After Henry Kissinger (finally) died at the age of 100, I noticed that I had a copy of the director’s cut of Oliver Stone’s Nixon that I’d been putting off watching, mainly because it’s three and a half hours long. Reading people on social media discussing Paul Sorvino’s legendary portrayal of the German born foreign policy intellectual is what finally pushed me into making the commitment. Sadly, Sorvino doesn’t get much screen time, and Stone’s final verdict on Kissinger is that he was a slippery yes man who may, or may not have been leaking White House secrets to the press. Nixon certainly thought so, but the issue isn’t explored any further. Stone also depicted Kissinger as making his famous quote about power being the ultimate aphrodisiac to either Mao or Brezhnev. I can’t quite remember which, but it was to one of the two leaders of one of the two communist superpowers. I’m pretty sure it was Mao.
In any event, the sleazy little German American Secretary of State joking with the leader of communist China about how such a short ugly little man can date so many beautiful women actually says a lot about Richard Nixon himself. Unlike Kissinger, Nixon, as a scene where Larry Hagman playing a Texas oilman unsuccessfully tempts him with prostitutes demonstrates, wasn’t particularly interested in developing a reputation as a ladies man. Nixon genuinely loved his wife, his one good quality, and had no urge to cheat on her with some bought and paid for Texas bimbo, but he was an amoral, self-interested, ambitious man who built his career around the McCarthyite witch hunts, but had no qualms about socializing with Mao or Brezhnev if it fed his his lust for power and influence. Nixon could slander idealistic American progressives like Helen Gahagan Douglas as traitors and secret reds, but he could also sit around with table with the leader of the Chinese Communist Party and laugh while his Secret of State made sexist quips about women being attracted to powerful men, even if they were ugly war criminals like himself. In the end, Richard Nixon was no dogmatic anti-communist. He wasn’t even particularly to capitalism. Richard Nixon was mainly devoted to Richard Nixon.
Needless to say I doubt Millennial and Gen-Z women find Henry Kissinger as sexy as Boomer women did in the 1970s. His death was met with great rejoicing on social media, especially from people far too young to remember Cambodia or the fascist coup in Chile. Over the last few decades Kissinger, like Margaret Thatcher, has become an outsized symbol of evil, two faces on the Mt. Rushmore of the neoliberal counterrevolution against the 1960s. Nixon himself, unlike the more charismatic Reagan, would probably join them alongside the ghoulish Pinochet and the buffoonish Donald Trump, who will probably eliminate what’s left of American democracy if he’s reelected in 2024. But it all begs the question. As a young antiwar protester tells Nixon, played by Anthony Hopkins, in his bizarre visit to an Occupy style campout at the Lincoln Memorial, the issue isn’t the man in the White House but the system, capitalist state power itself. Nixon couldn’t stop the war in Vietnam, or resist escalating it to Cambodia, even if he wanted to. Power is a wild beast only the most ambitious and amoral men even attempt to tame.
So what purpose do cartoonish evil reactionaries like Nixon or Kissinger, Trump, George W. Bush or Margaret Thatcher really serve other than to be scapegoats, to convince us all that capitalism would be working just fine if it weren’t for “a few bad apples?” Why aren’t Zbigniew Brzezinski, who bragged about creating the Taliban, Madeleine Albright, who confessed on national TV to genocide against Iraqi children, Bill Clinton, who institutionalized most of Ronald Reagan’s neoliberal policies, or Barack Obama, who squandered the great progressive backlash against George W. Bush, as hated by younger leftists and liberals as Kissinger or Nixon? Unlike the overrated 1970s film All the Presidents Men, which depicts two idealistic young Washington Post reporters against a sinister government conspiracy without ever once addressing the idea that the Washington Post is as much a part of the system as the White House, Oliver Stone’s Nixon succeeds in dramatizing the contradictions of power. Somehow Stone pulls of the difficult feat of portraying Richard Nixon as the genuinely evil man he was without once forgetting that he was still human, a vain ambitious man in over his head watching the uncontrollable forces of history transforming him into a monster.
Even worse than being a President caught in the uncontrollable forces of history and institutionalized power (the “deep state”) is being one of “all the President’s men being tied to an out of control President going down for the count. Here Stone assembles an excellent support cast of actors, including James Woods as H.R. Haldeman, David Hyde-Pierce as John Dean, Ed Harris as E. Howard Hunt, Madeline Kahn as Martha Mitchell, E.G. Marshall as John Mitchell, and Joan Allen as Pat Nixon, who slowly but inevitably begin to realize that you don’t get to be President unless you’re willing to walk over a pile of bodies along the way, and that one by one Nixon is going to throw all of them to the wolves to save his own skin. One of the film’s best scenes involves a meeting between the young John Dean, who later turns coat to avoid being prosecuted, and the older, jaded Howard Hunt, who may or may not have been involved in the Kennedy assassination. Dean, who delivers a bag of money to Hunt indignantly asks him how he has the temerity to blackmail the President. Hunt, who’s seen it all before, explains to Dean exactly what’s going to happen to him. “Your graves already been dug John,” he says between puffs on his pipe.
I suppose that’s what makes Kissinger so fascinating, and hated. He was by far the most evil member of Nixon’s cabinet, and yet unlike Haldeman, Ehrlichman or even Dean, he came out of the whole Watergate affair completely unscathed, even becoming a cuddly sex symbol in the 1970s for the media elite. I guess it’s tempting to think that Kissinger was some sort of evil genius, the “darkness” who Nixon was reaching out to, but there’s a much simpler explanation. Haldeman and Ehrlichman committed crimes against people with power, the Democratic National Committee. Even today if you steal from the rich like Bernie Madoff or Sam Bankman-Fried did you will probably go to jail. But you can steal from the poor all you like. There will inevitably be a Barack Obama who will come along to protect you. Similarly Kissinger didn’t commit crimes against Democrats. He committed crimes against poor people and working class people, Cambodians, Chileans, Vietnamese, people “the system” treats as disposable. The same powerful Democrats who took it personally when Nixon bugged the DNC will barely notice if a Republican, or Democratic, President carpet bombs people in the third world. And that’s why Henry Kissinger died comfortably in his bed at the age of 100, hated by young radicals but popular among establishment politicians like Hillary Clinton.