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Mary McGrory

Kissinger for Christmas

By Mary McGrory
Thursday, December 5, 2002; Page A35

You probably thought you'd never see the day when George I's record for bizarre personnel picks might be challenged, but Pater Bush has been outdone by his own son. George W.'s choice of Henry Kissinger to lead the probe into what went on before 9/11 is right up there with Dad's big-time howlers: Vice President Dan Quayle and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. In both cases, George I thought he had pulled a fast one. Quayle would melt female voters, show youth how cool Bush really was. Thomas was irresistible: Democrats, no matter how repelled by his views, would not dare vote against a black nominee.

With Kissinger, we have again the Grand Canyon-size discrepancy between man and job. Kissinger is a brilliant diplomat devoted to asserting his country's power -- and his own.

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He helped write some of the darkest chapters in American history: The prolonging of the Vietnam War included the shameless exploitation of U.S. POWs as the alibi for covering a retreat that had been inevitable for four years. The subversion of Chile's elected Socialist government led to more rage, tears and deaths that are not yet counted. In Central America, of course, Kissinger was on the wrong side.

And from George W. Bush's point of view, he's ideal.

It's not just that Kissinger the power-lover guarantees exoneration for the powerful. He shares Bush's view that 9/11 was all Bill Clinton's fault. He loves secrets; he loves bombs -- he was proud of the "secret" bombing of Cambodia. He thinks leakers should be "crushed." Like the president, he thinks it's unpatriotic to question the government. Bush resisted the creation of a commission that would go poking around into what he knew and when about the worst domestic disaster since the Civil War.

The victims' families insisted on trying to find out why more than 3,000 Americans were killed that bright September morning. Bush thought to silence them with a celebrity. Some who would have preferred truth spoke longingly of Warren Rudman or Rudolph Giuliani as top sleuths. Bush knew Kissinger would outrage the left, which regards him as a war criminal -- but with his constituency, that's fun. He feared no Democratic backlash; their mantra is the beatitude "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth."

Optimists point out that no one knows the back alleys of bureaucracy better or is more able to sniff out, from long practice thereof, skulduggery at government agencies. Others take comfort in the thought of "balance" being achieved by the righteous presence of former senator George Mitchell. But Mitchell is vice chairman, not co-chairman, and in any competition for the spotlight, Kissinger has to be the favorite. Before it's over, Mitchell may come to think of his long negotiations with the obdurate Northern Irish as a walk in the park by comparison. Kissinger will effortlessly elbow him aside. This was a man who, while the war raged on, conned Harvard and Hollywood with tales of how lucky they were that he was in the Oval Office holding back the paranoid incumbent.

In 1974, when a rookie reporter at a State Department briefing had the temerity to ask Kissinger whether he would get a lawyer to represent him in legal difficulties arising from his indiscriminate White House wiretapping, Kissinger threw a fit and had to be calmed down by passage of a Senate resolution declaring him to be wonderful. It's an old tale but cautionary for anyone dreaming of Dr. K as a humble teammate.

Kissinger has always had a doting press corps to call on. It will be interesting to see whether he has lost his touch during his long sojourn among the corporations that pay him fortunes to front for them. In Washington, they gushed about him and faithfully reported his conquests of starlets and tycoons and his midnight dashes from Georgetown dinner parties to Beijing. The doctor will be spared the tedium of listing his clients. It's only a part-time job, the White House says.

Kissinger has never been called to account for duplicitous activities. Other Republican policymakers have, and Bush appreciates them. Robert E. White, former ambassador to El Salvador, writes in a recent issue of Commonweal of a pattern of hiring people, some of them lawbreakers, for high posts in the administration. Elliott "Better Dead Than Red" Abrams in the National Security Council is an example. John Poindexter of Iran-contra infamy probably is wiretapping us all legally in his Pentagon Information Awareness Program. The administration is laced with human rights violators. There's nothing of the re-education camp about it. The Bushies approve of what they did. Kissinger will fit right in.

We mustn't scratch our heads as to why Bush chose him. There is a natural affinity between a president who wants a war for Christmas and an appointee who was the co-author of the Christmas bombing of Hanoi.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company