Henry Kissinger’s career has been guided by one principle: If you have friends, use them.
As the transcripts of phone conversations between Kissinger and other notables recently made public by a Freedom of Information Act request by the National Security Archive show, Kissinger was never shy about calling on his pals in the press for favors, sympathetic treatment, or a soft shoulder to cry on. And they were always eager to host him and wife Nancy at their chummy Washington dinner parties.
One of the secretary of state’s best media friends was New York Times columnist James “Scotty” Reston, and at least18 conversations between the two are captured in the transcripts, which can be found on the Department of State’s FOIA electronic reading room Web site.Reston volunteers to approach fellow Times columnist Anthony Lewis and ask him to moderate his anti-Kissinger screeds and offers to plant a question in a press conference for the secretary.(See “Kissing up to Kissinger” for the details.)
Such was the coziness of their relationship that when Kissinger got caught saying embarrassing things about his ex-boss, President Richard Nixon, he called on Reston to assist him in damage control. A live microphone had captured Kissinger’s unguarded comments during the six courses of a private state banquet thrown in his honor in Ottawa. Journalists gathered in another room eavesdropped on the remarks, and an enterprising radio reporter recorded the comments for posterity.
The Washington Post broke the story on Page One on Oct. 16, 1975, under the headline “Kissinger Calls Nixon ‘Unpleasant,’ ” reporting that Kissinger told his Ottawa dinner companions that Nixon was “an odd man” and “a very artificial man,” incapable of being spontaneous. “He really dislikes people,” Kissinger said.
Kissinger, the man who assigned his secretaries and aides to eavesdrop on his telephone and make transcriptions unbeknownst to his callers, was livid that somebody had captured his private moments and was broadcasting them.
Times reporter David Binder talked to Kissinger on the phone on the 16th at 5:25 p.m. As was his custom, Kissinger didn’t want his comments on the record—”I don’t want to carry this further,” he says—but proceeded to put his spin on the gaffe.
As Binder read to Kissinger from the Ottawa transcript, you can almost see Kissinger’s head inflating with rage.
“Are you going to run the whole thing?” said Kissinger.
“I am afraid we have to,” said Binder.
Kissinger, that paragon of ethics, tells Binder that he thinks the press is being “highly unethical” in its reporting of the affair.
By 5:43 p.m., Kissinger is on the phone to Reston.
“The Times is now running the tape of that dinner conversation tomorrow. When I think how I have knocked myself out to give speeches that you haven’t carried it really is low,” Kissinger complained.
“I couldn’t agree with you more my friend. I will make a call and see what I can do,” Reston replied.
“Binder read me some of those quotes and he let me comment. That quote of me saying Kennedy hadn’t accomplished much before he died—I didn’t intend this as a historical document,” said Kissinger.
“It is a bitch. Let me make a quick call and let you know,” said Reston.
It’s one thing for an opinion columnist to commiserate with his top source about an embarrassment, but quite another to offer to “do something” about the coverage within his own paper.
At 6:26 p.m., Reston and Kissinger are back on the phone.
“I talked to Sulzberger and Gruson and told them what you said to me and what I thought about it and I don’t think I got very far but anyway,” said Reston, referring to Times Publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger and Sydney Gruson, a Times foreign correspondent-turned-company executive. (The transcript renders the names “Silsburger” and “Grusome.”)
Kissinger seems mollified by the fact that the high court of the Times has met to discuss the spiking of an article that has already appeared in a competing newspaper!
Kissinger: I appreciate it. As long as they know my view on it. It isn’t all that damaging but it isn’t intended for public knowledge. Reston: It raises an ethical issue. It may be embarrassing to you but it is truthful. The point is that there is an invasion of privacy—that is the issue. Surely you are entitled to express your views about anyone in a private situation.
The Times article by Binder, published on Page A-3 in the Oct. 17, 1975, edition of the Times,plays up Kissinger’s apology but quotes more heavily from the tape.
Binder writes, “According to an Administration official, Mr. Kissinger telephoned Mr. Nixon … to offer apologies for any embarrassment he might have caused his former chief.” The administration official, as we now know from the transcripts, was Kissinger.
Binder says today that he never encountered any interference from Reston on the story.
Having publicly exhumed Scotty Reston and abused him for two columns, I should do him the decency of noting the time he repelled Kissinger’s request for a spike. Max Frankel tells the story in his 1999 memoir, The Times of My Life and My Life With the Times. Kissinger tried to dissuade TimesmanFrankel from reporting the resumption of the bombing of North Vietnam in 1970 because it would disturb the Paris peace talks. The bombing was no secret, of course: The North Vietnamese were being quite vocal about it. Frankel moved Kissinger’s request up the line to his superiors. From Frankel’s book:
Scotty Reston’s response was “nuts.” In fact, he called Kissinger, chewed him out for wanting to suppress the news, and, ever the scoop artist, chided the White House in the Sunday column then running through his typewriter for trying to suppress our scoop.
I make careful handwritten transcripts of all e-mails received and intend to donate them to a major university for tax purposes. Send your e-mail for inclusion to email@example.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)