By Will Banyan, Copyright © 15 May 2016
- Niall Ferguson, Kissinger: 1923-1968: The Idealist, Penguin Press, New York, 2015
Perhaps the most obvious point to make about this bloated and lifeless tome, the first of two projected volumes, is that former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger can feel confident he has chosen the right person to write his life story. Over nearly 930 pages (including footnotes), celebrity academic Niall Ferguson formerly a Professor of History at Harvard and now currently a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, proves yet again that when it comes to chronicling the lives of the rich and powerful, he is by far the perfect academic-for-hire. With very little direction, but with a great deal of enthusiasm and industry, Ferguson will strive to paint the best picture possible of his client, turning blemishes into rosy cheeks, sinister frowns into wise laugh-lines, and skeletons into necessary sacrifices. And so it is in this strangely anodyne account of Kissinger’s path to power; one that strips our protagonist of the sins of ambition and duplicity, and instead presents an unlikely tale of a selfless “idealist” who seems to have stumbled into the Nixon White House by happenstance rather than by design.
That Ferguson has performed this important task well is confirmed by the torrent of praise the book has received from Kissinger’s admirers, including his many friends. Convicted felon Conrad Black, for example, a friend of both Kissinger and Ferguson, praised it as a “brilliant book by an outstanding historian about a great and durably interesting statesman, who is also a distinguished historian and gifted strategic thinker.” It was a “compelling book about a towering figure”, claimed Walter Russell Mead in Foreign Affairs (Nov/Dec 2015); a “deeply compelling read” according to the Washington Free Beacon (Oct. 17, 2015); an “epic account of an amazing life”, claimed neo-conservative polemicist Max Boot (National Review, Oct 19, 2015); and according to the Weekly Standard (Dec. 07, 2015) this “attentive, magnificently written and profoundly researched” biography was “stunningly good…”
Writing in the New York Times, historian Andrew Roberts described it as the “most comprehensive defense of Kissinger’s outlooks and actions” since Kissinger’s own three-volume autobiography. But it was “no hagiography”, insisted Roberts (who was Kissinger’s first choice to write his memoir, but who balked at dealing with some “30 tons of material” in Kissinger’s personal archive – Ferguson dismisses him for having “cold feet” p.xiv), but rather “an admiring portrait rather than a particularly affectionate one.”