Time tends to quiet the tumults and turbulences of the past.
Henry Kissinger’s death illustrates the point. The news that he had died, at age 100, was delivered in muted tones. Even the controversies that dogged his life and career—the secret bombings conducted in a war he knew from the start couldn’t be won, etc.—were discussed with a solemnity normally associated with statues.
That is not the way Kissinger lived his life—certainly in his prime, anyway.
He was a man who grasped.
And, during the last 40 years of his life, for relevance.
It is difficult for anyone who was not alive 50 years ago and old enough to pay attention then to realize how he commanded not just the nation’s spotlight but the world’s. His hunger to be the center of attention resembled that of an addict seeking his next score.
That is why, between his two marriages, he would show up at state events with Hollywood actresses on his arm, upstaging the presidents he served. The “shuttle diplomacy”—which also might be called “jet-set diplomacy”—for which he was renowned focused more attention on the efforts of the diplomat than it did on the results of the diplomacy.
This craving to have all eyes focused on him made his relationships with presidents—particularly Richard Nixon—complicated. The two men were tied together by shared resentments, the sense that, no matter how high they climbed, they never quite got their due.
Much has been made of their partnership. The odd moment in which the Quaker Nixon asked the Jewish Kissinger to pray with him on the night before Nixon resigned the presidency has spawned small industries of historical scholarship, journalistic accounts and satirical sendups.
Less attention has been paid to the jousting nature of their collaboration—the ways Kissinger leaked stories to diminish his boss’s role in significant events and Nixon often subtly demeaned his secretary of state’s contribution.
Theirs was a partnership of mutual exploitation, one held together by the utility each offered the other.
This is not surprising, given that both men viewed the world not as a chaotic home for often confused and contradictory human beings but as a chessboard filled with pieces to be moved around at will by skilled practitioners. They saw themselves as players in a great game—and those who died of napalm or carpet bombings as pawns in the contest.
It was a role Kissinger hungered to play.
He made his first attempt to seize the reins of America’s foreign policy not with Nixon, but during the presidency of John F. Kennedy.
Even Kissinger’s Harvard pedigree—bachelor’s, master’s and Ph. D. there—did not enable him to crack the clannish circle surrounding JFK. His pronounced German accent and ponderous manner of speaking also did not fit in a Camelot that transplanted a Frank Sinatraesque, ring-a-ding-ding sensibility from Vegas to the Potomac.
So, just as Sinatra ended up supporting Nixon, Kissinger aligned himself with the Republican Party and its presidents.
Kissinger, though, collected slights almost as if they were souvenirs. His rejection by the Kennedy White House became a lasting source of grievance. It’s possible his squiring of starlets during his dance on the world’s stage was his way of demonstrating that one didn’t need JFK’s charm to be a swinger.
But Kissinger’s relentlessly pragmatic pursuit of power, attention and influence made him forever suspect with the ideologues on the far right.
After the Nixon years ended with Jimmy Carter’s defeat of Gerald Ford in 1976, Kissinger went into eclipse.
When Ronald Reagan reclaimed the White House for the GOP, Kissinger sought to return to the stage. Reagan took Kissinger’s counsel—but from a distance.
Over the next four decades—four Republican presidencies—Kissinger never made it inside again.
He resorted to delivering lectures. He also wrote books, all of them self-justifying and most of them unreadable.
While he never stopped being a polarizing figure, the passage of the years smoothed and settled perceptions of his days in power.
Time also stripped away the very human, scheming vitality of his needy hungers.
That is what time does. It tunes down the shouts and screams of days gone by.
Even the most dramatic days of rage are easier to view dispassionately when we know how the story ends.
Thus, even Henry Kissinger settled into the quiet past
FOOTNOTE: John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students. The views expressed are those of the author only and should not be attributed to Franklin College.