Tomorrow (September 19) at 4 pm, the National Geographic Channel will do a repeat showing of Kissinger, the two-hour documentary that I posted about last week. Having watched it, I can tell you that, setting aside a few of the jazzier trimmings attached to it by its British producers, the program is quite fascinating, very illuminating in places, and shows Dr. Henry Kissinger as he has almost never been seen before – in casual clothes, jacketless, no tie, collar open, dressed much the same way that your greatuncle would be if you were visiting him in Sun City or Boca Raton.
The contrast is especially during the program when old clips of the former National Security Advisor and Secretary of State are shown with him in a tuxedo sitting with Shirley Maclaine or Liv Ullmann. But after a while one realizes that not only is Dr. Kissinger dressed informally, but what he has to say about himself and his career is much more searching and illuminating than is usually the case when he appears on a program like Charlie Rose.
A good deal of this has to do with the person interviewing him in the documentary: Niall Ferguson, the Scottish historian who now teaches at Harvard after a stellar career at Cambridge, Oxford, and New York University. As it happens, Ferguson has been at work for eight years on a biography of Henry Kissinger, now nearing completion, which draws not only upon many interviews with the subject, but upon Dr. Kissinger’s personal papers to which no previous writer has had access. Ferguson has also gained considerable renown for books which explain, to a less specialized audience than usual in his profession, the way in which the economic development of the Western world since 1800 has affected world history as a whole. The professor, unlike most of the journalists who have spoken with Dr. Kissinger through the years, has a very detailed knowledge of European history from the Congress of Vienna in 1815 until the start of World War I – the period in which Dr. Kissinger specialized in his first years in the academic world, long before he entered the sphere of policy-making. The lessons which the future diplomat drew from studying this historical era have been ones which shaped his entire career, and the common ground which he shares with his interviewer makes Kissinger stand out from the usual run of history shows on television.
Ferguson has done a number of programs for British TV in which he’s been featured front and center, but in Kissinger he fades into the background in terms of visibility. He is heard only occasionally asking questions, and when he does show up in shots with Dr. Kissinger, just the back of his head is seen. To get a sense of how essential Ferguson was to the success of this program, it’s useful to listen to this interview with the historian, conducted by Steve Fast at the radio station WJBC in Illinois last week. In a little under 12 minutes Ferguson explains the purpose of the program; discusses his conversations with Dr. Kissinger about the war in Afghanistan; and expresses his view that, even at the age of 88, Henry Kissinger has a depth of understanding of world affairs, and the historical context involved, unmatched by anyone else. As I wrote last week, Kissinger is a documentary which condenses about two dozen hours of filmed interviews, and when Ferguson describes some of what was left out, it makes this writer, at least, want to see more of this material.