How Biden and Other Presidents Saw Kissinger: Adviser, Friend and Foil

Henry A. Kissinger, the former secretary of state who died this week, was a go-to adviser for many American presidents over his decades in politics.

Here are some thoughts and stories over the years from several of those presidents, expressing awe, exasperation and sharp criticism.

“I’ll never forget the first time I met Dr. Kissinger. I was a young senator, and he was secretary of state — giving a briefing on the state of the world,” the president said in a statement Thursday. “Throughout our careers, we often disagreed. And often strongly. But from that first briefing — his fierce intellect and profound strategic focus was evident.

“Long after retiring from government, he continued to offer his views and ideas to the most important policy discussion across multiple generations. Jill and I send our condolences to his wife Nancy, his children Elizabeth and David, his grandchildren, and all those who loved him.”

According to a Washington Post article in 1999:

The president had a sometimes vexed relationship with Mr. Kissinger, his national security adviser and then his secretary of state. Mr. Nixon complained that Mr. Kissinger was trying to gain control of “everything that comes to me” on foreign policy. “What he does not realize is, I don’t read his goddamn papers. I just skim it.”

Mr. Nixon also praised Mr. Kissinger as “the man that has the greatest influence on me,” but added that “sometimes he is as wrong as hell.”

“I think he was a super secretary of state,” Mr. Ford said in a 2004 Washington Post interview, “but Henry in his mind never made a mistake, so whatever policies there were that he implemented, in retrospect he would defend.”

He added, “Henry publicly was a gruff, hard-nosed German-born diplomat, but he had the thinnest skin of any public figure I ever knew.”

After frequently criticizing Mr. Kissinger during his election campaign, Mr. Carter referred to him as “my good friend” as president-elect in 1976.

“There is no incompatibility among us,” he declared after a six-hour presidential transition meeting.

Mr. Carter later described Mr. Kissinger as “brilliant and devious” in a 1981 interview published by The Boston Globe.

“He’s a liar, and everyone in the Mideast knows he lies,” Mr. Carter said, listing several heads of state.

“Kissinger is an extremely complicated guy,” Mr. Bush wrote on Saturday, Nov. 30, 1974, as chronicled in “The China Diary of George H.W. Bush: The Making of a Global President,” by Jeffrey A. Engel.

“He is ungracious, he yells at staff, he is intolerable in terms of human feelings. Dictatorial. ‘Get people here.’ ‘Have those people here.’ ‘Where are they?’ ‘Why do I need these papers?’ ‘Where are my papers?’ And yet all those petty little unpleasant characteristics fade away, when you hear him discussing the world situation.”

Mr. Bush added: “He is like a politician with the roar of a crowd on election eve or the athlete running out at the 50-yard line just before the kickoff. The public turns him on.”

“I read all Dr. Kissinger’s books, and I was immensely enlightened by them,” Mr. Clinton said in 2000, in remarks about trade relations with China. “But what he said today is right. Normally, unless you have to fight with somebody, you do better with an outstretched hand than with a clenched fist. You want to have a strong defense. You want to be ready for the worst, but you’ve got to try to plan for the best and give people a chance to do the right thing.”

He said later that year, during a reception: “And he always sounds like God with a German accent. Maybe God has a German accent, for all I know.”

“As I stated at the time of his appointment, Dr. Kissinger is one of our nation’s most accomplished and respected public servants,” Mr. Bush said in a statement in 2002, when he accepted Mr. Kissinger’s resignation as the chairman of the national commission to investigate the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. (Mr. Kissinger resigned after declining to reveal his client list.)

“I thank him for his willingness to consider serving his country once again,” Mr. Bush continued. “His chairmanship would have provided the insights and analysis the government needs to understand the methods of our enemies and the nature of the threats we face.”

In an interview with The Atlantic in 2016, Mr. Obama said: “We dropped more ordnance on Cambodia and Laos than on Europe in World War II, and yet, ultimately, Nixon withdrew, Kissinger went to Paris, and all we left behind was chaos, slaughter and authoritarian governments that finally, over time, have emerged from that hell.”

Mr. Obama noted that while in office he was still trying to help countries “remove bombs that are still blowing off the legs of little kids.”

“Henry Kissinger has been a friend of mine. I’ve liked him, I’ve respected him,” Mr. Trump said during an Oval Office meeting with Mr. Kissinger on Oct. 10, 2017. “But we’ve been friends for a long time, long before my emergence in the world of politics, which has not been too long.”

In 2020, when Mr. Trump signed a trade agreement with China, he described him as “a man who everybody knows — he knows more than probably everybody in this room put together.”

“He’s seen it all,” Mr. Trump said. “And he made a statement to Jared. Jared came in and said, “You know, Henry Kissinger told me, ‘How did the president ever pull this off?’”

“I said, ‘Can I quote Henry on that?’ Because Henry is outstanding. And when Henry is impressed with something, then I’m impressed.”

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