Richard Nixon was nearing the end. It was Aug. 7, 1974, and the president had just told congressional leaders he planned to resign. Shortly after 6 p.m., Nixon's secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, found the chief executive sitting in the Oval Office, staring into the Rose Garden. The relationship between the men was, to say the least, ambivalent. As Kissinger was well aware, Nixon suspected him of self-aggrandizement. Kissinger, for his part, told reporters (privately, of course) that Nixon was a "madman." When, a few months earlier, the president called Kissinger and his new wife, Nancy Maginnes, on their honeymoon, Nixon offered perfunctory congratulations. Then he warned Kissinger's bride not to pick up poisonous snakes—and if bitten by one, to extract the venom quickly.
And yet Kissinger was moved by Nixon's misery. Though neither man was a hugger, Kissinger put an arm around the president's shoulder. The awkward embrace is an oddly touching scene in Robert Dallek's at once damning and partly forgiving pointillist portrait, "Nixon and Kissinger." The men aimed to be the most powerful foreign-policy duo since Harry Truman and his secretary of State, Dean Acheson; Nixon and Kissinger's global achievements nearly matched their ambitions.
Given the backbiting between them, however, it's amazing they accomplished anything. Dallek's book is part history of Great Men Aiming High—and a chronicle of astonishing pettiness. It is a reminder that human beings can behave at their worst while seeking to realize the noblest aspirations, and that the line between baseness and grandeur, love and hate, is fine.
A southern California Quaker, Nixon was shy. Kissinger, a former Harvard professor tied to the East Coast elite, fostered the improbable image of statesman and swinger. But both saw themselves as outsiders, and both were insecure. They shared an immense drive, and they knew how to play on each other's weaknesses. They were cynical about the conduct of foreign policy—and each other.
Dallek uses the medical term "autointoxication" to describe how they poisonously goaded each other. "My rule in international affairs," Nixon said, "is to do unto others as they would do unto you." Kissinger chimed in, "Plus 10 percent." The press was a favorite target. "Goddam newspapers—they're a bunch of sluts," Nixon told Kissinger. "I don't give a goddam about repression, do you?" "No," said Kissinger. But behind the scenes, he told reporters Nixon was a drunk and a "meatball."
Dallek, who mined the tapes and transcripts both men kept, writes that Nixon would periodically taunt Kissinger as his "Jew boy." After one anti-Semitic tirade, Nixon demanded, "Isn't that right, Henry?" Kissinger replied, "Well, Mr. President, there are Jews and then there are Jews." Nixon gravely talked to his aides about "the Henry problem," ordering them to keep notes on Kissinger's "suicidal" complex.
But by the end, it was Nixon who was slurping Scotch and watching "Patton" over and over while Kissinger ran the nation's foreign affairs. During the height of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, the British prime minister called to speak to Nixon. It was 1:30 a.m. in London, only 8:30 p.m. in Washington. Kissinger wouldn't put Nixon on the line because, as he explained to his deputy Brent Scowcroft, "when I talked to the president he was loaded."
Kissinger's contempt for Nixon was weirdly blended with affection. On that night in August 1974, when Nixon told Kissinger he would resign, Kissinger tried to buck up Nixon by saying history would vindicate him. Shortly thereafter, Kissinger, cold practitioner of realpolitik, began to cry. So did Nixon. After about an hour and a half, Kissinger, possibly embarrassed by the sentiment, tried for the elevator, but Nixon asked Kissinger to pray with him. As they prayed, Nixon sobbed.
Later, by phone, Nixon begged Kissinger not to recount their evening to anyone; Kissinger asked Scowcroft to destroy records of the call, but Kissinger eventually described the scene to others. At Hubert Humphrey's funeral in 1977, the two men ran into other. "You [as] mean as ever?" Nixon asked Kissinger. "Yes," Kissinger replied, "but I don't have as much opportunity as before." That is a peculiar way for old partners to say they miss each other, but they probably did.