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Tom Blanton and "The Kissinger Transcripts."

Tom Blanton is the Director of the National Security Archive, A research library at George Washington University in Washington D.C. His department, using the Freedom of Information Act, obtained the transcripts of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. The now declassified papers detail Kissinger's secret negotiations with key world leaders such as Leonid Brezhnev, Andrei Gromyko, Mao Zedong, and Deng Xiaoping. The transcripts have been edited and published in the new book "The Kissinger Transcripts" (The New Press)


Other segments from the episode on February 8, 1999

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 8, 1999: Interview with Tom Blanton; Interview with Harry Shearer.


Date: FEBRUARY 08, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 020801np.217
Head: Tom Blanton
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The history of the Cold War is getting rewritten as more documents from the U.S. and the former Soviet Union are made available to scholars. A good example is the recently published transcripts of Henry Kissinger's secret talks with Soviet and Chinese leaders.

These transcripts reveal, for instance, that Kissinger offered the Chinese secrets gathered by U.S. intelligence on Soviet nuclear weapons. Kissinger was President Nixon's controversial National Security Adviser and Secretary of State, a position he also held during the Ford administration.

The Kissinger transcripts were obtained by the National Security Archive of George Washington University, a library of declassified U.S. documents. The book was edited by the archive's senior analyst William Burr.

My guest is the archive's executive director, Tom Blanton. I asked him why the archive went after the Kissinger transcripts.

TOM BLANTON, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL SECURITY ARCHIVE: Back about six years ago one of our staff, Bill Burr who's a historian of the nuclear arms race, in a response to one of his Freedom of Information requests he got a fascinating, almost verbatim transcript of a meeting between Kissinger and the Soviet leader Brezhnev.

And what was so remarkable about that document -- he brought it in and showed to me, and showed to other people around the National Security Archive -- we had never really seen a memoranda of conversation like this. I mean, that's a term of art in the government, "memcon" (ph), and usually up to the time Kissinger came in with President Nixon, those "memcons" were more like summaries.

So an hour long meeting would take about a page and a half to summarize and you'd get a sense of who said what, but it wouldn't be direct quotes. And what Bill brought in in this transcript with Brezhnev was the almost verbatim interchange between the two. So you had the atmospherics. You had Brezhnev's little jokes. You had Kissinger being glib or laughing.

And we hadn't seen anything like that, and it woke us up to this sort of new departure in government documents -- the "memcon" variety -- where Kissinger really tried to get a verbatim record of his conversation. So we decided then and there to go after all of his conversations, and we put together a chronology of all of his meetings with the Soviets and the Chinese. And then we started requesting all of those under the Freedom of Information Act.

GROSS: How unusual was it for meetings with leaders of other countries to be documented in a way that these transcripts documented those meetings?

BLANTON: In our experience we found until Henry Kissinger became Nixon's National Security Adviser it was very rare for these kinds of top level meetings to have verbatim transcripts. You'd have a summary -- a "memcon" -- that would summarize what was said to each other, but rarely would you have either word for word or even less often would have these kind of parenthetical atmospherics.

You know, "Brezhnev stealing a briefcase" or "Deng Xiao Peng spitting into a spitoon at the mention of the Soviet Union." So it was very rare. I think it's more common today because the government now understands how valuable this kind of verbatim record can be. Just to know what our government said to those guys, and what those guys said to us.

GROSS: Well, Kissinger wanted these documents, he also wanted them kept secret.

BLANTON: That's right. He classified most of these transcripts above "top secret." The label on almost all of them is, "Top secret. Sensitive. Exclusively eyes only." Which meant he and the president got to see them. We even have some memos in the files that show he would actually edit the transcripts for the copy he would give to the Secretary of State, if you can believe that.

GROSS: Do you know why it was so important to him to keep these documents secret?

BLANTON: Well, the documents are really revelatory in the sense that the news -- when this book came out over last month -- the newspapers around the world have picked up the reality of the Kissinger relationship with the Chinese that he left out of his memoirs and that is extremely sensitive even today.

Which is the public picture of the time of this great historic opening to China was clever triangular diplomacy. Kissinger and Nixon playing the Chinese and the Soviets, the two great communist powers, off against each other for the U.S. interests.

Well, it turns out when you read the transcripts, it's not an even handed triangle at all. It's an all out tilt to the Chinese. Kissinger even at one point calls it "tacit allies." He gives them intelligence on the Soviets and then he lies to the Soviets about what he's doing with the Chinese.

GROSS: Let's get into some of the specific that you learned about Kissinger and China by reading these transcripts. First of all, he gave China intelligence that we had gathered on the Soviet Union.

BLANTON: That's right. It was -- from the very first set of meetings where Kissinger is trying to open that secret trips to China, he offers the Chinese as a kind of inducement if you will to let the Americans come to China, satellite photos and intelligence and warning and so forth about what the Soviets are doing along that huge long border they had with China.

And it turns out now we're beginning to find out from the Chinese side that some of the army marshals actually went to Mao Zedong in about 1968, when tensions with the Soviet Union were getting really intense, and they said, "Chairman Mao I think it might be time to reach out to the Americans because things are getting a little tense with the Soviets.

It puts a little different angle on this. Maybe it wasn't the Americans playing the China card against the Soviets, but the Chinese playing the American card against the Soviets.

GROSS: Well, Kissinger offered China a hotline -- a nuclear hotline. What would this hotline have done?

BLANTON: There was already a hotline between the U.S. and the Soviet Union that was more of a crisis management arrangement. It came up after the Cuban Missile Crisis so they could have quick instant communication in case of a nuclear crisis.

What Kissinger offered the Chinese was a whole other level of hotline. They said, yes, let's have real time warning like our current one, but what we really want to do -- the secret part of that hotline he says to Zhou Enlai -- will be a direct line from our warning satellites that watch the Soviet Union to you. So if they ever move to begin to attack we'll let you know before the attack happens. That was phenomenal. That's the level of warning the United States provides to NATO.

GROSS: Why do you think Kissinger was favoring China over the Soviets during this period of the Cold War?

BLANTON: Reading the transcripts you get the sense that he had a great deal of almost romantic attachment or illusion. He was very impressed with the Chinese. He writes about -- particularly Zhou Enlai, but also Mao Zedong in tones of almost the reverence. Where, what he writes about Brezhnev and the Soviets -- that they're obnoxious people, they lie about everything. They're stupendous liars.

He really seems to address Zhou Enlai and Mao as not only his peers, but in a bizarre way maybe even his betters. And there's not that kind of awe, if you will, for the Soviets. There's the same kind of joking around and joshing almost of a locker room quality between Kissinger and Brezhnev. And that was one of the revelations in these transcripts to see Brezhnev kind of on top of his game before he had that stroke in the mid-'70s that left him a kind of tottering, shambling wreck by the end.

He and Kissinger joke about all kinds of things -- cigarette lighters -- Brezhnev makes fun of the way foreign ministers talk and so forth. But there's not that kind of -- when Kissinger reports back to Nixon and then later to Jerry Ford -- Kissinger describes his meetings with Mao in tones that border on the attitude of a grad student toward a senior professor.

GROSS: Well, Kissinger even tells Mao that Kissinger taught Mao's book in his class.

BLANTON: There's this wonderful moment -- it's the historic first meeting in February 1972 with Nixon and Mao sitting in the study in Chairman Mao's residence in Beijing. And they start off the meeting with a little small talk, and here's Dr. Kissinger trying to give a compliment.

He says, "I used to assign the Chairman's collective writings -- meaning the Little Red Book -- to my classes at Harvard." Chairman Mao says, "those writings of mine aren't anything. There's nothing instructive of what I wrote."

And Nixon says, "wait a second, the Chairman's writings moved a nation and have changed the world." And Mao says, "I haven't been able to change it, I've only been able to change a few places in the vicinity of Beijing."

It's a wonderful little moment because in the context here, we have 1972 the Cultural Revolution had been going for over six years. Untold devastation in China. Ruined lives. All because of Chairman Mao's attempt to keep the Chinese Communist revolution from ossifying into a bureaucracy. He wanted a permanent revolution but he was failing at that. And here he is in a sort of aside -- a self-deprecating aside -- admitting he hasn't really succeeded.

GROSS: During one of the meetings Kissinger says to Mao, "things we can keep secret in his office, we can keep quite well. But there are no secrets with you about the Soviet Union. There's nothing we're doing with the Soviet Union that you don't know."

BLANTON: Isn't that a phenomenal assurance? I don't think I saw in any of these other transcripts Kissinger making that assurance even to allies like the British. It's a phenomenal bending over backwards toward China.

There's this other moment where Nixon says to Mao, "the Chairman can be sure that whatever we discuss or whatever I and the prime minister -- meaning Zhou Enlai -- discuss, nothing goes beyond the room. That's the only way to have conversations at the highest level." Well, thank goodness for the Freedom of Information Act.

GROSS: How much do you think that this was Kissinger trying to flatter Mao and the other leaders of China, and how much of it do you think was really straightforward?

BLANTON: Flattery seems to be built in to Kissinger's personality. If you compare some of these transcripts and the almost sycophancy in which he approaches Mao, there are remarkable parallels between that kind of glibness and flattery to the same way that Kissinger talks to Nixon and humors Nixon that we now know from the White House tapes.

It seems to be -- here you have this phenomenally brilliant visionary, vain, ambitious, egotistical, flattering, deceptive, devious, manipulative guy, Henry Kissinger. And it comes through, just overwhelmingly, in his own words -- in these transcripts.

GROSS: So do you think that Kissinger was as enamored with Mao as he leads Mao to believe, or do you think he's just flattering him?

BLANTON: If you can believe what Kissinger said to Nixon afterwards, and what Kissinger wrote to Ford afterwards when he would do the summary memos for the president's eyes only -- in those memos Kissinger does say how astounded and in awe he is of Chairman Mao. And almost in a way more so of Zhou Enlai.

He really is amazed by them. And there's a remarkable psychology, I just wanted to point out, that comes through particularly in the Chinese transcripts, which is how this historic opening to China really kind of fit in with both nations sort of collective psychology.

From the American side, here we are, we're the adventurers. We open the Western frontier. We're going to Beijing. We're opening to China. It's very much part of our self-makeup, if you will. Whereas on the Chinese side, their self-identity is we are the center of the world. We are the Middle Kingdom. And the barbarians always come to us and pay tribute. And that's what we did with Henry Kissinger.

GROSS: If you're just joining us my guest is Tom Blanton, and he's the director of the National Security Archive which is a research library at George Washington University. And it obtained the transcripts of the Kissinger talks -- the top secret talks with Beijing and Moscow. And it's just published in the new book "The Kissinger Transcripts." Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Tom Blanton, director of the National Security Archive which obtained the secret Henry Kissinger transcripts -- the top secret talks with Beijing and Moscow. And they've just been published in a new book called "The Kissinger Transcripts."

We've been talking about how Kissinger offered all of this intelligence about the Soviet Union to China. And he was favoring China over the Soviet Union. Did the Soviets, who Kissinger was also meeting with, have any clue about this more open relationship with China?

BLANTON: That's a great question. There is this wonderful moment in one of the transcripts between Henry Kissinger and the Soviet ambassador, Dobrynin, with whom he had a long standing and pretty close relationship. There was a lot of mutual respect there.

Right after Kissinger has come back from that first secret trip to China and they've announced that the trip happened and that Nixon's been invited to come, Dobrynin asked Kissinger, "hey, are you -- there have been some press reports maybe you're giving the Chinese intelligence about us, are you doing that?"

And Kissinger just lies to him in a very clever way. He says, "oh, Anatoly, do you think we'd be so amateurish as to do anything like that? And then they go on to another subject. Well, in fact, Kissinger was amateurish enough to do exactly that. But to spend a lot of energy misleading the Soviets.

He was running a huge risk, I have to say, and that's one of the things that Bill Burr, our editor, points out in some of the commentary here. Comparing what he said to the Soviets to what Kissinger said to the Chinese. It was a huge risk because if the Soviets had ever come to the conclusion and really realized how far Kissinger and the United States were tilting toward the Chinese, it could have put the whole process of detente and arms limitations and SALT talks and Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union -- could have put all of that at risk.

GROSS: Now you gave us some reasons why you think Kissinger might have personally favored the Chinese over the Soviets, but what about politically? He must of had political reasons.

BLANTON: That's right. And he gives a pretty good account of the difference between the threats, which is that China, the most populous country in the world at the time of this opening by the -- between them -- China had probably no more than a dozen, maybe 14 or 20 inter-continental missiles that could actually reach the United States with nuclear weapons.

Whereas the Soviet Union had a thousand or more. And the proportion of the threat -- the threat to the United States was far greater from the Soviet Union, and there's this wonderful dance between the Soviets and the Americans throughout the period that you can read in these transcripts.

The Soviets keep trying to get the Americans in on a little joint venture to take out the Chinese nuclear capability, and the Americans never go for it. And Kissinger keeps telling the Chinese, "oh, this is what Brezhnev really wants to do." And the Chinese are really wary.

And in fact, as the period goes on and we get on to the '74-'75 period under Jerry Ford, the Chinese are really getting upset about the success of detente. In fact, there's this one amazing attack in these transcripts from Deng Xiaoping, who went on to run China for the last couple of decades.

And he attacks Kissinger for all his detente moves with the Soviet Union and calls it -- compares it to Munich where the West gave in to Hitler -- appeased Hitler. And Deng says, you're just doing what they did to Hitler, and the Soviets are going to now attack.

And Kissinger says, "No. No. No. That's not what we're doing." So there is amazing tension all the way through about this remarkable relationship.

GROSS: What do you consider to be among the more interesting things you learned about Kissinger's negotiations with the Soviets through the release of these transcripts?

BLANTON: The most remarkable aspect of the relationship with the Soviets, for me anyway, I had this picture of Kissinger around the table at the Kremlin going nose to nose with these tough Soviet communists about missiles that could destroy the world. And you get into the transcripts and you read what they actually said to each other, you find its much less sober and serious than you might expect. And much more like, even, a locker room.

At one point, you know, Brezhnev plays a practical joke and picks up one of the American briefcases chalk full of top secret documents and waltzes out of the room. And all of the Americans pop up and go racing after him, "hold on there buddy!" And he sticks his head back in and laughs.

At another point they remarked -- one of Kissinger aides, Hal Sodenfeld (ph), had to see a dentist in Moscow. And so they start joking that the Soviets -- the dentist managed to plant a microphone in Sodenfeld's tooth. And then Brezhnev gives all the Americans some gift watches -- Soviet made watches, I should say -- and they kind of laugh about that.

And Kissinger says, "oh, I see, the watch has a bug in it that will pick up whatever the tooth doesn't." And they all laugh. It's an amazing -- it humanizes this very Armageddon discussion about nuclear weapons. And what you get a sense of is how this style of joshing or joking actually helped them get passed some major ideological barriers and national interest barriers to cut some deals -- the beginnings of arms limitations.

GROSS: Now, while Kissinger is talking with the Soviet leaders about detente and the Chinese leaders about opening up relations, Watergate is in the background. How did Kissinger deal with Watergate? I want to quote something first, Mao -- Kissinger's meeting with Mao at Mao's home in Beijing in November of '73. And Mao says "why is it in your country you're always so obsessed with that nonsensical Watergate issue. Such chaos is being kicked up because of it. We are not happy about it."

BLANTON: In that same transcript is a little parenthetical aside which says that, "on the Chinese side they're laughing as the interpreter tries to explain." She couldn't really translate Chairman Mao's word for "nonsensical." Which in the Chinese version actually meant something like to let out air, i.e. to burp.

The Chinese are totally baffled by Watergate. How a president who won in a landslide in '72, who was the architect of this major new alliance with them, the Chinese, could be forced from power a year and a half later. They are baffled. Nothing like that actually happened in China.

Yes, Chairman Mao would have lower level people purged -- Deng Xiaoping got purged two or three different times in his career. But they have no idea about how, in a Democratic system, Congress and public opinion can work to take away the executive power.

GROSS: When Chinese leaders were expressing their concerns to Kissinger about Watergate, what would Kissinger say to reassure them?

BLANTON: Kissinger actually agreed with the Chinese. He would say to them, "you know, I don't understand it either. It's just a bunch of President Nixon's enemies. It's a political motivation. It's wrong. It shouldn't happen."

He doesn't have a lot to say to reassure them, except that "I'm going to stay." That is I, Henry Kissinger, will make sure whatever happens with Watergate that our foreign policy stays on the same path. And that's the one kind of reassurance that he can make.

GROSS: And he did stay.

BLANTON: He did stay. He stayed through Gerald Ford, although he had a much rockier relationship there with Gerald Ford than he did with Richard Nixon.

GROSS: Tom Blanton is the executive director of the National Security Archive, which obtained access to the previously top secret Kissinger transcripts and publish them in a new book. Blanton will be back in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Back with Tom Blanton, executive director of the National Security Archive, a research library of declassified U.S. documents. The archive gained access to previously top secret transcripts of Henry Kissinger's talks with Chinese and Soviet leaders. Kissinger was National Security Adviser to President Nixon and Secretary of State under Nixon and Ford. The Kissinger transcripts are published in a new book.

Did you learn anything from these transcripts about what Kissinger really thought of Nixon?

BLANTON: These transcripts don't tell you, except by inference, what Kissinger thinks of Nixon. You see a lot of Kissinger's attributes on display like in the first meeting with Chairman Mao in February '72 where Chairman Mao is trying to draw out Kissinger and give him a big compliment, because he had arranged all of this.

Chairman Mao said something like, "we've got to let Dr. Kissinger have a say, he's been famous because of his trips to China." And Kissinger, very quickly, deflects that and says, "it was the president who set the direction and worked out the plan."

And Nixon then comments, "Henry's a very wise assistant to say it that way." And Mao and Zhou Enlai both laugh. And Chairman Mao says to Kissinger, "see, he's praising you. You're very clever at saying it like that."

So you see one of the ways Kissinger got so far ahead, is he was very careful to give Nixon the credit and to flatter his hosts, Mao and Zhou Enlai. You can see why he was so successful in a lot of these secret diplomacies.

GROSS: Kissinger would try to flatter some of the international leaders that he met with and use that flattery in a way that was, he hoped, productive. But he was more of the back stabber, I think, when it came to his colleagues back in Washington.

BLANTON: Well, think about that very first historic meeting with Mao Zedong, and you and I get to be in the room reading the transcript. The Secretary of State at the time, William Rogers, did not get to be in the room. He was deliberately cut out of that historic meeting.

Not only by Kissinger, but by the Secretary of State's boss, President Nixon. There was this constant process, and we see it in these memos. We see multiple versions of some of these transcripts. Bill Burr tracked down in the files these memos from Kissinger aides like Winston Lord, where they would have a cover memo to Henry Kissinger saying, "Dear Mr. Kissinger -- Dear Dr. Kissinger or Dear Mr. Secretary or Dear Mr. National Security Adviser" depending on his job title -- "attached at tab A is the full transcript of the meeting for your file."

"And at tab B is a redactive, edited version which, I think, would be fit to send onto the Secretary of State," for example. You see the use of documentation and the use of back channels as directed, not even so much against say the Soviet Union, but against the enemy right across the Potomac in the Pentagon. Or the enemy right down at Foggy Bottom in the State Department.

There is constant bureaucratic intrigue, and I think in retrospect that was one of Kissinger's great failures, his insistence on back channels -- on cutting out the bureaucracy -- ultimately came back to haunt American foreign policy. Because, among other things, it helped to breakdown any consensus even within the government, much less between Kissinger and Nixon and the American people.

GROSS: Now, do you think that he was trying to keep this information secret from other people in Washington for his own personal power or do you think he just thought it would be easier to accomplish things if he were doing it without going through the bureaucracy?

BLANTON: I think both. I think it's very difficult -- all of us as human beings rarely operate from single motives. It's usually a complex of motives. And there's this famous, maybe even apocryphal quote, from Kissinger at some meeting or another where somebody, maybe Nixon, proposes a certain public statement about a controversial issue. And Kissinger says something like, "oh, that would be great. It has the added value of being true."


I mean, Kissinger kept these transcripts secret both because it made it easier to deal directly with the Chinese, because the Chinese were certainly keeping their version of the transcripts very secret. They were a totalitarian society.

But he also kept these transcripts secret because they enhanced his power within the bureaucracy. It cut other people out of the loop.

GROSS: Has reading these transcripts gotten you to re-evaluate your impressions of Kissinger as a diplomat?

BLANTON: I think what the transcripts do is let you walk with Kissinger, sit Kissinger, as he meets with these statesmen and appreciate this extraordinary combination of qualities: the vanity, the ambition, the brilliance, the vision, the jocularness, the flattery, the sycophancy. These extraordinary qualities that allowed him to build such relationships, and they really were relationships, with such very different human beings running these extraordinary societies.

Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, Leonid Brezhnev, Anatoly Dobrynin, even Dr. No -- Gromyko, the Soviet Foreign Minister. I gained a real appreciation of the quickness, the glibness, the smartness of Kissinger's ability on his feet just reacting. How prepared he must have been going in to these meetings. How he really gets what the other side is trying to say and turns it, as he can really do well, to the advantage of the United States.

I think the -- in the long view where the transcripts leave me is a sense that were Kissinger goes wrong is not so much in these relationships with the Chinese in the Soviets, in large part I think history will look back and see the opening to China or the Chinese opening to the U.S. as a turning point of the Cold War.

It really changed all of the terms of the foreign policy debate from a previous kind of locked in anti-communist, anti-Chinese -- who lost China? -- mind set to a new more interesting, more multipolar debate that's still going on today.

And even the relationship with the Soviet Union, I think now we know from Soviet files detente had a huge effect in really slowing down Soviet military spending. And in a subversive way because of the cultural context and the greater interchange really opening of a whole generation of Soviets to the West in a way that hadn't been possible before.

And I think those things really did contribute ultimately to the end of the Cold War. But you wouldn't know it from the way Kissinger writes about the period as if the United States was really on the losing end of the whole deal because the fall of South Vietnam and Congress cutting off covert operations in Angola or wherever else.

But, you know, the United States was much better off for the big picture and Kissinger, I think, so overreacted to these -- where Soviet -- he saw every little conflict as a kind of a projection of Soviet power. And in retrospect it's clear that was wrong.

GROSS: Now do you think there's any possible harm that can come from the public release of these transcripts?

BLANTON: Now, 25-27 years later, there is no harm from the release of these transcripts. And in fact, I think the transcripts make a very strong argument that they should have been released earlier. Because if we had had these transcripts back at the time of the Tiananmen Square massacre, for example, in 1989 I think the American public would have better understood why the Bush administration bent over backward and sent secret emissaries off to reassure the Chinese.

And, you know, did some temporary sanctions but nothing that was really permanent. Or why Bill Clinton, on the campaign trail in 1992, criticized the Chinese and said, "we're going to beat up on you for human rights," but once he's in office changes his tune.

Because we, the United States, had a policy that was set almost in stone, that went back to the very first trip that Kissinger made to China, of an extraordinary level of military and intelligence and security and technological cooperation with the Chinese. Which was a baseline that exists today and it underlines the current scandal over are the Chinese stealing our missile guidance technology through our cooperative space arrangements?

I mean, this was in place starting in 1971 and it helps, I think, all of us to understand why Tiananmen Square turned out to be a blip in U.S. relationship, and why it is that, I think, the Chinese have come out so far ahead of the game.

If you look at it today the Chinese Communist Party is still in control of their state. They have open trade with the United States to the extent they've got a $40 billion trade surplus. They have this ongoing military and intelligence cooperation. And they have gotten away with massive repression of human rights without really losing or costing them anything.

And that whole dynamic, that relationship, was the relationship constructed by Henry Kissinger.

GROSS: Well, Tom Blanton, I want to thank you very much.

BLANTON: It's a real pleasure to be with you, Terry.

GROSS: Tom Blanton is the executive director of the National Security Archive, a library of declassified U.S. documents which gained access to the top secret Kissinger transcripts which are published in a new book.

This is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.


Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington, DC
Guest: Tom Blanton
High: Tom Blanton is the Director of the National Security Archive, a research library at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. His department, using the Freedom of Information Act, obtained the transcripts of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. The now declassified papers detail Kissinger's secret negotiations with key world leaders such as Leonid Brezhnev, Andrei Gromyko, Mao Zedong, and Deng Xiaoping. The transcripts have been edited and published in the new book "The Kissinger Transcripts."
Spec: Asia; Defense; Government; Treaties and Agreements; Military; Nuclear Weapons; Peace; Weapons; World Affairs; Henry Kissinger; Tom Blanton

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Tom Blanton

Date: FEBRUARY 08, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 020802NP.217
Head: Harry Shearer
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:45

TERRY GROSS, HOST: The Senate trial of the president is nearing its conclusion, and satirist Harry Shearer is wondering why some people hate Bill Clinton and why the rest of us have had to watch. He has some theories, which he offers in his new book "It's the Stupidity Stupid."

Shearer's political satires are heard on his public radio program "Le Show." He does many of the voices on "The Simpsons," and co-created and starred in the heavy metal parody "This Is Spinal Tap." He's played obnoxious TV news guys in the "Truman Show" and "Godzilla."

Like many of us, he watched the Senate trial on Saturday which included excerpts of depositions from Vernon Jordan, Sidney Blumenthal and Monica Lewinsky. I asked him if the depositions changed his opinion of anyone.

HARRY SHEARER, SATIRIST; AUTHOR, "IT'S THE STUPIDITY STUPID": I guess the conventional wisdom about -- from people outside Southern California is that they realize that Monica Lewinsky is less of a valley girl than they thought. She was never a valley girl. She was always a Beverly Hills lady -- young lady, and those of us in Southern California can tell the difference.

Otherwise, no. I don't think -- you know, I'm in love with all reality. And so just the idea of being able to see them in deposition, especially in that crazy setting where the voice of the interrogator is always an off screen presence. I can watch that stuff for hours. I'd sit and watch the whole -- of everybody's deposition.

GROSS: Is there a question you would have liked to have asked Monica?

SHEARER: No. I thought Ed Bryant did a fine job of getting bollocksed up. I mean, the idea that this woman who had testified 22 times and had the two best lawyers in Washington D.C. on her payroll or her on theirs, it's hard to tell, that she would have come into a deposition -- and to listen to the remarks of Bryant and the other House Managers afterwards, they were surprised that she was prepared and was careful and was not forthcoming.

Well, you know, I've been in depositions. You are not there to offer things. It's not a swap meet. You're there to carefully answer questions, and the more carefully the better. So, no, I wouldn't have asked her anything because I know what I would have gotten. Whatever Mr. Cacheris and Stein wanted me to get.

GROSS: Well, Harry, you're new book is called "It's the Stupidity Stupid: Why Some People Hate Clinton and Why the Rest of Us Have to Watch." Who do you think hates Clinton the most?

SHEARER: Well, Henry Hyde has learned through this process to hate Clinton. To hate the sin, not the sinner. I think -- in writing the book, I was fascinated by the idea of hating Clinton, first of all, Terry. As political figures go, he doesn't stand -- and I say this neither as a fan nor as a critic, but just as an observer -- he doesn't stand for all that much that you can nail down from one month to the next.

So for him to be particularly the object of hatred was initially and secondarily too, kind of puzzling to me. Certainly, conservative -- Christian conservatives have been able over time to whip up a fine froth of hatred for him. And to see him as the avatar of the moral decline of America. But I think, frankly, behind the facade of solidity in defense a lot of Democrats hate him too.

GROSS: Do you think the Democrats hate him for different reasons than the House Managers hate him?

SHEARER: Oh, yeah. Any Democrat who cares about winning elections has to be concerned that during the length of the Clinton presidency up until now more Republicans are sitting in more elective offices than were when Clinton took -- Clinton came in.

That may change in 2000. I do think -- I was in Washington last week, and I do think the loudest noise in Washington right now is Republicans whistling through the graveyard of, "oh, voters aren't going to remember this."

You know, that bell has been clanging real close to our ears for the last 15 months, and I don't think the ringing stops right away.

GROSS: You point out in your book that Clinton is a Southerner, and yet some of the people who hate him the most are Southerners. Why do you think that's so?

SHEARER: Well, I think, you know, to give away the absolute climax of the book, such as it is, that he's regarded -- or can be regarded by those who are so inclined as a traitor to his sex, his race and his class. All of which are taken very seriously down South. And I think that those are the issues on which they are extremely unforgiving.

GROSS: In what sense do you think he's perceived as a traitor to his race, sex and class?

SHEARER: Well, you know, here's a guy from a poor broken family in Arkansas who ends up hanging out in Malibu and the Hamptons, and would have been vacationing in Martha's Vineyard in 1995 if Dick Morris hadn't said, "you know, you should go someplace more proliterian for your vacation, sir."

So he went backpacking with Hillary in Jackson Hole, Wyoming instead until he got past the '96 election. Then of course he's been vacationing in Martha's Vineyard again. So although he maintains his roots in terms of his taste in food and, I should say, women he's aspirationally upscale in every other aspect of his life. And I do think that's seen as sort of a traitor to his class. That's the least of his violations as they see it of course.

The most serious is the fact that, as we've seen, one of his best friends is African-American. If the House Managers hadn't had a sudden, I think, bout of public relations consciousness two of the three witnesses on the witness list for depositions would have been African-American.

He's a white Southerner who has talked probably more feelingly than any other American President about the still simmering race problem in this country. Even though he hasn't done anything about it, he still talks a fairly good game about it. And I think that has earned him some negative brownie points with the haters.

GROSS: So how much do you think the trial of Bill Clinton relates to the culture wars?

SHEARER: Well, I think it's peculiar that he stands as a symbol of the '60s. You know, he's a sort of a halfway drug taker who is standing in for the empty eyed acid heads on Haight Ashbury. He's a halfway draft dodger. He made sure that his political viability was intact. He was definitely not burning his draft card on the steps of the Pentagon.

And as we've learned, his idea of free love is definitely equivocal as well, you know. Making sure that the door is a crack open. Frankly, Terry, if he'd been a woman during the '60s he would have burned half his bra. So it's peculiar that he now stands as a symbol for all that. You know, the most careful and calculated of the statistical cohorts stands for a generation which believed in less calculation and less conniving, supposedly.

GROSS: Hillary Clinton's popularity seems to have really been boosted by the White House scandal and by the subsequent trial. And what's your theory about why that's so?

SHEARER: Americans still like their women as victims. Word to the wise, Terry.

GROSS: I'm working on it, Harry.

SHEARER: OK. No, I mean, I think it's that. I also think it's that when you gain prominence in the public it's very hard to change the first impression. The first impression the American people had of Hillary Clinton was from the "60 Minutes" where she was a victim. She was a strong and a proud victim, but she was a victim nonetheless.

She was defending her husband because he had cheated. And she then revealed, "oh, I'm not that person at all. I'm a person who holds secret meetings to change health care." And that -- I think it's the combination of the change itself and the change to strength that accounted for the plummeting of her image.

And so, in a way it's both the fact that she's returning to the way we first knew her and returning to a pattern which, like it or not, is still the approved pattern for prominent women in this culture. I think she'll always be really much more popular as a victim than as a strong actor.

GROSS: My guest is satirist Harry Shearer. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is satirist Harry Shearer. His new book is called "It's the Stupidity Stupid: Why Some People Hate Bill Clinton and Why the Rest of Us Have Had to Watch."

Say you were in the Senate, how would you be voting?

SHEARER: Well, first of all, I would have voted for every -- you know, let the House call all the witnesses they want. We can save Social Security in October. I would have voted for the longest imaginable trial just because, you know, I think entertainment value is the main value in American society and why try to flee from it?


And, you know, what amazes -- and I would vote for closed deliberations only because open deliberations would be a total sham. They would be open and fake deliberations and there would still be real deliberations in private.

I loved Senator Bob Bennett yesterday on one of the talk shows. He is not the Bob Bennett who defended the president. Washington is apparently full of fascinating and wonderful Bob Bennett's. But this is the ex-intelligence officer, Bob Bennett.

And he was arguing on behalf of closed hearings because he said, "you know, the one closed meeting that the senators had where they decided to form the trial was so wonderful that Trent Lott told these wonderful jokes and we had such great comraderie." So the great new excuse for government secrecy is comraderie.

GROSS: Who do you think has been the most baffling figure during the Senate trial? Whose words or behavior has confused you the most?

SHEARER: Well, Robert Byrd, I would say -- who one week was for early dismissal of the entire proceedings and this past weekend said it does rise -- of course our favorite modern cliche, "rise to the level -- this does rise to the level of high crimes and misdemeanors." I think he has taken senatorial befuddlement to a high new level.

I think also, Lindsey Graham. Lindsey Graham, during the House Judiciary Committee hearings and a little bit even in the Senate, although he's had to put on a more determined face -- but Lindsey Graham, to me, came the closest to at least the simulation of thought and cognition during this whole process.

It seemed to me he was kind of working out what he felt and thought while we watched, and I think the turning point, although God knows what they looked at when Tom DeLay invited the House members into the secret evidence room to look at the secret evidence that helped them vote for impeachment in the first place -- we still don't know the answer to that.

But one senses that what really motivated Lindsey Graham was when he saw what he found to be the meanness of what he interprets to be a Clinton campaign to smear Monica Lewinsky, that that turned him more than the pure legalities of it. But I think he's been fascinating to watch.

GROSS: What do you think changed his mind from the early days of the House investigation when he was saying, "well, I have to figure out whether this is Watergate or Peyton Place?"

SHEARER: Well, I do think it was the meanness. I think he perceived that Clinton via Sidney Blumenthal and/or others was really trying -- what interest me about what Clinton told Sidney Blumenthal, incidentally, is that every single thing he told Sidney Blumenthal was true. It wasn't the truth, but Monica Lewinsky had told Linda Tripp that her co-workers called her the stalker.

She did make a sexual demand on Clinton. She wanted real sex as opposed to this halfway house stuff. And he said I can't do that. So he did rebuff her. Everything he said was true. He could, in his own mind, justify every single word he said to Sidney Blumenthal. It's just when you put it together it did not add up to a truthful picture.

And I think, backing away from the fervent partisanship on both sides of this, that that's going to be the overall memory I have of the spectacle is that everybody had a part of the truth. And that the overarching stupidity of so many of the chief actors at so many key moments is what made this thing lurch forward over and over again.

You know, there were so many moments where a sane and halfway intelligent person could have gotten out of this on either side. But it is true that so much of what Clinton's rationale to himself, I think, is that every specific thing that he said was -- you could find a truthful antecedent for it.

GROSS: Now, Harry...

SHEARER: ...that's a kind of truth.

GROSS: Have you ever met to Bill Clinton?

SHEARER: No. No, I met George Bush at a Christmas party at the White House. And I can still remember what he said to me.

GROSS: What?

SHEARER: "Hey, Merry Christmas to you."


But I've never met Bill Clinton.

GROSS: He said that to you? Wow.

SHEARER: He said that to me. I cherish those words.

GROSS: Is it just as well, do you think, that you haven't met Bill Clinton that way you can kind of say what you want to say without feeling like you know the guy and he was nice to you and you're hurting his feelings?

SHEARER: Absolutely. And it's one reason why I don't like to go to Washington all that often. It's one reason why I never liked, when I was at "Saturday Night Live," having the targets of satire show up as special guests. I always think that then you're faced with to bad choices. Either being incredibly rude to somebody to his face or starting to pull your punches. I prefer to get people behind their backs.

GROSS: Satirist Harry Shearer. He's the author of the new book, "It's the Stupidity Stupid: Why Some People Hate Bill Clinton and Why the Rest of Us Have Had to Watch."

I'm Terry Gross.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.


Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington, DC
Guest: Harry Shearer
High: Satirist Harry Shearer. His new book is "It's the Stupidity, Stupid: Why Some People Hate Clinton and Why the Rest of Us Have to Watch." He'll discuss the impeachment proceedings.
Spec: Entertainment; Media; Lifestyle; Culture; Government; Trials; Harry Shearer

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Harry Shearer
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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