Kissinger's con.

Kissinger's con.

Kissinger's con.

Media criticism.
June 16 2004 6:41 PM

Kissinger's Con

"Henry can't come to the phone right now because he's trekking the Gobi Desert."

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

Will somebody please buy Henry Kissinger a cell phone?

The New York Times attempted to contact the former secretary of state for its June 5 edition to respond to allegations that he had used his influence inside the Council on Foreign Relations to quell a debate concerning him in the pages of its magazine, Foreign Affairs. (For the complete back story, see Scott Sherman's piece in The Nation.)

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In these days of instant global communications, you'd think it would have been a snap for the Times to corral Kissinger. Alas, it failed, forcing its reporter Diana Jean Schemoto write:

Mr. Kissinger is traveling, said an assistant, Jesse Incao, and could not be reached for comment.

The Kissinger/Foreign Affairs story had legs, and the Times returns today (Wednesday, June 16) with a follow-up. Once again, Schemo seeks Kissinger for a comment, and once again, she strikes out, writing:

Theresa Cimino, an assistant to Mr. Kissinger, said he was traveling and could not be reached for comment.

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It's not like the doctor was road-tripping through Antarctica where there's no cell phone coverage. On June 6, Kissinger was free to record an interview with CNN's Paula Zahn about the Reagan legacy via telephone from Milan, Italy. Peter Jennings spotted Kissinger on June 11 near the National Cathedral's loading and unloading zone during ABC News' coverage of the Reagan funeral. The fact of the matter is that Kissinger is one of those talking heads who can't resist—as long as the host doesn't force him to sit in the hot seat. In May, he blathered away pointlessly on Lou Dobbs Tonight and On the Record With Greta Van Susteren (twice!).

Clearly, Kissinger ducked the Times. And as the Nexis Wayback Machine indicates, it fits the Kissinger pattern. Whenever the going gets tough, Henry gets going on a trip that makes it impossible for him to respond to press queries. For instance:

  • After President Bush appointed Kissinger to the 9/11 commission in late 2002, some critics demanded that he reveal any potential conflicts of interest posed by his lobbying firm. The Financial Times sought a comment for a Dec. 5, 2002, story but learned that "Mr Kissinger was travelling yesterday and could not be reached for comment."
  • In a May 8, 1996, New York Times story about Kissinger's $1,000 donation to Sen. Jesse Helms' re-election campaign, Kissinger"could not be reached for comment, a spokeswoman said."
  • The Chicago Tribune tried to reach the man for a June 5, 1991, article about a newly released set of Nixon tapes but was sent packing. "Kissinger was traveling out of the country and could not be reached for comment, according to his office in New York."

As much as it pains me to be fair to Kissinger, he isn't the only public figure whose travel plans mysteriously synchronize with bad news. In February 2004, the Washington Post failed to reach ethics czar Leon Kass for reasons of travel; the Los Angeles Times missed reality TV guy Mark Burnett and the New York Times missed MPAA prexy Jack Valenti in October 2003. In July 2003, novelist Tom Clancy and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld couldn't come to the phone for the Washington Post because they were voyaging (separate trips, thank you very much).

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Other prominent citizens whose journeys kept them from getting back to the press: Monica Lewinsky (New York Times, June 2003); Afghan warlord Rashid Dostum (Los Angeles Times, May 2003); Gen. Barry McCaffrey (New York Times, April 2003); cable guy John Malone (New York Times, April 2003); investor Warren Buffett (Washington Post, December 2002); scholar Henry Louis Gates (New York Times, June 2002); MLB Commissioner Bud Selig (Washington Post, April 2002); impresario Dick Clark (Los Angeles Times, February 2002); Daily Variety Editor in Chief Peter Bart (Los Angeles Times, November 2001); Disney honcho Michael Eisner (Los Angeles Times, October 2001); and scores of less-notable notables. 

Now, I'm not suggesting that any of these folks used travel as an excuse to avoid the press, or that they fabricate treks as a press dodge. Wait a minute! I am, too! The ubiquity of cell phones, e-mail, BlackBerrys, and satellite phones means that in all but a few extreme instances—during a hike though Denali National Park or a snorkel adventure at the bottom of the Marianas Trench—no big shot is out of his office's reach unless he wants to be. Why report that someone can't be reached when it's more likely they don't want to be reached?

I imagine that the "traveling … couldn't be reached" construction is a stylistic holdover from the days when long-distance telephony was an on-again, off-again miracle. Travel really did make people unavailable. But there's no good reason to keep this lame construction in play. Instead, reporters should force the issue and ask offices for alternative ways to contact their bosses. If the boss has made himself inaccessible, say so with a forthright construction such as this: "Mr. Kissinger could not address the controversy because he has temporarily taken himself off the communications grid."

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"Mr. Shafer would love to respond to your queries, but he's rocketing to Mars tonight. Try sending him e-mail at pressbox@hotmail.com." (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)