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The voice of the ages

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WASHINGTON -- Night at the museum finds the living fossil in a suit and tie, looking well-fed and amused.

We're one flight down from Triceratops and T. Rex, and just around the bend from the stone money of Yap and a heartbreaking collection of dusty stuffed birds that ranges from terns to titmice.

But it's the coelacanth -- still swimming after all these eons -- that we all have come to see.

At 88, Henry Kissinger has outlived almost every man who ever took, or rejected, his counsel, leaving him the uncontested owner of his, and our, history. Watching him walk slowly onto a stage for a panel discussion about national security, one imagines a groan descending from the Celestial Cabinet and a voice in the clouds sighing, "There goes Henry again."

But still, the domed, underground auditorium at the National Museum of Natural History is packed to the gills. It's an aged audience, full of specimens like me who can remember almost the whole of the Holocene.

We've come to spend a brief moment in the presence of one of the last veterans of the Second World War whose words still carry gravity in American public life.

It has been a long, long time since we peasants in the $4 seats used to rise and applaud as Henry Kissinger walked into Madison Square Garden for a Rangers hockey game with the Nobel Peace Prize in one hand and a blonde in the other.

Now, he is as round and soft as a melting snowman, and his voice sounds like Peter Sellers imitating a Yiddish-speaking pelican being strangled in slow motion. But occasionally a recognizable word does emerge: Nixon... Watergate... Eisenhower... Vietnam.

Then, "something something something ze personality of ze Prezident and how he prefers to verk."

Those of us who still are able to rotate our neckbones turn to our neighbours and shrug. But enough of the croak is comprehensible that we can take away some gems.

"Nothing should fail," Henry Kissinger says, "for a reason that is discoverable and not discovered."

Thus is George W. Bush's excuse for the invasion of Iraq -- those pesky but non-existent weapons of mass destruction -- whisked aside like sand on a Java Man's jawbone.

As it happens, Stephen Hadley, Bush's deputy national security adviser when the choice to take out Saddam Hussein was made (and later, during Bush's second term, his senior adviser), also is on tonight's panel.

"One of the things that Washington doesn't appreciate is that the President is the decider," Hadley says. "By the time you run for the Presidency and win it, you think you're ready to make those decisions, and you are."

A moderator asks Hadley, whose offer to resign over the dead-wrong Iraq intelligence was rejected by the Great Decider, to reveal how Bush arrived at his steadfast conclusions.

"He would go off and in the quietness of his own contemplations he would make his decision," Hadley answers. "Then he would come back and tell me, 'You tell Condi and Bob Gates.' And I would say, No, Mister President - you've got a phone right there. You tell them."

Henry Kissinger is asked what might have been the toughest decision that had to be made while he was Richard Nixon's national security adviser and secretary of state back at the Dawn of Time.

"We went on a lot on a crisis but we didn't agonize over it," he replies. "The decision on which a lot of time was spent was how to deal with Vietnam. At the time, we had five hundred and fifty thousand troops in place. Nixon made the decision to extricate ourselves, but how do you do that and maintain your position as leader of the free world? You could try for a quick military outcome. Alternatively, we were inundated by proposals for an immediate military withdrawal."

Nixon, he tells us, "did not like to order somebody to do something that the person did not want to do. He preferred to do that by memo. The losing party was always convinced that I had foisted it on him."

"It is very quiet in a crisis," Henry Kissinger says. In 1973, he won the Nobel for negotiating a ceasefire that lasted less than a heartbeat before the Communists resumed their southward march. His Vietnamese counterpart, knowing what was coming, declined to accept the prize.

Forty years later, a president with no memory of My Lai or the Fall of Saigon wrestles with his own morass in Central Asia.

Whether Barack Obama calls on Henry Kissinger in the quietness of his own contemplations is not likely to be announced on a night at the museum. What remains is an old man's confidence that, having seen so much come and go from Hitler to the Haqqani, no calamity being held in reserve by history is likely to bring the whole temple down.

"Even in this year of division, on the main outline, we've been pretty close together," says the voice of the ages. "This country is not as divided as it looks."


Allen Abel is a Brooklyn-born Canadian journalist based in Washington, D.C.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 10, 2011 J11

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