Henry Kissinger Always Tended His Image, Even With His Obituary

“David,” Henry Kissinger said to me one day in the summer of 2017, after a lengthy interview for the obituary that appeared Wednesday evening in the Times. “Are you writing one of those articles that will appear when I can no longer argue with its premise?”

He said it with a mischievous sparkle in his eye. In a series of running conversations stretched over roughly seven years, I had told Mr. Kissinger, when he asked, that I was “writing about your life.”

The master of diplomatic nuance knew exactly what that meant. Few who are being interviewed for their own obituary want to be reminded, too explicitly, about their mortality. But Henry Kissinger didn’t become Henry Kissinger without carefully tending his image, and this time he was waiting for an answer to his question.

“Mr. Secretary,” I finally said, “knowing you, you’ll find a way.” He chuckled, and we moved on.

There is no way to write about the life of Henry Kissinger without angering just about everyone. His was a remarkable story: An immigrant who arrived in New York among the last Jews to escape Nazi Germany, who rose to become secretary of state, and within four decades did more to shape the diplomacy and geopolitical power of his adopted nation than almost anyone in the 20th century.

By his mid-90s, it was hard to imagine that this stooped Cold Warrior, whose deep accent and oft-imitated mumbles frequently made him hard to understand, could have incited such passions, lasting decades.

But if Mr. Kissinger’s tone softened in his old age, that was, like nearly everything else about him, highly calculated. He knew that many who were in high school or college when he was in power saw, or participated in, protests that cast him as a war criminal.

The truth, of course, was more complicated, and it lay in a series of trade-offs he made, both personal and professional, that shaped whether you thought of him as a man who turned a blind eye as dictators sent thousands to their deaths, or one who saved the world from nuclear calamity. The fires he ignited burned for decades. It struck me every time I interviewed his friends, his enemies and his friends who became his enemies.

Yet it was clear that no matter what one thought of him — as the architect of American postwar power or a hardhearted apologist for the world’s worst dictators — assessing his life would require a lot of reporting.

That meant interviews with Mr. Kissinger himself, and with those who worked with him, those who clashed with him, those who admired his vision and those who despised his tactics. And it wasn’t like his work had stopped: At age 95, he could stay at the dinner table until 11 p.m., ranging over everything from what Donald Trump didn’t understand about the world to how artificial intelligence could destabilize great powers and make it more likely that they would reach for their nuclear arsenals.

Since I had never covered Mr. Kissinger when he was in government — I was 16 when he left the State Department — the assignment to write his obituary was an opportunity both to learn and to come to judgments about his role in creating the post-World War II order that is being challenged by America’s adversaries.

I had excellent raw material: A lengthy and studiously nonjudgmental draft of an obituary written by Michael Kaufmann, a Times foreign correspondent and editor who died in 2010.

But time had overtaken it, and editors said the Kissinger legacy needed reassessment. The competition with Russia was turning to open confrontation, and even before the invasion of Ukraine, Mr. Kissinger was offering prescient warnings about where Vladimir V. Putin was heading.

China had risen at a velocity that even the man who engineered the American opening to Beijing never imagined — and the relationship he nurtured for so many years was now in sharp descent. Russia and China were developing a partnership, exactly what he was trying to head off in the early 1970s.

Kissinger himself had moved on to think about new challenges: At age 95, the man who six decades earlier had written one of the first popular books about how nuclear weapons were remaking global power, began a series of articles and books on how artificial intelligence threatened to do the same. I had issues with his argument, but then I thought, how many nonagenarians are writing about the global implications of ChatGPT?

That was the contradiction of Henry Kissinger. Few had used raw national power more crudely, nor thought about it more subtly.

He wrote voluminous memoirs for the same reason Churchill did: He wanted be the first to cast his role in the best possible light, omitting almost all of its ugliest moments.

His mistake was living so long that reams of his old memos and diplomatic cables were declassified, including those that revealed his most vicious acts. Yet one could not help but admire how he thought constantly about the new challenges that did not fit the world he once knew.

My aim in talking to him was to draw him out on both the past and the future. Some days I was more successful than others.

In 2012, Richard Solomon, one of Kissinger’s former aides and by then the president of the United States Institute of Peace, asked me to conduct a public interview of the former secretary at a large event. I got Kissinger-on-his-talking-points, defending every decision, deflecting every challenge.

He was far more revealing when I played the same role in 2018 at the Wilson Center for International Scholars, as he talked about his calculus in playing on Mao’s vision for China, and how he would have handled today’s far more complex environment.

During this process I hardly became Mr. Kissinger’s friend; we knew each other’s role in this odd dance, and I kept a professional distance. But I couldn’t help but think as I wrote, and rewrote, about some odd intersections.

He had grown up in prewar Germany, in a town just 40 miles or so from where my father’s family had fled in the mid-19th century. During a reporting trip in Germany, I went to see the apartment building where Mr. Kissinger had been raised, and walked around the park across the street where he practiced soccer. (On the day I visited, it was filled with Syrian refugees.)

And the first time I ever heard about Mr. Kissinger was in a story from my grandmother, Dorothy Samuels. It turned out that soon after the Kissingers sought refuge in New York, my grandmother often hired Paula Kissinger, the future secretary of state’s mother, to cater small dinner parties on East 88th Street. As Ms. Kissinger buzzed around the kitchen, she would talk about the brilliance of her young son, then at George Washington High School.

“We just nodded, thinking this was like every proud mother,” Ms. Samuels recalled years later. “It turned out she was right.”

Decades later, when I was taught political science by Kissinger’s former academic colleagues, I quickly discovered two camps: Those who admired his manipulation of American power and those who despised him. There was little middle ground. “One should always be gentle in speaking of the dead,” one told me when I interviewed him for the obituary. “Except in this case.”

One of my most revealing private interviews with Mr. Kissinger came in 2017, in Kent, Conn., where he kept a second home. We were both attending a conference, and had agreed to spend an hour or so together on a late summer afternoon. My son Ned, then entering his junior year in college, happened to be with me, and Mr. Kissinger invited him to join the conversation.

He started talking to Ned, first about the dog Mr. Kissinger had hidden for a semester in his Harvard dorm room, then about dealing with Richard Nixon in the last days of his presidency. Then, Vietnam — with some of the most revealing comments I ever heard him make about the mistaken U.S. assumptions about the roots of the conflict. Ned asked some questions, and it was as if the decades had melted away: Professor Kissinger was back in the seminar room, mixing anecdotes with geopolitical observations.

I just shut up and took notes.