Marvin Kalb and Bernard Kalb’s book Kissinger gathered disdainful reviews when it was published in the summer of 1974. Scholar Ronald Steel roughed it up in a lengthy Sept. 19, 1974, New York Review of Books essay, writing:
The enormous, but uncritical and often fawning, book which the brothers Kalb have produced is a Washington insider’s account, redolent with gossip, detail, and self-serving quotations which could have come only from the subject himself and his most sycophantic aides.
Steel wasn’t alone in his appraisal. Foreign Affairs Managing Editor James Chace called Kissinger “worshipful, gravely flawed” in his Aug. 25, 1974, New York Times review (subscription required), and Time magazine tagged it “a breezy, sometimes biting but largely admiring and affectionate portrait of the Secretary of State in action.” Wrote Harvard’s Stanley Hoffman in an Aug. 18, 1973, review, “The Kalbs’ book, like Kissinger’s diplomacy, has a certain breathless air.”
That Marvin Kalb, a CBS News diplomatic correspondent in those years, had a professional crush on Kissinger, can be easily documented. Kissinger assigned staffers to secretly transcribe the contents of his telephone conversations during his stints as national security adviser and secretary of state. After a long legal struggle by the National Security Archive, thousands of Kissinger “telcons”—as they’re known—were declassified and made public in 2004. The telcons capture several reporters sucking up, with Kalb leading the pack, as this Press Box column illustrates.
The archive has continued its work, producing a new haul of declassified Kissinger telcons that were published in December 2008 on the library database ProQuest, and once again the telcons reveal Marvin sucking up to Henry.
On May 13, 1973, at 11:08 a.m., Kalb reached Kissinger by phone with an urgent request.
Kalb: Henry, I’ve got a serious personal thing that I’ve got—I must talk to you about. It will take about five minutes.Kissinger: You mean face-to-face?Kalb: Yes, if that is possible.
Kissinger agreed to Kalb’s request for an immediate meeting. Although we don’t know precisely what they discussed, we can easily infer from Kissinger’s May 13-15 telephone conversations that the topic was Kalb’s book.
At 1 p.m., on May 13, Kissinger spoke to Phyllis Cerf, the widow of Random House co-founder Bennett Cerf. After an exchange of telephone air-kisses—”Hello, darling Henry.” “Phyllis, how are you?”—Kissinger asked Cerf for help in reaching Random House executives.
Kissinger: It doesn’t concern anything that I’m myself interested in but there is a newspaper man here who has written a book about me. Cerf: Oh, really.Kissinger: And which Norton was going to publish. And Norton in an excess of zeal is trying to get him to cut out all references that might be critical of me and he thinks that this will destroy the symmetry of his book.
It’s hard to imagine that Norton wanted Kalb to cut critical passages. It’s even harder to imagine an author reaching out to his subject for assistance in placing a more critical book. But there you are.
Kissinger told Cerf that the contents of the book were a mystery to him. “I want to make clear I haven’t seen the book and for all I know it may take [sic] me over the coals,” he said. This is the whitest of white lie. In an April 6, 1973, telephone conversation with Kissinger, Kalb told him the book was nearly complete and described its thrust.
Kissinger: Are you satisfied [with the book] so far?Kalb: We’ve only had four readers. And as I say I still haven’t done the Peace is at Hand chapter, the end. But that I’m starting next week and I just finished the Moscow summit. And four people have read it and they are fascinated by the book.
Kalb also told Kissinger that the book has “been a labor [of] love, commitment and devotion.”
Kalb: I have a feeling that you’re going to read this—as I told you before, I’m not sure that you’re going to accept everything we say—but the overriding burden of the book by any fair standards would be one of two guys who are very much admiring of the performance of a third human being.
At 9:37 a.m. on May 14, 1973—the day after Kalb’s emergency visit to Kissinger’s office—Random House co-founder Donald Klopfer and Kissinger spoke. Klopfer said he had contacted Kalb at Kissinger’s suggestion, and Kissinger explained why Kalb was unhappy with Norton and wanted to meet with Random House.
Kissinger: Apparently what they wanted him to do was to compress the Vietnam chapter and to take out all references to the President. Klopfer: Oh.Kissinger: On the theory that the less they tie me with Vietnam, the better off I am. If I understand it correctly.
Minutes later (9:42 a.m.), Kalb reconnected with Kissinger, and Kalb confirmed that Random House had spoken to him. “God bless you,” Kalb said to Kissinger, not once but twice.
Later that day, Kissinger and Random House President and CEO Robert Bernstein talked on the phone about the Kalbs’ Kissinger book.
Kissinger: [I]t turned out that Norton, probably in order to protect me, wanted them to confess [sic] the Vietnam chapter to a point that they considered unreasonable. And also to disassociate me totally from the President. Which they correctly didn’t want to do. …I have no interest in it one way or the other. Don’t publish it to please me. But don’t fail to publish it if it’s got critical passages.
Kissinger, a prolific gossip, shared the Kalb story on May 15 during a conversation with journalist Theodore H. White, author of The Making of the President 1960and its sequels.
Kissinger: There are two newsmen here in town who are doing a book on me, and their publisher [is] trying to keep my good will [and] asked them to delete any reference linking me to Nixon. White: Oh, for Christ sake.Kissinger: (Laughter) You know that’s sweet, it’s touching.White: Yeah.Kissinger: And also to list, to compress the chapter, they had a chapter of 80 pages on Vietnam, and they were asked to compress to 15 [pages] because that publisher didn’t want to have me linked to Vietnam. You know, I am flattered, he [Norton] did it to protect me.
Again, it boggles the mind to imagine a publisher in 1973 would have desired less rather than more material about Vietnam in a Kissinger book. But there you are.
Kissinger proved to be an excellent go-between. In a July 23, 1973, conversation, when Kissinger asks, “How is your book going? Who is your publisher?” Kalb responded, “Fine. We are in discussions with Random House.” Ultimately, the book was published by Little, Brown & Co.
I wanted to ask Kalb 1) if he really told Kissinger that he wanted to pull the book from Norton because it wanted to excise critical passages and 2) did he think it was appropriate to enlist the subject of his book in finding a publisher for it, but he did not respond to e-mail and phone queries seeking comment.
Kalb is currently the Edward R. Murrow professor of practice, emeritus, and senior fellow at the Shorenstein Center at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. Kalb’s Shorenstein Web page states that he “welcomes media inquires” about an array of subjects, including “accountability.”
If Kalb gets back to me, I’ll let you know what he says.
Addendum, 5:50 p.m.: Kalb sent me this e-mail in response to my question a couple of hours after the story went up.
If we believe Kalb, then we believe that Kissinger told the same lie to three people associated with Random House and to journalist Theodore H. White. Also, a telcon quoted above shows that Kalb told Kissinger on July 23, 1973, that he and his brother were talking to Random House about publishing the book.
Dear Mr. Shafer:I have just moved from one office to another and only now found your e-mail. I am sorry for the delay and hope this is of value, however limited. I shall answer your questions.1. Neither I nor my brother ever asked Kissinger for help getting a publisher. I cannot account for anything Kissinger said to others, obviously. He’s a big boy and can speak for himself. Have you by the way attempted to talk to him about this issue? Imagine you have.2. Morton Janklow (office in NYC) was our agent, and he too can be contacted, if you wish to go beyond the telcons, which again I assume you would. The only publisher we ever had for Kissinger was Little Brown.3. What you say makes little sense. In 1973, we were still in the Vietnam War, which, as you know, didn’t end till April 30, 1975. Why would a publisher want less, rather than more, information about Kissinger’s role in Vietnam? Why would he want less, rather than more, information about Kissinger’s ties to Nixon? I would imagine just the opposite is what a publisher would want, and that is what we provided to Little Brown. The book was the Book of the Month Club selection and a best seller.Thanks for your interest in the book.Regards,
Telcons cited in this article:
Kissinger and Kalb, April 6, 1973 Kissinger and Kalb, May 13, 1973 Kissinger and Cerf, May 13, 1973 Kissinger and Kopfler, May 14, 1973 Kissinger and Kalb, May 14, 1973 Kissinger and Bernstein, May 14, 1973 Kissinger and White, May 15, 1973 Kissinger and Kalb, July 23, 1973
Thanks to ProQuest for access to the latest telcon collection. For a fuller appreciation of the Kalb-Kissinger bromance, see this sidebar that quotes from the telcons released in 2004. Disclosure: I gave Kalb’s 2001 book, One Scandalous Story: Clinton, Lewinsky, & 13 Days That Tarnished American Journalism, a negative review in the Wall Street Journal. Follow me on Twitter or send e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or both. (E-mail may be quoted by name in “The Fray,”Slate’s readers’ forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)
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