Depending on who you ask, Henry Kissinger is either a war criminal or a statesman, says Jim Kelly in Air Mail. But one thing’s certain: he’s an “uncommonly elegant writer”. This year the 99-year-old published his latest book, Leadership. Other writing by former secretaries of state hasn’t been up to much – The New York Times recommended buying toothpicks before reading John Kerry’s 600-plus-page memoir, “so readers can use them to prop up their eyelids”. Leadership, on the other hand, is gripping.
There are six sections, each about a politician who changed the world. The fact that Kissinger knew his six subjects doesn’t come across as “name-dropping” – indeed, it’s his “intimate observations” that give Leadership its power. On France’s Charles de Gaulle, Kissinger ascribes the president’s austere sense of duty to the death of his only daughter: every day until his death in 1970, de Gaulle carried a framed picture of her in his breast pocket. And the section on Richard Nixon – a man Kissinger has previously called “that madman” and “meatball mind” – is full of anecdotes. He reveals that before Nixon’s landmark visit to China in 1972, the president asked him to stress to reporters just how qualified he was – in particular because he didn’t use notes. “In meetings with 73 heads of state and heads of government,” Nixon wrote, about himself, “RN has had hours of conversation without any notes.” If there were a “Nobel prize for insecurity”, he would have been a runaway winner.