During his years as national security adviser and secretary of state, Henry Kissinger wooed the Washington press corps with the flowers and chocolate of flattery and access. As Walter Isaacson writes in his 1992 biography, Kissinger, opinion columnists and the reporters who covered the State Department or the White House grew especially captivated by his charms.
Journalists took priority over matters of state for Kissinger, or at least that’s how it looked to his colleagues. CIA Director Richard Helms tells Isaacson of the time Kissinger made him wait as he sorted though his message slips, placed reporters’ messages at the top of the pile, and returned their calls. Kissinger speechwriter John Andrews remembers that when they were working on a speech together and a high-status columnist like Joseph Kraft or Joseph Alsop telephoned, Kissinger would pause their labors “and do an incredible snow job with me listening in. He’d pour syrup all over the guy.” John Ehrlichman tells Isaacson a similar story about Kissinger stroking reporters over the phone. “I could not help hearing Henry’s blandishments and his self-congratulation,” Ehrlichman says.
All this love Kissinger spent on journalists did not go unreciprocated, as we now learn from the transcripts of his telephone conversations his secretaries and aides made in secret for Kissinger while listening in on another phone. Thanks to a Freedom of Information Act request by the National Security Archive, transcripts of 3,568 conversations between Kissinger and President Nixon, U.S. politicians, world leaders, ambassadors, Hollywood stars, and a score of journalists are now available at the State Department Electronic Reading Room.
While many of the reporters captured in Kissinger’s amber must be ruing the release of the transcripts, news consumers everywhere should be celebrating this day. By revealing the good, the bad, and the ugly practices of Washington journalists, the transcripts demystify the news-manufacturing process and provide a cautionary tale for reporters who give away their hearts too easily, too quickly, and for too little.
The most devoted members of the Kissinger press cult, based on the phone transcripts, were CBS News Chief Diplomatic Correspondent Marvin Kalb, former New York Times Washington editor and columnist James “Scotty” Reston, and Time magazine’s Hugh Sidey. But other figures tossed kisses to Kissinger from afar, including political columnist Stewart Alsop, former Los Angeles Times Publisher Otis Chandler, William Randolph Hearst Jr., and former Washington Star owner— and soon to be ex-Riggs Bank proprietor—Joseph L. Allbritton.
Kalb sends an FTD-sized bouquet down the line to Kissinger on the evening of Sept. 22, 1973, the day he became secretary of state.
… I did wish you well from the bottom of my heart, the wisdom and the grace and the tolerance that are going to be so necessary to success because I very much have the feeling in the long sweep of history perhaps that your tenure is going to prove to be larger than simply something that has to do with diplomacy. There’s a human and a psychological component here which has to be vindicated in a major way and I feel that very strongly and I wish you towering good luck.
After Gerald Ford loses the election to Jimmy Carter in 1976, Kissinger winds down at State, and Kalb provides a bookend to his 1973 testimonial in this Nov. 8, 1976, transcript:
You were very much in my mind through Tuesday evening of last week and I told you once at the birthday party something that is true and no matter who replaces you, it cannot be the same and you were in this job in a fairly unique position for a reporter. … I learned a lot and from that if someone is wise or foolish enough to put me into a government job, what I learned will be put to use.
Kissinger acknowledges Kalb’s talent and his potential as a State Department official. “I have always believed you and Ted [Koppel] and some of the others ought to spend a year or two in the government to round your perspectives,” Kissinger says. “If the new [Carter] people ask my opinion and you don’t prohibit it, will you permit me to mention you as a possibility?”
Kalb responds, “Yes,” adding:
You know my area of interest and passion. The fundamental thing is to carry on a policy that gives Israel the best chance of surviving and maintains a strong, growing, viable American position in the Arab world. It has been your position.
In an April 23, 1975, transcript, Kalb reports back from the “assignment” Kissinger gave him 10 days previous—to find a candidate for the job of Kissinger spokesman at State. The name of Kalb’s candidate is redacted in the transcript, as are the names bounced off Kalb by Kissinger. At the close of the four-page conversation, headhunter Kalb says, “If there is anything I can do let me know.”
In contrast, the Reston-Kissinger conversations never sound like supplicant and master. At this point in his late career, Reston is far too proud to bow and scrape. But even though he comes across as a thinker, there is a dependency in Reston’s calls, a yearning for Kissinger to help him produce conventional wisdom before deadline.
In a Feb. 28, 1975, transcript, Reston seems as lost as a high-schooler writing his term paper during an all-nighter. He turns to Kissinger for help. The topic is Israel, and Reston says, “I just want a little guidance as to what is the sensible position to take at this particular moment.” Is that too much to ask of the secretary of state?
On Jan. 23, 1975, Kissinger is livid about his treatment at the hands of another Times columnist and shares his anger with Reston. The Times columnist’s name is redacted in the transcripts but is easily identified as Reston’s op-ed page colleague Anthony Lewis.
Scotty, I don’t know whether—how to handle this problem but I really feel that _____ is going beyond the bounds of fairness. Every day practically—in every column—he has an article, not criticizing my views but criticizing my integrity.
The column that lit Kissinger’s fuse was probably “What Is a Man Profited?” about the war in Cambodia, which Lewis published in the Times on Jan. 20, 1975. Lewis writes:
Henry Kissinger could see any number of maimed human beings without re-examining his premises or losing a minute’s sleep. It is quite clear that he would rather have Cambodia a salt plain than let the war end on terms that would expose to all the monstrous futility of his policy.
Reston jaws with Kissinger about the strong words being flung. “Well, really, I don’t ask obviously for your support,” says Kissinger, backhandedly asking for Reston’s support. In a couple of moments, Reston volunteers: “You want me to try to talk to him about it? Do you want to get together with him?” Kissinger agrees, as long as Reston thinks it’s a good idea and Lewis won’t “say that this is a way of trying to co-opt him. …”
“Let me think about it,” Reston says. (According to Anthony Lewis, Reston never contacted him on this score.)
On April 13, 1976, Reston offers to handle a different Kissinger press problem by planting a question with reporters that Kissinger wants to answer.
Reston: Who is asking questions? Kissinger: Roberts, Ben Read, Yoder from the Star. Reston: I will get somebody to ask you if you want it.
The transcript ends with Reston saying, “Call me back if you want me to have someone ask you that question.”
If the Writers Guild arbitrated newsmagazine bylines, Kissinger might deserve a couple from Time, where supplicant Hugh Sidey chronicled his adventures. In Nov. 7, 1975, and Sept. 10, 1976, conversations, Sidey reads his column to Kissinger, who edits it on the fly. Kissinger says:
Can you say will be sustainable rather than possible. … Could you avoid saying amuses but gratifies me. Amuses sounds too patronizing. … No, you cannot ascribe the physical appearance to me. … This I would not do. That is an attack on him. … Just say when speaking of the balance of power that despite his strong ideological convictions [Mao] analyzed the balance of power with amazing acuteness. … The Chinese don’t like you to say anything about their leaders. Don’t ascribe any of that to me. … But I think on the whole you can bring me in a few times but don’t center it around me. It is just too dangerous. … You can say [Mao] was treated live [sic] a divinity. …
Although ABC News’ Ted Koppel is a card-carrying member of the Kissinger cult and you can sense his adoration for Kissinger in the transcripts, he never really loses it until Carter defeats Ford and he calls to say goodbye on Nov. 8, 1976:
I didn’t want to call you last week. It has been a [sic] extraordinary three years for me and I have enjoyed it immensely. You are an intriguing man and if I had had a teacher like you earlier, I might not be quite so cynical.
Other journalists who offer drive-by smooches include:
Stewart Alsop, Oct. 8, 1973, “Any way that I can be of service, let me know.”
Otis Chandler, Jan. 29, 1974, “Henry, you are the one bright spot in the newspaper every day. … Henry, anything you want, I’ll be here. … When are you going to come out to see us and have a little fun?”
Joseph L. Allbritton, May 5, 1975, “You have been encouraging to me when I met you at the White House. I shall never forget what you are doing for your country and we will help you in any way we can in that regard.”
William Randolph Hearst Jr., Oct. 17, 1973: “You deserve the peace prize, but I must say that other son-of-a-bitch didn’t deserve to share it with you. I swear to God, isn’t it amazing when you have to bomb them to the table and then they give him a prize—he didn’t live up to the damn thing he promised, has he?”
The most bizarre endorsement of Kissinger comes from Kalb, who says it took place when suffering from a back ailment and was on sedatives. He doesn’t remember making the call, which helps explain why the passage sounds more like Hunter S. Thompson than Marvin Kalb.
Marvin Kalb, Nov. 19, 1975:
The only reason for this call was to tell you that despite all appearances to the contrary in this city you still have some friends. I count myself among them. … I think there is a terrible viciousness around these days. Even if 20 per cent justified, the 80 per cent is not. … There are a bunch of bastards running around town, not taking anything into account but personal ambitions. They don’t think from one day to the next. They have no idea where they want to go—anything malicious is glorified. I was reading the papers. You do have friends around town and I hope that you will stick with the long picture and not the short one.
I can’t tell you how much that means to me.
After reading the Kissinger transcripts, Kalb offers, “I can’t say that it doesn’t read consistent with the nature of the relationship” he had with Kissinger. “I didn’t need these transcripts to be thinking about this for a long time.”
He agrees that the closeness of his relationship with Kissinger, his willingness to help Kissinger find a new press spokesperson, and his expression of foreign policy views to the secretary of state—somebody he was supposed to be covering, not advising—all cross the journalistic line.
“Was I on the beat too long? Yes,” he says. Should he have helped Kissinger look for a flack? “Probably not.” Should he have offered Kissinger his views on Israel? “Absolutely not.”
But cutting himself some slack, Kalb says that he and others on the Kissinger beat spent so much time with him talking about foreign policy, nobody’s views were secret. Likewise, in helping Kissinger find a flack, he was helping himself as much as he was helping Kissinger. An underlying theme to the relationship, according to Kalb, was that “He knew we were using him, and we knew he was using us.”
Kalb declares an affinity for Kissinger that grows out of their shared ethnicity—both are Jewish—and shared backgrounds. (Both grew up in New York and went to George Washington High School, at different times, of course.) And he pleads that the ‘70s were a special time, what with the Middle East negotiations and the collapse of Vietnam. Plus, he says, Kissinger gave the press corps a professorial treatment of world events that permitted a deeper understanding of the issues. Other secretaries of state—Haig, Vance, Schultz—never gave those sorts of revelatory briefings.
“Was he playing us as best he could? Absolutely,” says Kalb. But all caveats aside, Kalb says he’d pit his reporting from the Kissinger era against anybody’s.
Isaacson writes in Kissinger that successful Washington reporters fall into two general categories: reporters “who have good access, and those who have aggressive investigative instincts.” Access reporters cover the White House and State Department beats, make their reputations by getting inside the heads of government officials, and tend to evolve into pundits. Investigative reporters win Pulitzers and win more respect from their peers.
“The odd thing about this reliance on access is that American foreign policy is so prone to leakage that it can be covered by a good reporter with little access at all,” Isaacson writes. He notes that many of the greatest scoops of the Kissinger era—My Lai, the Cambodian bombing, the Pakistan tilt, the covert action in Chile—were broken by reporters outside the privileged access loop.
Many reporters immortalized in the Kissinger transcripts talked to the secretary without buttering him up. CBS News commentatorEric Severeid essentially told Kissinger to shove it on Nov. 26, 1975, when Kissinger protests the reporting in a Severeid commentary. And Jack Anderson, a reporter so far outside the Washington access journalist loop that the Washington Post ran his column in the funny pages, met him as an equal on June 5, 1975. Anderson calls with a substantive story and doesn’t let Kissinger spin.
Isaacson concludes that both access journalism and investigative journalism can produce informative stories. “The problem comes when one aspect of reporting dominates to the exclusion of the other,” he writes. If a lesson applicable to our times is to be drawn from the Kissinger transcripts, perhaps it’s that we suffer a surfeit of access scribes and not enough investigators. In other words, too many Judith Millers and not enough Sy Hershes.
Follow That Story! Further exploration of the Kissinger telcons uncovered these conversations between New York Times wise man James “Scotty” Reston and Kissinger in which Reston volunteers to do editorial errands for the secretary of state.
Excuse me while I read the other 3,234 Kissinger transcripts. If you find anything good that I missed, please send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)