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Wordsmithing in the Fires of Olympus — Writing Speeches for Henry Kissinger

Words are the tools of diplomacy. When done well, high-flung rhetoric can help define an era, such as John F.  Kennedy’s moving “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech or President Ronald Reagan’s demand to “Tear down this wall.” Poorly executed speeches, such as President Carter’s “Malaise” speech, can seriously damage reputations, no matter how well meaning. With a foreign policy doyen like Henry Kissinger, the stakes were even higher, as he viewed speeches as not just a means to enunciate existing policy, but an opportunity to create new policy.

Mark Palmer and John Kelly discuss what it was like toiling in the crucible that was Kissinger’s State Department – conducting extensive research, editing numerous drafts, and dealing with the highly demanding — and often demeaning — Dr. Kissinger himself. The interviews were conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy between 1994 and 1997.

Read more Moments on Henry Kissinger.


“Who is this asshole?”

Mark Palmer, Policy Planning Staff, 1971-1975

PALMER: I said to [Assistant to Kissinger at the NSC; later Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Larry] Eagleburger, whom I’d known, that I wanted a chance to be Kissinger’s speechwriter. Larry said no, that Henry had already hired some journalist who he knew to be his speechwriter as Secretary. I said, nonetheless, I wanted to meet him and make my case. (Palmer at left)

Larry said fine. So I was brought in on a Sunday. Kissinger ignored me when I came in, I remember. Anyway, finally Larry insisted on his paying attention to my being in the room. And he laughed and he said with great condescension, “This is really a ridiculous idea, the person who was [Secretary of State] Bill Rogers’ speechwriter being my speechwriter. We are totally different and obviously his speechwriter cannot write for me.” He treated this as just a joke.

I’m a Vermonter and I’m not shy and so I said, “I’ve read all of your books. I’ve virtually memorized them. I am certain that I can write in your style. And I am a Foreign Service officer and we (meaning the Foreign Service) have a right to be considered for any position and you’ve got to give me an opportunity to write one speech for you. If I fall on my ass, I’ll go away quietly. But you’ve got to give me a chance to write one speech for you.” And I knew what his first speech was going to be.

He turned to Larry and he said, “Who is this asshole?” (Laughter)

And Larry said, “You should give him a chance.” So Kissinger sort of dismissively said, “Okay, you can write something.” And I had the feeling that he wasn’t even going to read it.

I went home. About two hours later, still on that Sunday, I got this call which said, “Just a moment for Dr. Kissinger.” And I thought it was a friend who knew that I was over there and that it was a joke.

So somebody comes on with this German accent and starts to talk to me about the first speech and I was just about to say, “Oh, go bug off!” because I was so tense. And actually it was him.

So we talked about his first speech and I did a draft. He called me in very quickly thereafter and we started working.…Then I went on for three years and I kept trying to hire help, because I not only wrote his speeches, I wrote Nixon’s and Ford’s, and a lot of other people’s, and ended up being the speechwriter on foreign affairs. Every time Henry figured out that I’d hired somebody to help me, he would fire them. So I had three very intense years doing his speeches and other peoples’.

Kissinger wanted to control everybody’s statements on foreign affairs, so he insisted that I write all the initial stuff for everybody….

“It was a process that he took very, very seriously”

Henry thought that speeches were a way of creating policy, not just enunciating existing policy, but of creating new policy, of making history. He really saw them as the way to make history. Therefore, he, in working on a speech, developed a policy. And he worked on the speech in a way that I had never experienced before. Not that I had done a lot of speechwriting, but I had done some for two years.

My experience with Bill Rogers and with others in the Department was that we would do two drafts or three drafts and the thing would be given.

Henry’s practice ended up that we did about, on average, 15 drafts of every speech. And he was involved in every single draft, not writing so much, particularly in the beginning, but commenting. So it was a process that he took very, very seriously. And it was enormously satisfying for me because he was engaged….

That first time I met him, among his arguments for why I couldn’t do this job, he said, “You Foreign Service officers think everything that matters is in Africa and the U.N. and I want to tell you that’s not my view of things. What I believe matters is China and the Soviet Union, nuclear balance, and Japan and Western Europe, NATO, and that’s it.”

I remember saying to myself, “You’re wrong and you’re going to learn that you’re wrong as Secretary; that stuff happens and that the stuff that happens is elsewhere. And you’re going to end up working on a lot of stuff that you’ve never thought about before.”

In terms of speeches, what happened was that we ended up having to do a lot of speeches on subjects that he didn’t know anything about. And he said to me once that he wanted me to get the best minds, the best ideas, the best thinking on any subject. So at the very outset of the speech – and I usually knew well in advance what speeches he had to give – and, therefore, I knew with some degree of certainty what the subject was.

And so what happened with the first draft usually was that I would network. I would try to find people either in the State Department or at Harvard or wherever who knew something about something like energy or food or Africa or whatever or nonalignment or whatever. I would just talk to people on the phone or go meet them and get ideas.

Then I would hole up in my little office on the seventh floor [where most of the Department’s principals have their offices] and look at the wall and write. Then I’d send it in to him. Then he would call me in, and he’d pace around in his office and react. That was the process….

Q: I would think people would be coming to you and saying, “You’ve got to say this.”

PALMER: Right. We had a lot of that. I interacted a lot with the regional bureaus, for example, and functional bureaus. and Tom Enders, who was then Assistant Secretary for EB [Economics Bureau], because we ended up doing a lot of stuff that related to economics.

So yes, there was a fair amount of lobbying. They would submit sentences or paragraphs or sometimes whole speech drafts. That wasn’t very often because the Secretary really didn’t want that. He wanted to control it and he thought I was his agent. He didn’t want me talking sometimes to people and that was another whole problem. He’d threaten to fire me if I talked to so and so or did this or that.

The Henry A. Kissinger Memorial Bullshit Institute

Anyway, my favorite story…was at the Sixth Special Session of the U.N. where he was supposed to address all kinds of Third World issues.

Somebody had told me…that there was a real problem with Western fertilizers for the Third World. They were too expensive, burned the fields if misused, etc. He thought that we ought to set up an institute to do research in fertilizer developed specially for Third World purposes.

So I put that in the first draft of the Sixth Special Session, an institute for fertilizer. Kissinger looked at this and he said to me, “This is a terrible proposal that you’ve got in here. This is not at my level.” He said this will become known as the Henry A. Kissinger Memorial Bullshit Institute. (Laughter) Fertilizer: bullshit.

And so anyway, I did the second draft of the speech. I still was being told that this was an important thing to do so I put it back in again. He got really annoyed that it was in there and he said, “Oh no. I’m going to be the laughingstock and I can’t do it. Take it out.” I put it in the third draft and he got really annoyed and said, “I’m going to fire you if you put it in again.”

So I went to Peter Rodman [pictured left], who had been Kissinger’s graduate assistant at Harvard and who came to the Policy Planning staff. He was almost like a son for Henry and really understood Henry in a way that no one else did. He was also a good friend and had been immensely helpful to me on speeches.

I went to Peter and said, “I’m at my wits’ end. You know Henry much better than I do. I’m convinced that this is the right thing on the merits to have this institute, but he will not put it in. I know if I put it in he’s going to fire me. He was really, really angry.”

So Peter said, “Well, the whole trick with Henry is you’ve got to come up with the words that he’s using this week, the ‘flavor of the month’ words, so let’s make a list.” We knew what he was into at the moment. He was into action plans. He loved “comprehensive.” You know, there were a bunch of words so we made a list.

We came up with comprehensive research action program for fertilizer. So I put that in. And Henry said, “Oh, wonderful! Why have you been wasting all my time with this other stuff with this institute? This looks good! Comprehensive research action program.”

So we went on, draft after draft, and this stayed the same, until about two days before we were leaving to go up to New York to give the speech. Larry Eagleburger had seen from the beginning that the acronym of comprehensive research action program was CRAP (laughter). And of course we’d done that on purpose.

So Larry said, “Okay, you’ve done this joke now for all these drafts, but now you’ve got to get it out of there. You can’t have him get up and say “crap.”

I said, “Well, you tell him; because we’ve got to do something. And I’m not going to back off and we’re going to do this institute.”

Larry said, “No, no. This is your responsibility. You got in this mess. You’re going to have to tell him.” So I was scared. So I didn’t do anything. We were on the plane flying up to New York. Of course, I realized I couldn’t actually let him get up that afternoon and say this.

So I said, “Mr. Secretary, we’ve really got to focus on this part of the speech again because it’s got to be changed. We’ve got to change it,” I said. “Will you please look at it?”

He looked at it and he finally saw the acronym CRAP. He was so pissed off. He was so pissed off that he couldn’t speak, you know, that we had done this to him. And he didn’t say anything. He just was really, really angry and didn’t say anything.

Fortunately, he had taught me to always keep the early drafts of every speech. So I had the first draft with me. So I went back and I put in this fertilizer institute. He got up like three hours later and announced that we were going to establish this fertilizer institute! (Laughter)

And AID [the U.S. Agency for International Development] funded it. $40 million. Anyway, that is not a fundamental kind of thing. But it maybe is of slight interest in the sense that it is an example of where the system, a speechwriter, and people who have a particular view, if they’re stubborn enough and keep pushing, actually can get something done. And this was a worthwhile thing to get done….[Note: The International Fertilizer Development Center was established in 1974 and focuses on the development and transfer of effective and environmentally sound crop nutrient technology and agribusiness expertise.]

“He said that whoever had granted me a university degree should be jailed”

John Kelly, Special Assistant to the Counselor of the State Department, 1974-1976 

KELLY: I should mention at this stage that I wrote some speeches for Kissinger during one of the lulls in his speechwriter’s job. Henry kept firing his speechwriters — on sort of a whim at times. During one of the interim periods, [Counselor Helmut] Sonnenfeldt said to me that Henry had decided that I should be his speechwriter. It was not a job that I wanted, but Hal insisted.

Kissinger wanted to give a major speech on defense policy in Texas to where he had been invited by Bill Clements, the Deputy Secretary of DOD [Department of Defense]–later Governor of the state. This was to be an appearance before a large group of major defense industrialists.

Kissinger saw this as an opportunity to present a very philosophical exposition of his views and positions on American defense policy, thereby taking the stage away from his opponents. Hal said that after I had written the speech, if Kissinger liked it, I would become his permanent speechwriter. That was the last thing I wanted to do, but I plunged in.

Kissinger took speech giving very seriously. Unfortunately, we had fundamental disagreements about the form and nature of the speech. Kissinger, falling back on his professorial role, felt that each speech had to be fifty minutes long — no more, no less. I thought that was far too long; no American audience would listen for that long, even to Henry Kissinger.

Secondly, he believed, in a joking fashion, that verbs come at the end of a sentence — the Germanic tradition. But he did believe in very long sentences. Short, declarative sentences were not in his repertoire.

Thirdly, I must admit that the time, I did not have a vision of what the American defense policy should be for the foreseeable future. I got a little guidance from Eagleburger, from [NSC advisor] Winston Lord, from Hal Sonnenfeldt, from Jan Lodal — precious little from Kissinger himself who preferred to look at drafts and then react. So I lacked the substantive background to draft a speech on this subject and we had fundamental differences about the structure of the speech.

But I took a crack at a first draft. It was given to Kissinger and the next morning, bright and early, I met with him with some trepidation. For about two weeks, I met with Kissinger twice each day to discuss the speech, starting each day at 7:30 — it was the first item on his agenda.

He would take the draft at home at night and the next morning he would tell me that it was awful and that it was the worst speech he had ever read. He said that whoever had granted me a university degree should be jailed; he was always full of praise like that. (Photo: Time/Life Pictures; Getty Images)

I was thoroughly abused, and didn’t enjoy that period of my life at all. Much of the abuse was done in front of an audience — whoever happened to be there at 7:30 a.m. After about a week of this, he generously admitted that he would give the latest draft a “C” if it had been a work by a Harvard University undergraduate. Eagleburger thought that that was real progress.

It was a nightmare and I was thoroughly burned out after those few weeks. I think the speech was to be delivered on a Monday night, as I remember it. On the preceding Friday, I gave him a draft; on Saturday morning he came to the office ready to tear up the speech and start all over again.

He called in Eagleburger, Sonnenfeldt, Lord, Veliotes–then the deputy in S/P [Policy Planning Staff] — and others, and threw a real Kissinger tantrum.

He yelled and screamed that he was surrounded by incompetents and idiots; that we had all failed him and that he would rewrite the speech. And so he did. He spent all day Saturday closeted in his office. Every half hour or so, a long yellow piece of paper filled with his writing would come out and be typed up. When I read it, I can’t say that I recognized any sentence that I could have called mine.

The speech was almost exactly fifty minutes long with long boring sentences. He gave it in Texas, and I was told that he lost his audience soon after he started; they just went to sleep. He got no press coverage.

In any case, Kissinger decided that I was not his speechwriter for which I will always be thankful. It was one of the best things that ever happened to me.