanted to use Kissinger as the most complex, brilliant, devious, interesting, intriguing character we had through which you could see Vietnam, detente, and that period in our foreign policy. So I wrote him a note--Dr. Kissinger had written some nice things about "The Wise Men." I wrote him a note saying I'd like to--`I'm about to embark on a biography of you,' and he expressed no real enthusiasm. He said, `Go ahead if you want.' And, `I'm not sure I'll cooperate.'
But I knew that I couldn't let him have the right to determine whether or not I did the book or let it be an authorized book, where he had some control over it. So I embarked and just went ahead and started doing the book. I interviewed a lot of his friends, interviewed his family members, began gathering papers and documents, interviewed people who were in government with him, and after a while, he became more and more willing, I could sense, to talk. It is a subject, I may say, that's quite interesting to Henry Kissinger. That's Henry Kissinger.
And so after a while, it became easier to get interviews with him. In fact, he was quite eager to talk because he loves to explain his side of the story. He likes to try to convert his critics. He likes to try to woo both adversaries and allies to charm. And he loves talking about and justifying what he did in government. So by the time I really got rolling on the book, I was able to talk with him, I guess, close to two dozen times. And even sometimes late at night, I'd get a phone call because he would hear that I've interviewed--I think it started when I interviewed Arthur Schlesinger about whether or not tenure go--whether Kissinger got tenure at Harvard right away, why he was delayed a bit for tenure. But I got a call from Dr. Kissinger at one point sort of saying, `Arthur Schlesinger does not understand the tenure system at Harvard. I was not seeking tenure that year.' And so he be--you know, he would find out what--what avenues I was pursuing and often give me a call to set me straight.
LAMB:How old is he?
ISAACSON: Kissinger turned 70 in May.
LAMB:And how active is he today?
ISAACSON: Oh, very active. He's scheduled months and months in advance. He has that sort of bustling air of impatient that very important people have around them. His--if you know, he's scheduled hour by hour, you know, through the next couple of months. He's always too tightly scheduled and he's always dashing around from a business meeting to some social function to some gala party to some visit to some foreign minister, travel plans. And so he's very, very active and no sign of slowing down.
LAMB:You list everybody that you interviewed.
LAMB:A hundred and fifty interviews. And the names go all the way from
Benazir Bhutto to Jill St. John.
ISAACSON: Yes, right.
LAMB:From Richard Nixon to Nguyen Van Thieu.
LAMB:Of all those 150--and it's listed in the back, and we'll show the audience what it looks like--who do you remember the most?
ISAACSON: Oh, interviewing Richard Nixon was the most interesting bit of it. I had a couple of informal sessions with Richard Nixon before he granted me a full-fledged interview.
LAMB:What does that mean, informal?
ISAACSON: Well, went over to his office or to his house in New Jersey. We'd sit around talking. It would not really be on the record. At one point, he was excerpting his own memoirs, and I was working on that a little bit. At another point, it was just a dinner where he was talking. And you could tell this ambivalence he felt towards Kissinger. I mean, he is a man who admires Kissinger's mind enormously but is very wary of Kissinger's personality and very jealous of the acclaim Henry Kissinger got for things that Nixon feels was--should--you know, the credit should go to Nixon. And so he would all of his sentences--Nixon's sentences about Kissinger would have spin on them, if you know what I mean. He would say, `Well, I'm not one to say that Henry Kissinger is paranoid, but--and some people do, of course, say he's paranoid'--that's Nixon talking--`but'--and then he would go on to tell some tale about Kissinger doing something or Kissinger losing his temper. But he was always admiring of Kissinger's mind.
And when I did my formal interview, I was there, and he said, `Do you tape your interviews?' And I said, `No, I take shorthand pretty rapidly, and it's easier for me than taping.' And he said--he pulls out a little microcassette tape recorder, and he says, `I hope you don't mind, but as you know, I like to tape things.' I thought he was kind of joking because the White House tapes were what got him in trouble, but he puts a little tape recorder there and wants to tape the interview. About half an hour into it, the tape gets kind of--it runs out and he's trying to turn it over and it gets stuck. He was kind of all thumbs with his little microcassette. And finally, he says, `Oh, I was never very good at taping things. I was'--you know, and so I looked up as sort of to smile, thinking he was making a joke, but he seemed serious about it.
He said--but he was a very--I shouldn't make fun of the President Nixon, very interesting guy, very sharp, very good memory of exactly the balances of power they created, why they did things, and although it was exciting to spend time with Richard Nixon, the most important thing was truly trying to understand the basis for this triangular diplomacy between the Soviet Union--you know, detente with the Soviet Union on one hand, opening to China, playing the two off against each other, seeing how that would affect Vietnam if you play China off against the Soviet Union, and how America could retain a role in the world. So to hear him talk about that was very interesting.
LAMB:I don't know if you noticed it, but there are very few pictures of Mr.
Kissinger and Mr. Nixon together in here.
ISAACSON: Oh, really? There are -- there exists many such pictures. I think there's one of them...
ISAACSON: ...in the executive office building hideaway, if you show
LAMB:There is, but, you know, none--none of those tight, up-close shots of the two of them.
ISAACSON: Well, in the executive--they used to sit in that room and that's the hideaway office across the street from the White House in the executive office building. And that's a very typical scene there, because Nixon would sit there with his feet propped up and he'd take a yellow legal pad and make little notes. And he would spend hours just ruminating about the world. And one of Nixon's strengths, as well as his weaknesses, was that he would love to circle around a subject for hours and take different angles on it. And, of course, that was bugged--that room--and the White House tapes caught him in that room many times. I guess he forgot the tapes were on.
But it was in that room where he was ruminating about what to do about the White House burglars at one point--not with Kissinger--but that's what got him in trouble because he said, `Well, we could pay them hush money, but that would be wrong.' You remember that scene? Well, that was typical of Nixon to sort of look at it from this angle, look at it from that angle. And what Kissinger would have to do is hear Nixon talk about all the different angles of foreign policy they could do and figure out which would be the most sensible to pursue, because Nixon would almost throw all these ideas up into the air.
So they would sit in that room for hours just sort of figuring out what would happen--what would China do if we did this with the Soviet Union, how would the North Vietnamese react--or how would Moscow react if we started bombing Hanoi right before the summit in Moscow? And, you know, they would -- they were sort of conspirators as they sat there in that room and figured out foreign policy. Also, very secretive. As they sat in that room, they cut out the State Department, they cut out the Defense Department from all their deliberations, and if you look at the opening to China, it was done without the State Department even knowing. It was Kissinger's secret trip. If you look at the Paris peace talks on Vietnam, Kissinger was handling those secretly behind the backs of the State Department that was conducting the real negotiations or the official negotiations. State Department didn't even know that Kissinger was doing this.
Likewise with the arms control talks with the Soviet Union, and likewise with the secret bombing of Cambodia. So you'd have Nixon and Kissinger sit in the office there and make all of these plans and keep them--keep the rest of the government in the dark.
LAMB:You leave us with the impression in the book that you may have the fullest account written of that famous scene--first written in the Woodward...
ISAACSON: Oh, yeah. "The Final Days."
LAMB:...and Bernstein "Final Days" book--when supposedly Mr. Kissinger and Mr. Nixon got down on their knees and prayed and all that. How did you put that scene together?
ISAACSON: Well, there are only two major participants in that scene, Dr. Kissinger and President Nixon, and both are uncomfortable talking about it, but I raised the issue and went through the scenarios and got their versions to the extent that they were willing to talk. But one interesting thing about that scene--and Woodward and Bernstein got it basically right--that struck me as I was doing the research is how it leaked out. And what happened was after Nixon and Kissinger have talked for about an hour in the Lincoln sitting room and Nixon's going to resign the presidency the next day and Nixon asked Kissinger to kneel down and pray with him, and they do and they pray and Nixon cries, and Kissinger tells him that he'll be remembered better by history than he is by contemporaries. Well, what happens is drenched with sweat, his shirt soaked, Kissinger goes back to his office in the West Wing of the White House. And there waiting for him--we just talked about these two men, Brent Scowcroft and Lawrence Eagleburger, two of his closest aides. And they're waiting for Kiss--they know that Kissinger has been summoned over to the executive mansion, and they're waiting for him to get back to the office in the West Wing.
So he gets back and starts to retell the tale, and then the private phone line from the president rings on Kissinger's phone. Now Kissinger, somewhat secretly, was taping every phone conversation that came into his office. And overnight, a battery of transcribers would come in and transcribe those phone conversations, and he kept records. There was also a dead key, so somebody else in the office, if he wanted them to, could pick up the phone and listen in and you wouldn't hear the click, because it was just a phone you could listen in on and didn't make any noise. So the phone rings, unbeknownst—or they weren't thinking about it, but automatically the tape machines go on, and Eagleburger picks up the dead key and listens in, and Nixon...
LAMB:What's the dead key?
ISAACSON: The dead key is where you pick up an extension phone and you can listen in on the conversation without it making a sound. It doesn't click, so it allows--it was just really an extension phone that allowed Eagleburger to listen in. And he--and Nixon says to Kissinger, `Please don't tell them what just happened. Don't tell them I was weak. Don't tell them I cried.' And Kissinger says, `If I ever speak of this scene, I will speak of it in terms of respect,' which, by the way, Kissinger does speak of Nixon in terms of respect about this scene.
So Eagleburger has--and then the next morning Scowcroft comes in, and there are the tape recordings of this whole conversation as well as a transcript of them. And I interviewed General Scowcroft about this, and he said that, on Kissinger's authority, he destroyed those tapes and got rid of those transcripts. So Eagleburger, Scowcroft, Kissinger and Nixon all sort of knew about this scene, and that's at least how I tried to piece it together for the book.
LAMB:Let me ask you about connections and networking and all that. Basically, right here where you're sitting, we take calls and have taken calls...
LAMB:...since 1980, and a day--or let's say a week or two can't go by without somebody calling up about the conspiracy theories of foreign policy in this country...
LAMB:...and all the connections. So as you started talking about these different institutions, I wrote them down, kept pulling them out of the book, and I want to ask you about the connections.
LAMB:Council on Foreign Relations.
LAMB:What does that have to do with Henry Kissinger?
ISAACSON: Well, Kissinger is--whenever you have the people call in and talk about conspiracy theories or whatever--and I've seen it when I used to be on the campaign trail. You get these leaflets, and they all have arrows and exclamation points and the connections between various institutions. And Henry Kissinger and Nelson Rockefeller and David Rockefeller are always sort of at the center of it. The Council on Foreign Relations is really just a discussion group and club in New York City founded about 70, 75 years ago to discuss foreign affairs. It's largely funded by the old boy establishment network of the foreign policy elite in the East Coast, partly John McCloys and the Rockefellers and that sort of thing. It's not an insidious institution. It's a perfectly respectable place. I guess its only drawback is it's occasionally quite boring if people drone on and on. But it's not some conspiracy or the heart of some conspiracy to control the world.
What it is, is internationalist foreign policy establishment, a lot of bankers, so if you distrust the East Coast foreign policy establishment and international banking, you would distrust the Council on Foreign Relations. But it's not part of an evil conspiracy. Henry Kissinger got his start there, to some extent. He was a graduate student at Harvard, about to become an assistant professor at Harvard. He takes some time off, goes to the Council on Foreign Relations to run one of their study groups. The study group is on nuclear weapons and foreign policy. David Rockefeller, a lot of other people are involved. He writes a book on it, nuclear weapons and foreign policy, that's published by the Council on Foreign Relations, becomes a best seller. It helps redefine our thinking about nuclear weapons and how they affect the conduct of foreign policy. After that, he becomes associated with the Rockefellers and works for Nelson Rockefeller right after working at the council on one of Nelson Rockefeller's Critical Choice series, where, you know, Rockefeller would gather thinkers to think about, you know, the choices facing America. So he became connected to Nelson Rockefeller and to the council, and through them, I guess, the next group you might mention would be the Trilateral Commission, right?
LAMB:First, are you a member of the Council on Foreign Relations?
ISAACSON: Yes, I've been a -- I am a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.
LAMB:And how does someone like you become a member?
ISAACSON: Oh, they--they pick some young people to--I was--I work at Time magazine. I cover foreign policy. They start off by giving term memberships to younger people, and then eventually I was elected a member. I think the membership of the council spans a huge spectrum--there are people on all sides of the spectrum. They're young as well as old. I think the one connective tissue, if I may so, is--it is sort of an internationalist foreign policy establishment body.
LAMB:Is there one thing that everybody that comes together there usually believes in?
ISAACSON: No. I mean, I'm not very favorable to Henry Kissinger, but he's a member. I'm a member. I've don't think--I guess I've seen him there once in my life. It's thousands of members, and you go to a particular evening or particular lunch where they're having, you know, the Japanese foreign minister be a speaker and maybe 100 people will go out of the thousands of people who are members. So you don't really--it's not like a club in which you know most of the other members.
LAMB:And how do you get...
ISAACSON: But--so there's no connective tissue. It's not like you all have to subscribe--everybody has to subscribe to a certain theory of government.
LAMB:How do you get selected for it?
ISAACSON: They have a--they elect about--I don't know how many they elect. I'm not--I'm not very good at--I'm not that closely involved with the council. And--although I'll defend the council, I'm not on the membership committees or the board, but I think there's a membership committee that elects a couple of dozen people a year. You get nominated by other people. And anybody who deals in foreign affairs can be a member. It's not--there's no exclusion, no litmus test, a philosophy. It's not liberal or conservative or Republican or Democrat. And if you are put up for membership, I think the only real criteria is, `Have you had any involvement, either as a businessman, a lawyer, or a journalist, in deal--or a government official or an academic, in dealing with foreign affairs?' Since I was a journalist, I'd dealt in foreign affairs some, and, you know--I mean, I know George Bush was a member and he felt he had to resign because so many people raised it as a criticism, but I think it goes from, you know, William Buckley to Daniel Ellsberg have probably all been members of the council.
ISAACSON: Trilateral Commission is far more elite and harder to get into. My definition of elite and hard to get into is that nobody would ever invite me to be in it. It's people who are in--it's called trilateral because they're interested in Japan, Europe and the United States--the relationship between the three major economic powers. Also, somewhat funded and started by the Rockefellers--were large contributors to help start this thing. It's mainly for international businessmen and people who deal in Japanese, European and American relations. And it doesn't have a particular clubhouse or anything or some house where people go, but they have meetings--I don't know--I think maybe two or three times a year, I'm not particularly sure.
LAMB:And the Bilderberg Group.
ISAACSON: Oh, yeah, that's--Kissinger was very involved in the Bilderberg Group and, as I say, it's not something that I've ever been asked to join, and so I don't have any--I'd write about it in the book and what I know about is what people who are members have told me. It first met in the Hotel Bilderberg, I think, in Holland about 30, 40 years ago. George Ball was one of the founders. He was a great international lawyer and diplomat of the United States. And there were two European founders, and it's there to promote good European-American relations. And especially for the East Coast foreign policy establishment types, including some who are in the Council on Foreign Relations, the Bilderberg Group serves as a way to form connections with similar people in Europe.
And I think they meet at least once a year. The last meeting was a year or so ago on Long Island, as a matter of fact. It's not usually in the United States, but last year it was. And it's a group of people from all over Europe and the United States who come together to discuss foreign affairs.
LAMB:The Bohemian Club.
ISAACSON: Bohemian Grove--that's more of a social organization. It's a club in California where people go mainly in the summertime. They have camps and they--sort of cots and sort of outdoor camp-type things, where grown men, usually wealthy industrialists and others, get together for a week or so of discussions, lectures, putting on skits, singing, and probably a lot of drinking and just having a good time. And it's President Reagan, President Ford, George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, a lot of people have been members of the Bohemian Grove.
LAMB:How about the Metropolitan Club here in Washington?
ISAACSON: I don't know much about that.
LAMB:But you write--you wrote that a lot of meetings were held there, and...
LAMB:...it seemed to weave in and out of your book.
ISAACSON: Yeah. It's a good gentlemen's club for members of the Washington establishment, especially for old-time Washingtonians, not the people who rotate in and out from one administration, but I--for example, Joseph Alsop and people like that who are the distinguished Washington establishment--are generally members of the Metropolitan Club.
LAMB:One of your chapter heads has to do with Georgetown in Washington. Why did you write about Georgetown and Henry Kissinger?
ISAACSON: Well, Kissinger became our first celebrity statesman or celebrity diplomat, and he realized that in order to be popular in the Nixon administration, not popular with President Nixon, who hated this, but be popular with the press and all, he had to be on the Georgetown party circuit. So he loved going--and he was the toast of the town. He was the most eagerly sought dinner guest in Georgetown. But all the Georgetown social circuit, including, you know, Katharine Graham to Joseph Kraft to Joseph Alsop, the Bradens, that crowd--he was the toast of their dinner tables. And it helped him form good relationships with, say, the columnists, people—you know, newspaper columnists, TV commentators, as well as the real opinion makers, because that, as you know, being here in Washington, is the way a lot of the wheels are greased in Washington--is that people may want to leak a little something about how a particular person in government is not doing very well, who has some crazy theory. And the way to do it is to tell the tale at a dinner party, and within maybe six hours, it's spread all over Washington. Kissinger was a master at going to the dinner parties, cultivating the commentators, and getting a good press as a result.
LAMB:You write--it shows in here that you had interviews with Susan Mary
LAMB:You had an interview with Polly Kraft, with Katharine Graham.
LAMB:A lot of these interviews have to do with the stories of how Henry Kissinger used to try to manipulate their husbands or how they tried to
manipulate Katharine Graham.
LAMB:What did--tell the story about Joe Kraft and writing something and he to call him.
ISAACSON: Yeah. Well, Kraft wrote--Kraft was somewhat of a liberal columnist, and although he was a friend of Kissinger's, he was one of the few people who understood an essential truth about Henry Kissinger, which is that the way to get his attention was not to try to curry favor with him, but to criticize some of his policies, because Kissinger would then try to engage and want to convince you otherwise. And he almost had more respect for people who stood up and challenged him. Well, Kraft wrote a column, I think, about Cambodia and about how bad the Cambodia policy was. Kissinger was furious, and instead of cutting Kraft off and not giving him any more interviews, he started calling up and he wanted to talk to Kraft. Kraft was in bed, so Polly Kraft, his wife, was saying, `I'm sorry. I'm not going to wake him up. He doesn't want to wake up. He--you can talk about it in the morning.' Kissinger called back again. Finally, the doorbell rings, and there's Henry Kissinger standing on the doorstep in Georgetown saying he has to see Joseph Kraft to convince him. And Kraft comes out in his robe and they sit up late into the night with Kissinger trying to explain Cambodia to him.
LAMB:Did--you leave the impression that he invented the background, the deep background, the not for attribution, the...
ISAACSON: Well, he was the one who played that game quite a bit. He loved dealing with the press, and most of the time he would talk, not for quotation--in other words, he wouldn't talk on the record. But instead of just talking off the record, which means the stuff can't be used, he was the one who perfected the notion of having different grades, such as he would talk on background, which meant whatever he said could be used, but it couldn't be directly quoted to Henry Kissinger. And that's how the phrase `a senior administration official' or `a senior White House official' was often used when Kissinger said something.
And then he'd sometimes talk on deep background, which meant nothing could be really quoted at all, but the reporter could use the information, but not attribute it in any way. So he had all those rules. Every now and then it would get too complicated, and once he was talking on deep background about how Nixon might cancel a summit meeting with the Soviet Union if something didn't happen. And he was pushing the Soviets to do something. He hadn't even consulted with Nixon on this, and Nixon was outraged when this came out. But, worse yet, it was such a big piece of news, The Washington Post decided it couldn't just keep it on deep background, couldn't say, `According to those familiar with the administration's thinking, the summit might be canceled.' They decided to go ahead and say, `Henry Kissinger says this.'
So that caused a great bit of hand writing, and Kissinger quit using background briefings, especially to The Post. There was a lot of discussion--finally, The Post was brought back into the ranch, and they started going to the background briefings again and started keeping them on background. But he was the one who could--I mean, as one reporter said, he played the press like a fiddle, because he was so interesting, he was so expansive, he was so great at explaining foreign policy, that reporters naturally gravitated towards him as a source.
LAMB:Throughout your book, you define--you use the word `obnoxious' and `arrogant' and you say that he mistreated secretaries, and you have a whole chapter on wire taps and how he wire tapped his friends and his colleagues and all that. Is all that true? Did you hear...
ISAACSON: Yeah. Well, I mean, I'm quoting people. I don't think on my own accord I would ever call him that. But there are people who tell the tales, and, sure, he had an enormous temper. He was very thin-skinned, and Les Gelb, who's now a columnist for The New York Times, but who was a student of Kissinger's at Harvard, worked a little bit with Kissinger in government, went in and out of government around the time Kissinger was--he said that Kissinger was the typical product of an authoritarian background, Kissinger being from Nazi Germany. He said he was a devious with his peers, obsequious to his superiors, and domineering towards his subordinates. And that's the aspect of Kissinger's personality I found very unattractive.
He was always playing people off against each other, degenerating people, talking about people behind their backs. He wasn't necessarily outright duplicitous, saying one thing to one side and one thing to the other side--another thing to the other side, but he came close. He would allow one side to believe the doves or the liberals--that he agreed with them, and then he'd go talk to conservatives and hawks. He'd let them feel that he agreed with that side, so he got a reputation for being duplicitous.
LAMB:Why did people put up with it?
ISAACSON: Well, he was charming. He was brilliant. He was powerful, and a lot of people didn't. They got very mad at him. He made a lot of enemies. He was the most venerated and most respected secretary of state in many ways, but he was also the most hated secretary of state. And if you read the book, everybody I talked to talked on the record, because I didn't want people to denigrate Kissinger under the cloak of anonymity. So of all the 150 people you talked about, they're all cited by name, footnote and stuff, but he didn't get away with it, in fact, somebody once said he was not really that masterful of a liar because if he was more masterful, he wouldn't have such a reputation for being one. He kept getting caught at it.
But, you know, you look at what James Schlesinger says about the--Kissinger in the book. I mean, he says that, you know--I think one of his quotes was, "Most people when they lie look to shame, but when Henry Kissinger lies, he does it as a matter of his own nature, because it's like an Arabesque to him." Or Helmut Sonnenfeldt, who worked for Kissinger, who said, you know, `Kissinger doesn't lie because it's in his interest. He lies because it's in his nature.' So, you know, he didn't get--Kissinger did not get away with it that much, because even people who sort of liked him, even people who worked with him, even people who respected his mind, still were upset and would talk on the record about his--what they considered to be his devious personality.
LAMB:You, though, said--and I don't know where it is--five people would not allow you to quote them. What did you do with all that information?
ISAACSON: Yeah. I did--out of the 150 some-odd people I interviewed, there were five who wanted to stay off the record. I did not use any allegations they made. They weren't that important. They were not major characters in the book. What happened was maybe 50 people talked to me on background or off the record, but I went back to all 50 of them and said, `Look, everybody else is talking on the record. If you want to say this about Kissinger, enough time has passed. You should be able to say it on the record. You should be willing to come right out and say it.' And as I say, out of those 50 people, that 45 said, `Well, yes, you can use what I said and use me as a source.' Five said no, and it wasn't really necessary to use any allegations they made or anonymous quotes they made. I used the information in other ways by, say, going to other people and trying to verify through people who would talk on the record.
LAMB:In one of the footnotes, I read that you'd been at Time magazine...
ISAACSON: You read the footnotes? That's really...
LAMB:You've been at Time magazine since 1978?
ISAACSON: Yeah. I joined Time in 1978. I had worked on the Sunday Times of London before then and also the New Orleans State Adams Times-Picayune, New Orleans being my hometown.
LAMB:New Orleans is home.
LAMB:Where did you go to school?
ISAACSON: I went to Newman in New Orleans and then Harvard and then Oxford in England for graduate work.
LAMB:Can you remember when you first got interested in being a writer?
ISAACSON: I studied philosophy at Oxford. When I finished, I realized that there was not much of a need for philosophers in this world. You couldn't hang out a shingle and sort of make a living as a consulting philosopher. I was interested in journalism. I was interested in history, and it seemed like a good thing to do. After I graduated, I, as I say, worked for the Sunday Times in London, which was a very interesting paper. And then finally for the paper in New Orleans.
LAMB:What did your parents do?
ISAACSON: Oh, my parents are--my father's an engineer and an architect in New Orleans, and my mother was a real estate agent for a while.
LAMB:Isn't Nicholas Lemann from New Orleans?
ISAACSON: Yeah. Nick and I just spent a week with Nick just this past week in New Orleans. His parents and my parents, and his grandparents and my parents have been friends for generations, and he's one of the truly great scholars to come out of New Orleans. His book is great.
LAMB:Who got you interested in history?
ISAACSON: I was asked this question in New Orleans a week or so ago, and I mentioned my high school history teacher because he was in the audience. So I guess, since this is a nationwide show, I'd better talk about my high school history teacher. I was always interested in American history in particular--Andrew Jackson, all the way through--and American foreign policy. And I studied history at Harvard, did some of it at Oxford, along with philosophy.
And it's a good outlet when you're interested about the world to look back and say--and not just history, but I'm interested in personalities in history, as was Kissinger. Kissinger went to Harvard. He wrote his undergraduate thesis on Kant and then on Metternich, and then he wrote about Bismarck. He wrote--and Napoleon and Lord Castlereagh, the British foreign minister, all these 19th century statesmen. And he was very, very interested and believed in the role that personality plays in affecting history because, you know, one great school of historical thought in the past generation has downplayed the role that people and personalities play and played up economic forces or other things.
Kissinger was a true believer in the role that personalities play. In fact, during the Middle East shuttles, he said--I quote it in the book. He said, "Well, you know, when I was a professor, I thought great forces shaped history. Now that I'm up close to it, I see what a difference personalities make." And so I was always interested in the personalities of history, Kissinger being the most--the larger than life personality.
LAMB:You dedicate this book to Betsy, who is worthy of her name.
ISAACSON: My mother died about six years ago, and "The Wise Man" was dedicated to her, among other people. And her name was Betsy. And shortly--about two and a half years ago, we had a daughter named Betsy, named after my mother. And she's a great daughter, and so she's worthy of her name because she looks like, acts like, and has the same intelligence and spunk that my mother did.
LAMB:As a matter of fact, I remember you devoted a whole paragraph to your daughter in this book.
ISAACSON: Well, I had to. She's a demanding two-year-old, like all two-year-olds. I think I paraphrased P.G. Wodehouse, and I said I'd wanted to dedicate the book to my daughter Betsy, without whose invaluable help it would have been written in half the time. Because he would--she would sit there on my lap and play with the keyboard while I typed.
LAMB:And you said you started the book seven years ago. At one point during...
ISAACSON: Six, yeah.
LAMB:...seven years, did you spend the most time on it? What was how did...
ISAACSON: Well, up until 1988, I was working as the national editor at Time, and that was the--as you know, the '88 campaign, the Bush-Dukakis campaign. So most of my energies and focus of my attention was Time magazine and our political coverage. After that, I took a little bit of time off—I mean, during that period, I was doing a lot of the interviews because I love talking about Kissinger, and it's easy to do the interviews. All you have to do is say Henry Kissinger to most people and they'll tell you a lot of stories. I mean, you just push the button.
But then after the election, I became just a writer at Time for a while, so I had more time to pursue Kissinger. And then eventually, I guess during that period when C-SPAN visited Time magazine and broadcast our meetings, for better or worse, I was on leave of absence for six or eight months doing the writing of the book.
LAMB:I've got here The New York Times Book Review by Theodore Draper, and this was September the 6th.
LAMB:The reason I hold it up is that not only did you get the front cover of the Book Review for Sunday, but five full pages almost were devoted to this review. Have you ever seen one that big?
ISAACSON: No, I think it's the longest they've ever done, and I guess I'm flattered, although I fear people who said to me, `Gee, I spent all weekend reading that book review. Now I don't have to buy the book.' And I'd say, `No, no, no. That's not--you should read the book.' But--so you sort of fear that, but it's a very interesting review. Theodore Draper is a great scholar, as you know, and, interestingly enough was--Kissinger, after he emigrated to America from Germany, from Bavaria, he joined the US Army, the 84th Infantry Division, and went back to Germany as part of the counterintelligence corps of that division, during the occupation of Germany right at the end of World War II. Interestingly enough, Theodore Draper was also in that division and was a historian of that division.
LAMB:Is it true that The New York Times does not have someone review a book of somebody they know?
ISAACSON: I guess so. I've never met Theodore Draper. I mean, I've never seen him.
LAMB:What did you think of the review?
ISAACSON: Oh, I thought it was very interesting, but it certainly was very favorable, so I like that part of it. He comes out--like anybody who's going to write about a Kissinger biography, he has his own opinions on Kissinger, his own analysis that I found interesting, but that is really--it's him speaking for himself as well as reviewing the book. But I found that, you know, he's a person who's thought about Kissinger. He's very critical of Kissinger. I think perhaps a little bit more--I think my book is balanced and not quite as critical as Theodore Draper is of Kissinger, but I was very flattered that somebody of that stature would write about the book for such a--you know, for this longest review in The New York Times.
LAMB:Do you have any idea why they devoted so much space to it?
ISAACSON: No. I've been--I don't know who to ask. If I run into Theodore Draper, I'll ask him.
LAMB:Barth Healy writes a little sidebar on you. And he says, `To a reader who has just finished 893 pages of "Kissinger," the author, 40 years old, sandy hair, boyishly anxious about his image.'
ISAACSON: Yeah. I...
LAMB:`Seems to have taken on some of his subject's characteristics.'
ISAACSON: I was very eager to try to explain certain things and, you know, you get into--and it is like Kissinger. I mean, Kissinger is a man who, when you ask him about things, he's convinced that you're not going to understand them and that he's got to get you to understand what he did in Cambodia, what he did in the Middle East, why he had to cut the State Department out of certain things. And he has sort of that eager quality to make you understand, and I guess like any biographer, you can see some of yourself in the person you're writing about.
LAMB:He ends it with a couple of sentences I wanted to ask you about. `Mr. Isaacson's own extensive records are in boxes in his basement. He does not expect anyone ever to ask for them.'
ISAACSON: I don't know why he said that. He asked where Kissinger's papers were. I said the National Archives has some of the official ones. The Library of Congress has the private papers, that sort of thing. And to me, it's very important if you're going to do a biography of this nature, to go to the documents, the written records, the archives, and also do the interviews, because you have to triangulate. Some of the memos are misleading but, of course, people's memories may be faulty, so if you have both the memos and the memories, you can put things together.
And so I spent a lot of time tracking down people's papers and tracking down not only Kissinger's, but people who worked for Kissinger who tend to have their papers in their own basements or, you know, they haven't done anything with the papers yet, but they've kept memos of conversations they had with Henry Kissinger. And so he just asked me where I kept my papers, and I said, `Well, I guess they're still in my basement.' And he asked me whether I was going to donate them to some library, and it never occurred to me that any library would ask for all my papers, so I said I didn't expect anybody to ask for them, but if anybody wants them, I'm--you know, be happy to donate them anywhere.
LAMB:You say you took shorthand on all the notes.
LAMB:Did you use a tape recorder anywhere?
ISAACSON: I don't think I used a tape recorder, maybe occasionally, but it's far easier to do shorthand and if you tape record a five-hour interview, then you have to go back and you have to spend 10 hours transcribing it, and then what you have is shorthand notes of--you know, but you spent a whole extra day doing that. Also, to me, the act of transcribing--or the act of taking notes, taking shorthand, writing down what people say, allows me to focus a little bit better on what they're saying and, in some ways, gives me a little bit more time to formulate a question, because you can--you know, you can use your notes as a shield and as a way, and it also it’s just a way to keep an interview more professional, I find. And it gives you a better written record of it, as opposed to thousands and thousands of tapes, you know, somewhere that you can never really find what you need when you--to go through playing tape after tape to try to find what you want.
LAMB:Where did you find Nguyen Van Thieu?
ISAACSON: President Thieu, the former president of South Vietnam, had gone into exile in England when I was first starting this book, and I tracked him down there. I really wanted him to talk because he's one of these people who were very deceived by Kissinger. Kissinger secretly negotiated the Vietnamese peace treaty without fully consulting with the president of South Vietnam, who was our ally there. And I knew he had strong feelings, and he had never talked about them. So I tracked him down, and then he came over to Newton Center, right outside of Boston, Massachusetts, where he has some relatives. And I think he kept it pretty secret where he was. He was still somebody who could cause controversy or they had people who had fought in Vietnam who have strong opinions about President Thieu. So I promised I wouldn't say exactly where he was, but at the times when I was meeting with him, it was either in the city of Boston, where he would come in town to meet, or nearby. And I think he was living or staying in--near Newton in Newton Center.
LAMB:What's he like now?
ISAACSON: He's a very dignified person, not bitter in the least, strong memories, feels that he was betrayed by the US and Vietnam, feels very strongly about Vietnam now that--now that the Cold War is over, it's time for a democratic government to return to Vietnam. He feels that more American force could have won the war. He also feels that America was trying to deceive him and cut and run and that we never had any intention of winning the war.
I think to some extent that's true, but what I don't think he fully grasps is that America could not win the war for him. South Vietnamese could have won the war--I mean, if the war was going to be won, it had to be won by the South Vietnamese, perhaps with American help, certainly with American support. But you're never going to be able to win at a bargaining table what your allies in place can't win on the battlefield. It's a rule of--that Bismarck understood, Metternich understood, and I'm sure very other scholar of warfare understood. And if the South Vietnamese were not able to hold their own against the North Vietnamese on the battlefield or in the hearts and minds of the people of South Vietnam, then there was no way the United States or Kissinger could negotiate at the bargaining table something that couldn't be won on the battlefield.
LAMB:Of all these 150 interviews that you had and you list here, which one was the hardest--which person was the hardest to find?
ISAACSON: President Thieu, I guess, and the hardest to convince to give me an interview was Richard Nixon. It was remarkably easy to track most of these people down, partly because there's a network. They've all worked with each other, and one would say, `You've got to'--you know, if I talked to Melvin Laird, he'd say, `You have to talk to so and so.' And if I talked to James Schlesinger, who was secretary of defense, he'd say, `Oh, you must talk to so and so.' I guess--oh, I guess the hardest ones, now that I think about it, though, were the childhood friends. For example, there's a guy named Menachem Leon, probably on that list there, Kissinger's best friend when they were seven years old. They sat on benches next to each other alphabetically, Kissinger, Leon...
ISAACSON: Yeah. In the Israelite real school in Germany, in Furth, Germany, the town where they were raised. They studied the Torah together. And Menachem Leon's father was almost a surrogate father, in a way, to Kissinger, just like often people have with their best friend's father. And he was very important to talk to. But when he was a child, he was not named Menechem. That's a name he took when he went to Israel. His name was Heinz, as was Henry Kissinger. They were both Heinzes. And so I knew that there was this person, Heinz Leon, and many other people like that, and he lived in Jerusalem, and I finally was able to track him down as Menachem Leon, who is a--through a professional society for the society--he works in a certain pro--I can't even remember the profession now. I think...
LAMB:Did you go see him there?
ISAACSON: No, I did not see him in Jerusalem. I talked to him on the phone a bit, and then he came through, like a lot of people. You know, you'd see them when they were traveling to New York or other places. Likewise, a lot of the childhood friends are now in Chicago. Some are in Washington Heights. But the best way was most people from the--most of the Jews from Furth, Germany, when they escaped right before the Nazi Holocaust, came to Washington Heights, which is in Manhattan, the upper part of Manhattan. And they all settled within a four- or five-block area. Polly Kissinger, Henry Kissinger's mother, still lives in the apartment there. And I'd go up there...
LAMB:She's how old now?
ISAACSON: I think she's about 93. And I'd go up there and just sitting in the park there would be people who would say, `Oh, yes, we knew Kissinger when he was a young boy in Germany.' And they would point out or give me the numbers of various other people to call. And they'd say, `Oh, you have to call Walter Oppenheimer,' who, by the way, is in that picture next to, if I can point to it here--that's Henry Kissinger in the Army. That's his first wife, Ann Fleischer, and that's Ann Fleischer's previous boyfriend, who was a friend of Kissinger's from the Bavarian region of Germany, Walter Oppenheimer. I think I tracked him down in Providence, Rhode Island, where he's now a jeweler, if I remember correctly. But just hanging around in Washington Heights, I'd get leads on where various people from that wave of immigration was.
LAMB:Let me ask you--and we're running out of time--after you finished this book, seven years working on it, thinking about--and probably thinking more--longer about Henry Kissinger, is this on--this man, on balance, was he good for the United States?
ISAACSON: I think that the foreign policy he was able to develop, a balance--an opening towards the Soviet Union, balancing it off with China, allowing America to have a new diplomatic role in the Middle East through his shuttles, helped preserve America's role in the world and its influence in the world after Vietnam when, as you'll recall, there was a great sense of retreat after Vietnam, almost a neo-isolationism. And he helped preserve our influence in the world. That was important, because it helped stand up to the Soviet threat, stand up to the spread of communism, and I think gets some of the credit--and who knows how historians will apportion all of the credit--for letting the internal contradictions of the Soviet system work themselves out and allow communism to collapse.
However, why I think his legacy in the long run was not as lasting as it could have been and in many ways detrimental was that he de--had a feel for power in this world, but he didn't have a feel for the strength that comes from the openness and the values of our system. And if anything won the Cold War, it was an appreciation around the world for American values, for individual rights, for the openness of our system, all sorts of things that Kissinger, with his secretive diplomacy, did not fully appreciate. So I think the structures were masterful, as I say at the end of the book, but in some ways, they were built on a foundation of bricks without straw. They tended to crumble after a while because of the backlash against detente, the backlash against a lot of what he did, the unwillingness to support the Vietnam agreement, largely because it was done without a good feel for the openness and values of our democratic institutions.
LAMB:This is the cover of the book, "Kissinger: A Biography" by Walter Isaacson. Thank you very much.
ISAACSON: Hey, thank you, Brian. Thanks a lot for having me.
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