Rug Time

Jonathan Steinberg

  • Kissinger: The Price of Power by Seymour Hersh
    Faber, 699 pp, £15.00, October 1983, ISBN 0 571 13175 1

Seymour Hersh belongs to that small group of American newspaper reporters who made national reputations during the Vietnam War and Watergate. He won a Pultizer Prize in 1970 for his exposure of the My Lai massacre. He exposed the secret bombing of Cambodia and the role of the CIA in toppling the Allende regime in Chile. He tracked down evidence of CIA spying within the United States and exposed it. Investigation and exposure are his trade, and he does it thoroughly. For years he worked for the New York Times, whose motto is ‘All the news that’s fit to print’, and when the Times says ‘all’, it means all.

The book is, therefore, dense with names, places and dates. Mr Hersh tells us that he carried out more than a thousand interviews and I believe it. In some cases he interviewed the same person four or five times to make sure that he got it right. He went through the memoirs of Nixon and Kissinger with a microscope and compared them with his own findings. He used the Freedom of Information Act to gain access to government documents and had, of course, the huge pile of documents left by the various Watergate investigations, prosecutions and memoirs. His book is not easy reading. Mr Hersh’s prose creaks under the weight of the information he has collected. Here is a typical sentence: ‘The revived interest in the White House wiretaps also prompted William Sullivan, who was then in the midst of a power struggle with J. Edgar Hoover, to visit Robert Mardian, head of the Justice Department’s Internal Security Division, and warn him, as Mardian later testified, that Hoover could not be trusted and might try to blackmail Nixon, as he had blackmailed other Presidents, because of the wiretap material.’ It’s not that he does not write well, but that he seems to have been unable to leave anything out. In addition to 665 pages of text and sources, there are extensive footnotes often running onto the next page. You get a lot of facts for your £15.

How much else you get is less clear. Watergate fans will recognise the old cast of characters, those almost-forgotten names – Charles Colson, David Young, Egil ‘Bud’ Krogh – and there is pleasure in this: a bit like watching an old horror film on late-night TV. Yet on that level Mr Hersh is not exciting. We know the Watergate story from every angle and, by now, from the memoirs of almost every participant. Mr Hersh sticks to his facts. There are no descriptions that cannot be attributed to somebody who saw the events. The tone is restrained and sober.

There is – and this is very odd – no portrait of Kissinger as such. Mr Hersh tells us very little about his background, and nothing about his private life, which was the subject of much speculation and associated with much glamour. When Hersh wrote, ‘By the summer of 1970, the secret life of Henry Kissinger was known throughout the Washington press corps,’ I sat up hopefully in bed, but no, he meant Kissinger’s secret professional life as ‘the senior White House official’ who briefed reporters and gave off-the-record interviews. Mr Hersh does not even allow himself to speculate about Kissinger’s motives or personality. Occasionally he uses a phrase such as ‘his insatiable need for adulation’, but he offers no evidence for the statement and shuns any sort of reflections on the origin of that need.

The time covered by the book is restricted. It begins with the run-up to the election of 1968 and effectively ends in January 1973. Kissinger’s period as Secretary of State under both Nixon and Ford is treated in a few cursory pages. There is no conclusion, no place in which the reader is invited to stand back and reflect on the meaning of the evidence presented, just a low-key epilogue in which Mr Hersh tells us briefly what happened to Mr Nixon, Dr Kissinger and General Haig after the events described in the book.

The Price of Power sticks to foreign affairs, at least as far as the machinations in the Nixon White House permit, and moves more or less chronologically through the four years it covers. So we keep coming back to SALT or Chile and in each case Mr Hersh has to go over some background just to make the story coherent. There is, then, a good deal of repetition and overlapping. Foreign affairs do not easily fit into the neat sub-headings that an author might like.

What do I know now that I did not know 665 pages ago? That Kissinger was unscrupulous, ambitious, vain and deceitful was hardly a state secret; that Nixon ranted and raved and used foul language was known to everybody who read the newspapers. ‘Expletive deleted’ became a joke in its own right. I did not know – and was startled to read – that Moraji Desai, sometime Indian prime minister, was a CIA informant even while serving in Mrs Gandhi’s Cabinet. I did not know details of the SALT agreements, nor some of the flamboyant activities of Mossad, the Israeli secret service. I had not taken in how heavily and publicly Nixon drank. These episodes still have power to shock.

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