Can McCain Survive the Kissinger Endorsement?

Once upon a time, a Republican presidential candidate endorsed by Henry Kissinger would have felt about as comfortable as Fredo Corleone being embraced and kissed on the cheek by his brother Michael. Yet this week, John McCain’s faltering campaign — having already raised the stakes by doubling down on the Iraq war — proudly accepted the Kissinger endorsement, confirming again the axiom that desperate men do desperate things.

I know a little something about Kissinger endorsements in Republican presidential campaigns. Nineteen years ago, as the 1988 Bush campaign’s liaison to conservatives, I worked behind the scenes to derail a planned Kissinger endorsement — and prevent a self-inflicted wound on a candidacy that had only recently turned the corner on its opponent.

Less than a month earlier, a New York Times/CBS News poll had shown Massachusetts Democratic Gov. Michael Dukakis leading Vice President George H.W. Bush by 50% to 34 %. In the intervening weeks, thanks to the Bush campaign’s aggressive attacks, the numbers had flipped, and Bush had come out of Labor Day with a 47 % to 39 % lead in that same New York Times/CBS News poll.

That 24-point ballot swing had been achieved largely because the Bush campaign had successfully defined the terrain of the 1988 general election along ideological fault lines. Bush, the campaign made clear, was the conservative, while Dukakis was a loony-left liberal. Then-New Hampshire GOP Gov. John Sununu, Bush’s senior emissary to the right, had argued to conservative leaders that by delivering a conservative V.P. choice, a conservative platform, a conservative convention, and a conservative campaign, Bush deserved their support. And he was right.

But a Kissinger endorsement would have put all that at risk. Public acceptance of an endorsement from Henry Kissinger — the American right’s favorite bogeyman — would have undone all the good that had been done.

Kissinger was the architect of détente — the man who had virtually single handedly (in the eyes of America’s conservative political leaders) staved off the demise of Soviet communism and instead propped up its evil system, the man who had blithely given away the U.S. Canal in Panama, the man who had snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in Vietnam, the man who had stabbed the Taiwanese in the back with his opening to the Communist Chinese.

It came as no surprise, then, that when word of Kissinger’s expected early-September appointment as the chairman of the Bush campaign’s National Security Task Force leaked to conservative leaders, they went ballistic. As the campaign’s liaison to them, I was told in no uncertain terms just how damaging this would be.

“That one picture, of Kissinger embracing Bush,” one told me, “would undo the last two months’ worth of work.” “That endorsement on the front page of the New York Times,” said another, “would be the kiss of death.”

Dealing with my first “crisis” of the campaign, I went straight to see my boss, Lee Atwater, and explained the situation.

Atwater responded that it was too late Bush himself had spoken to Kissinger and asked him to serve as chairman of the task force, and he couldn’t very well take that back. “Tough. Looks like we’re screwed,” he said.

I suggested that we could perhaps dilute the impact of a Kissinger endorsement by expanding the anti communist membership — and leadership — of the National Security Task Force to include known conservative stalwarts. Atwater agreed, and Jeane Kirkpatrick, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Jesse Helms, among others, were immediately added to the Task Force.

But when I reported back to conservative leaders that Atwater had solved the problem by adding on Kirkpatrick and Brzezinski as co-chairmen, and had expanded the Task Force further by adding Helms and other strong conservatives, they weren’t mollified. “It’s the PICTURE, don’t you see?” said one. “It doesn’t make any difference how many people are on that ‘task force,’ because the ‘task force’ is irrelevant. It’s a PHOTO OP — and the PHOTO is the key.”

Chastened, I went back to the campaign headquarters and walked in to Atwater’s office again. “They didn’t buy it,” I explained. “It’s not the membership they’re concerned about, it’s the picture. How do we make sure there’s not a picture of George Bush and Henry Kissinger fronting the New York Times?”

Atwater pondered a bit, gazing at the calendar on his desk, before shooing me out of his office so he could think.

Half an hour later, I got a call from his assistant, asking me to come back upstairs to his office. I walked in to see Atwater with his fabled Cheshire-cat grin.

“Problem solved,” he said. “We’re gonna do it on the 12th.”

I stared at him, uncomprehending. He waited me out.

“The … 12th? I don’t understand,” I finally admitted.

“September 12th. We’re gonna do that endorsement event on September 12th. Get it?”

I still didn’t comprehend.

“That’s next Monday. I get that,” I said. “But what’s the significance of moving the date of the event?”

“Don’t have many Jewish friends, do you?” said Atwater, with a glint in his eye. “September 12th just happens to be Rosh Hashanah. Kissinger won’t be able to make the press conference.”

Problem solved. Because he would observing one of the major holy days of his religion, Henry Kissinger wouldn’t be able to attend the event where he would be announced as the chairman of the Bush-Quayle campaign’s National Security Task Force. And Atwater made sure Kissinger was never photographed with Bush for the duration of the campaign.

What a difference 19 years makes.