By Jacqui BanaszynskiThe primary New York Times obit of Henry Kissinger listed it as a “38 MIN READ.” I checked the clock, my to-do list and my energy level. Then I bookmarked the obit for a later read.
I came into journalism just as President Richard Nixon was facing the heat of press coverage about Watergate and the war in Vietnam. Kissinger, who was Nixon’s secretary of state, was a major player in my nascent understanding of politics, and especially of international affairs. I have no doubt, when I finally chew into that and other obits, that I will gain new insights — pro and con — to a controversial man who had outsized influence on America’s role in the world.
As I continued my scroll of Times’ headlines, another promo headling about Kissinger coverage caught my attention:
This one I did open. It was an engrossing behind-the-scenes piece by Times White House reporter David E. Sanger about the intellectual chess game that played out over seven years through several pre-obit conversations he had with Kissinger.
Sanger’s byline also led the formal obit of Kissinger, and gave credit in a tagline to his late colleague, Michael T. Kaufman, who had reported and written a holding obit of Kissinger years earlier. That concept — a holding obit — might seem ghoulish to those of you who haven’t worked in news; it certainly made my college students uncomfortable when I made that a standard reporting assignment. But it’s a necessary and wise part of journalism. Prominent people will die someday, and the only way to adequately report their deaths and the import of their lives is to gather most of the story in advance. Then, when the inevitable day comes, the news is delivered immediately, but with needed depth and nuance.
Capturing human complexity
Kissinger was 100 when he died Wednesday (Nov. 29, 2023). He never stepped out of public influence, even long after he was out of formal public office. That gave Sanger and, before him, Kaufman and dozens of other national reporters years to try to categorize a life that defied categorization. Revered? Reviled? Brilliant? Brutal? All of the above and more.
I made a reference to the Sanger-Kissinger interviews as a chess game. But the Times Insider piece about that relationship used a more apt metaphor given Kissinger’s role in 20th Century geopolitics. Here’s the full headline:
Interviewing Henry Kissinger was a bit like negotiating an arms control agreement: Full of complexity, nuance, evasion and declarations you had to check. And utterly fascinating.
Sanger himself, in the body of the Insider piece, used the metaphor I appreciated most: He called his series of encounters with Kissinger an “odd dance,” one in which each knew their roles.
I’ve long considered interviews a type of dance. The source or story subject picks the music; it’s their story or their information, after all. The reporter’s role is to work within that musical frame — leading (controlling) when a source is deflecting or determined to mislead, following when a story subject is relating an authentic, sensitive, personal experience. Or maybe in the latter case, it’s more a matter of leading very gently, allowing the source all the latitude possible to tell their story, their way, while being careful not to push too hard, too fast. To extend the metaphor, that has to be a slow, patient dance.
Dancing with a master
For those who don’t have access to Times Insider, there are several moments that offer insights into the relationship between reporter-source that is indeed an “odd dance,” this one performed on the highest of wires. Sanger’s essay also offers lessons for interviews in general, and about the challenge of obits that can’t gloss over the uglier realities of a powerful personality — in Kissinger’s case, a personality who was a master of strategy and manipulation.
The piece opens with Kissinger’s direct and cheeky acknowledgement that he was being interviewed for his own obit. He confronts Sanger during a 2017 meeting:
“Are you writing one of those articles that will appear when I can no longer argue with its premise?”
Sanger had to think faster without being deceptive. His solution? He told Kissinger he was “writing about your life,” then quipped back:
“Mr. Secretary,” I finally said, “knowing you, you’ll find a way.”
Sanger is straightforward about the struggle to capture Kissinger’s life with the both respect and honesty. In Kissinger’s case, the latter led most obits to release unvarnished criticism:
There is no way to write about the life of Henry Kissinger without angering just about everyone.
More of our journalism should find ways to let readers in on how that journalism is done, why and what it takes. After a few grafs summarizing Kissinger’s career and character, Sanger writes this:
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.
Here, Sanger gives more than a nod to the previous work done by Michael Kaufman, who died in 2010, which Sanger called “a lengthy and studiously nonjudgmental draft.” But events since prompted the editors to say that Kissinger’s “legacy needed reassessment,” which was the assignment that landed on Sanger’s desk.
Sanger admits there were times, in interviewing Kissinger and reading his articles and books, that he struggled with the conclusions Kissinger pushed or the narrative he was creating. But Sanger was smart to put Kissinger in context of other great and flawed political influencers, notably Winston Churchill:
He wanted be the first to cast his role in the best possible light, omitting almost all of its ugliest moments.
Then he allows himself, in this Insider essay, to add his own perspective:
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.
I likely would have bristled at that if written by someone who brought less cred to the job. But Sanger has had an immersive career covering the White House, international affairs and national security. He lecturesat the Harvard Kennedy School, has written several books on international politics and has shared in three Pulitzers. That, and his multiple exchanges with Kissinger, made me grateful for his insights. They offer the kind of context I crave from journalists who are, indeed, experts.
Sanger also declares more personal connections to Kissinger without overdoing it or turning the attention to himself: Kissinger’s mother catered dinner parties for Sanger’s grandmother; Sanger’s political science classes were taught by Kissinger’s former academic colleagues.
Sanger ends his insider essay with a charming anecdote about Kissinger inviting Sanger’s college-age son to sit in on one of their interviews. The conversation took a more casual turn than in the past, with Kissinger reminiscing about his dog, his days in the dorms at Harvard, his relationship with Nixon and som of the miscalclulations about Vietnam. The young man asked questions; the old man answered:
… 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.