It's appropriate that the first scene we see of Henry Kissinger on TV tonight, in his new NBC super consultant's role, shows him strolling across the grounds at Versailles. Our own Telleyrand, quite at home among the ghosts of empires past.
He never really gets away from those elegant surroundings, either, although from time to time we see him answering questions at some canned foreign policy forum or seminar. For the rest of the hour-and-a-half special - "Henry Kissinger: On the Record," on Channel 4 at 9:30 - his comments from Versailles serve as the narrative bridge for standard TV documentary techniques. He's the punctuation for the piece. Here's Kissinger, accompanied by David Brinkley, walking, standing, sitting at various locations, offering splendid backdrops, giving brief flashes of wisdom.
It doesn't work well, because the focus neither is entirely on Kissinger - the "On the Record" title is a misnomer - nor on the themes of the special. And this comes as a disappointment.
Few, if any, American public figures are more arresting then Henry Kissinger. Few have been as controversial. None, I would say, is capable of such eloquence or conveying, at his best, an articulate sense of a complex situation. During that memorable weekend when Sadat flew into Jerusalem, it was Kissinger's measured commentary that gave the clearest insights into those dramtic happenings.
Henry Kissinger is many other things, of course. His vanity, his secretiveness, his long wielding of power, his knowledge of events we still know little or nothing about, his identification with specific policies and actions make him unlike any journalistic commentator. Let's just say he's not your ordinary pick-up pundit. Nor can he be called another scholar for hire.
When NBC signed him 11 months ago to a five-year contract, much was made, and properly, about the way our public figures are able to cash in so handsomely on their public experiences. The dollar figure for Kissinger's services was not announced, but, you can be sure, it was megabucks, a million at the minimum, it's said. NBC gave him the grand title of "special consultant for world affairs."
The problem seems to be, if tonight's program is any indication, that NBC's got him and doesn't know quite what to do with him.
That isn't to say the program itself is without interest or significance. Measured solely by the standards of most journalistic TV fare, the program is a success. It's broken down into two segments, the first, and longest, deals with "Eurocommunism" - the active and growing Communist parties in the prosperous countries of Western Europe.
Kissinger establishes the theme by saying, with proper lofty cosmic portents: "Obviously, Eurocommunism, or communism in Europe, is not a problem that Americans can settle for Europeans. On the other hand, the internal development of Europe cannot be a matter of indifference to the United States . . ."
But it's David Brinkley who provides the sharp edge - what we, in the news business, call the hard lead?
"Whatever happens" he says, in that familiar clipped style, "the communists are now a substantial political force in Europe and they got it, not with tanks, but with free legal elections. In France one out of every five votes Communist, in Italy, one out of every three.
"It has been a startling development or the greatest interest to the United States to its best friends, its allies in Western Europe . . ."
Then we are taken, country by country, on an excursion showing Communist strength in Spain and France and Italy and Portugal. The reporting by Brinkley and occasionally Garrick Utley, is crisp and informative, the photography effective, the production, as you would expect from Stuart Schulberg, professional and smooth.
The last third of the program deals with terrorism in Western Europe. Again, we have the same format: Kissinger laying out the philosophical imperatives, Brinkley honoring the edge.
Kissinger: "I think some of the causes of terrorism are the same as those which lead to the growth of communism - that is, an alienation with the system . . ."
Brinkley: "These young gangsters - many are women - are from the middle and upper classes, prosperous, educated and driven by a rage and hatred nobody can fully explain . . ."
Taken as a whole, all this is instructive - even important - information, and a worthwhile journalistic service. But it's not Henry Kissinger, that fascinating, complicated figure on the record.
One of the frustrations with this approach is that we have hardly an impression of Kissinger himself. Television may have learned to fear the image of the "talking head," but here that's precisely what's lacking. If the heads are Henry Kissinger and David Brinkley, I can't think of a potentially better combination for memorable TV conversation and unraveling of private personalities.
Perhaps that will come later when Kissinger's memoirs, which he's now writing, are also televised - and also on NBC. The buck never stops anywhere these days. But what we've got now is a bland picture of a yourthful-looking 54-year-old - what? Statesman, Commentator, Consultant? Dare we think possible candidate? He's lost much weight, possesses great energy, still exudes ago, and still has his final chapter yet to be written.
They did get him in the right place, though. But here's hoping the next time they'll stage it inside the palace and let Henry and David go at it. It's not often that we get a chance to see how ao Talleyrand's mind ticks.