Radio: They should have said about Paxman

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The Independent Culture
It was one of the most irritating advertisements ever screened. It was for that overrated magazine, the Economist. A businessman sits in his paid-for-by-someone-else airline seat. He looks pretty pleased with himself until who should squeeze in next to him but Henry Kissinger? Yikes! As our once-smug businessman does not read the Economist, we are led to believe, he will have nothing to say to Kissinger for seven hours except "pass the nuts, please". Or whatever they say in First Class.

It was irritating for several reasons, but mostly so because it assumed that Kissinger is to be taken as some kind of guru intellectual, a repository of wisdom and power, a Platonic philosopher-king whom we sit next to in our maddest fantasies every night. Thousands of people who saw the commercial would, instead, have thought something like this: I would know exactly what to say if Henry Kissinger sat next to me on a plane. I would first call the steward and say "excuse me, but there is a fat mass-murderer sitting next to me. Could I have another seat?" I would then turn to HK and say, "Tom Lehrer, one of the finest satirical song-writers who ever lived - his very name means `teacher', but of course you knew that - abandoned his career on the day that you won the Nobel Peace Prize. He said that the world had moved beyond satire's reach. How do you feel about that?" (Of course, I am not in the slightest way implying that Kissinger is really a mass-murderer. He just ordered a covert, illegal bombing campaign against a neutral country which inadvertently - how could he have foreseen it? - caused the deaths of a number of innocent people.)

Well, the world has moved back a bit. Clinton has said that America was "wrong" to support murderous regimes just because they happened to be anti-communist; and interviewers are not as docile as they once were. So Kissinger, his head humming pleasant and auto-congratulatory tunes as he bobs around the world promoting his memoirs, runs slap into Jeremy Paxman in a bad mood on Radio 4's Start the Week.

Someone should have told him about Paxman. And he should have smelt a rat the moment he walked into the studio. Paxman gave the tiniest hint of his upcoming assault when he said that Kissinger "was intimately involved in all sorts of American activities" - the briefest pause here - "from Angola to Chile" (ie, bits of history that hardly cover America with glory). He then introduced the others: "Geoffrey Robertson QC is the man who exposed Iraqgate when he led the defence in the Matrix Churchill case; has appeared for defendants on death row in the Caribbean; and has now produced a book on crimes against humanity and the fight for global justice. Frances Stonor Saunders has asked the question `Who paid the piper?' in her examination of how the CIA bankrolled artists, writers, magazines and conferences throughout the Cold War to promote the American Way." In other words: "My guests today are Henry Kissinger and a couple of bolshie yet influential lefties who, like me, have been waiting for this moment for ages."

"Dr Kissinger," said Paxo, "let's start with you because you may have to leave early." Too right. You could hear fidgeting noises from what you imagined was the good Doctor's chair, and several times during the programme I thought he'd already gone. But he hadn't. Not even after Paxman started giving us a bit of background "for the benefit of younger listeners". "You've already started badly," said Kissinger, and Paxman laughed "nyah hah har harr" in a manner which froze the blood. For the first time in my life, I began to feel sorry for Henry Kissinger.

There was a lot of preamble before we got to the good stuff, the exchange which made the papers the next day. Kissinger has two interview techniques that I can work out: to bore the interlocutor half to death, and then to wake him or her up with a patronising insult. Paxman had obviously studied the form, and for a while Kissinger's unearthly gravelly voice rolled over us (the baroque curlicues of his accent may have helped his career as much as his political nous), as we heard about the tragic times in which he was called up to do service for his adoptive country, the policy problems, the unacknowledged genius of President Gerry Ford. (The what? Yes, Kissinger admires the old fool.) All these were talked about as if Kissinger were merely the recording angel, who happened merely to get caught up in events; it was not as if he was responsible for them in any way. Then we got to the Nobel Prize. Do you, asked Paxman, feel a fraud in accepting it?

There followed a swift, unreconstructable run of phonemes, indecipherable yet indicating bafflement that such a question had been asked at all; as if Kissinger were lapsing into his native Venusian. It sounded like: "A shphlewh, whaddawhat?" Paxman (talking loudly and clearly, as to a dim foreigner): "A FRAUD in accepting the Nobel Peace Prize?"

As anyone over 30 knows, the moment you have been waiting for all your life is always a let-down when it happens. Kissinger recovered most of his poise and bored his way out of the question. After he left, Geoffrey Robertson patted himself all over his back for caring more about human rights than Kissinger, or indeed most other lawyers. Somehow, that wasn't a very edifying spectacle either.