Tuesday 12 December 2017

Last night’s TV: Kissinger, More4

James Walton reviews Kissinger, More 4's extended interview with the former US Secretary of State

'A slightly menacing twinkle': Henry Kissinger (right) with Richard Nixon
'A slightly menacing twinkle': Henry Kissinger (right) with Richard Nixon

More4’s Kissinger began with a reminder of the man in his early-1970s pomp. And what a pomp it was. There was Henry Kissinger, in his role as what Nixon called "the senior diplomat of the world", shaking hands with Mao and Leonid Brezhnev. There he was, living up to his admission/boast that "after work I like to be with a beautiful girl" – squiring such women as Liv Ullmann and Raquel Welch.

Now approaching 90, the figure sitting before Niall Ferguson for last night’s extended interview had duly lost some of that undoubted glamour. His mind, though, remains as sharp as when it was steering American foreign policy through what he unblushingly described as “a historical process the magnitude of which the world had never seen”.

In advance, more naïve viewers might have expected a Frost/Nixon-style showdown. In the event, I probably don’t need to issue a spoiler alert before pointing out one important difference: Kissinger didn’t apologise for anything. The mass bombing of Cambodia “deepened domestic divisions but it was the right decision”. He’s still “unreconstructed in the conviction that Vietnam did not have to fall, that we did that to ourselves” – the “we” clearly referring to those pesky demonstrators.

His commitment to realpolitik is equally undimmed. Before engineering the celebrated rapprochement with China, he knew of its government’s “immoral behaviour that led to dramatic hardship for millions of people”. “But,” he added with barely a pause, “that was not the key part.” (The key part, of course, was that the plan worked.)

Along the way, there were several, more personal glimpses behind the diplomatic scenes. Mao, we learned, had a sardonic sense of humour. Le Duc Tho, Kissinger’s opposite number from North Vietnam, “aged me prematurely, but was a remarkable man. With no international experience, and faced with a superpower, he never lost his poise.” Later, Kissinger even went for a little gag about those Hollywood lovelies: “So the question arose: how does he do it?”

But one obvious reason why he was so relaxed is that Niall Ferguson gave him the easiest of rides. In fact, for a man not usually shy about expressing his opinions, Ferguson was restrained almost to the point of non-existence. His face was unseen, and his voice rarely heard — with most questions edited out to make more room for Kissinger’s answers. Ferguson, incidentally, is now working on Kissinger’s biography, with full access to his papers, and Kissinger was a guest at his recent wedding.

The result was a programme that felt more like the raw material for a great documentary than the thing itself. Given more context, and more of Ferguson’s own thoughts, it could have been turned into, say, a memorable three-part series. As it stood, the film was never less than gripping – yet anybody not up to speed on Kissinger’s various controversies may well have been left wondering what all the fuss is about. Why, for instance, does Christopher Hitchens want this quietly reasonable man indicted for war crimes? Why did the singer Tom Lehrer famously give up satire the day Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize? (No satirist, Lehrer decided, could match that.)

Clearly understanding the rules of the game, Kissinger acknowledged at the end that it “would certainly be more impressive to the audience if there were some mea culpa expressed”. But with that, he gave a slightly menacing twinkle and spoke no more.

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