Kissinger by Walter Isaacson

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Real Politics

Recently, I’ve been watching The West Wing, which aired on NBC from 1999 to 2006. We’re currently watching season 5 of 7. This television show follows the eight White House years of Democratic President Jed Bartlet and his staff. Of course, being a television drama, President Bartlet has an incredibly interesting presidency (the details of which I won’t divulge in case you are intrigued and care to watch the show).

The most intriguing part of this show is watching and learning about political processes. I don’t know how accurate the portrayals are of the West Wing, White House, and Congressional debates, working situations, and characters. But with each episode, I wonder what the real political situation is for the subject.

Because I have been so absorbed by this fictional political situation, I decided to read about the real thing. I really enjoyed reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Einstein a few months ago, and I was eager to read another of Issacson’s biographies—this time a biography of Henry A. Kissinger, national security adviser to Nixon and later Secretary of State to Nixon and Ford.

I’ll begin my review by saying that I don’t recommend this book, although I am glad I read it. (Does that make sense?)

It’s not that Isaacson did a poor job. In fact, I think his analysis and portrayal of Kissinger is incredibly well researched and thorough. He does a great job of avoiding his own commentary and opinion. The problem is that Henry A. Kissinger was a man without morals. He was not a likeable man for me.

While Einstein was a delightful, playful genius-celebrity, Henry Kissinger was a two-faced, tricky genius-celebrity. Yes, I believe Kissinger was a genius: he was a genius of negotiation, a genius of tricking people, and an expert in being two-faced. (For example, he would mock the Israelis to the Syrian leaders and mock the Syrian leaders to the Israelis.)

Israeli leader Yitzhak Rabin said: “He didn’t lie. He would have lost credibility. He didn’t tell the whole truth” (page 554). He was tricky, and that was the essential element behind his success. For example, Isaacson summarizes:

In the Vietnam negotiations, [Kissinger] devised murky wording regarding the DMZ and South Vietnamese sovereignty so that both sides could claim what they wanted; in the SALT talks, he left vague the limits on silo size changes and later dropped the word ballistic from limits on air missiles so that the Americans and Soviets ended up interpreting the meaning differently. Likewise, on the Middle East, Kissinger tried to fudge many of the theological disputes that stood in the way of practical disengagement accords. (page 556)

Kissinger, a Jewish refuge to the U.S. from Nazi Germany at age 15, embraced the European notion of realpolitik, which is defined as “politics based on practical and material factors rather than on theoretical or ethical objectives” ( In other words, he did whatever he felt was necessary, even if morals had to be abandoned. That is why I found myself disliking him: “Kissinger never had an instinctive feel for American values and mores” (page 764).

In reading this book, I got what I wanted: a realistic look into the West Wing and the political environment around the White House. And I don’t like it. President Nixon was a sneaky, lying man. And Henry Kissinger believed in doing whatever was necessary to get the end result he wanted.

I renewed this book twice, which means it was checked out for three check-out periods. At four weeks for each check out, I had this book on my “What I am Reading” shelf for three months. I’m not surprised: it was more than 750 pages and I could only handle so much of it every day.

As I became more appalled with each new political situation, I kept wondering why I was still reading it. I think the reason I kept reading was because I was learning so much about the political environment from 1968 to the late 1970s, particularly in terms of international relations. The analysis of power was fascinating to me, as appalling as it was.

“Kissinger was such a liar,” I told my husband, more than once.

“Rebecca,” he said once, with a tone that suggested I should have known that. “Of course he was. He was a politician.” (Although my husband denies saying these words, this is the impression I got from him.)

“Well, I want to read about a politician that has morals. I want a Jed Bartlet.”

Yes, I know Jed Bartlet doesn’t really exist. He gets emotional in every episode in which an American soldier dies. Can a President let himself get that involved? I don’t know, but I don’t like how Ford and Kissinger didn’t have any concerns when “only” 18 soldiers went down in a successful mission (page 654).

I intend to read about other political situations and time periods in order to find the reality of U.S. political and international relations, as depressing as it may be.

I think I’ve been watching fictional politics for too long.

Reviewed on April 21, 2008

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

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