Playing hooky from dancing school with Henry Kissinger
I can’t recall what my pitch was that persuaded Henry Kissinger to give me an interview. Kissinger, who died at the age of 100 on November 29th, was friendly with the press and adept at using it to bend the political narrative to his will. Still, I doubt he would have agreed to get together with me if he’d known my agenda. I was looking for an excuse to write about my long, reluctant years as a dancing school student and then bouncer.
What, you might logically ask, did Richard Nixon’s national security advisor and Secretary of State have to do with the fox trot? By the autumn of 1968, as a sarcastic fifteen-year-old, I’d happily aged out of the white glove John Barclay dancing classes that my mother had enrolled me in starting in around second grade.
I was looking forward to never doing the waltz again. But Nellie, my mother, struck a deal with John Barclay, the extremely proper head of the school who was always desperately in need of boys. In exchange for the princely sum of $5 a session I was to dance with partnerless girls and, before classes started, shoo boys and girls who were up to no good in the bathroom onto the chandeliered ballroom floor. It was the Sixties, after all.
But on one occasion before donning my dancing shoes at the posh Pierre Hotel, where the dancing school met, I snuck through a door that, I can say without significant exaggeration, may have influenced my future choice of career in the way that stepping on a metaphorical butterfly in the Mesozoic might have altered the fate of the planet.
For, on the other side of that door, Richard Nixon, who’d won the Presidency the previous month, had established his transition headquarters at the Pierre. Nobody stopped me or asked what I was doing – security wasn’t taken quite as seriously in those days; or perhaps it was obvious that a wide-eyed schoolboy in a blue blazer and tie posed little threat.
I discovered a long table filled with handouts for the press so I swiped one and after briefly absorbing the tumult of a presidential transition I slipped back through the same door to my tedious life as a 9th grade dancing school extra.
The date was Monday, December 2nd, 1968. I know that because it said so on the press release I’d filched. “President Elect Richard M. Nixon,” the cover page of the document read, “with Dr. Henry A. Kissinger, assistant to the President Elect for National Security Affairs and Dr. Richard V. Allen.”
The content of the document was a transcript of Nixon’s announcement, a few hours earlier, naming Kissinger to the post. Allen was to become the President-Elect’s foreign policy coordinator. “Ladies and gentlemen,” the handout began, “today I am pleased to announce the first appointment to the White House staff in a major policy position.”
After sharing this largely unknown Harvard political science professor’s credentials with the press, he turned the microphone over to Kissinger who predictably expressed his gratitude for the honor of being able to serve in the administration.
Three decades later I was one in a rotation of writers regularly contributing to a column in the New York Observer called “New Yorker’s Diary.” I thought it would be fun to write about the intersection of my dancing school years and American history.
It took several months, and a couple of cancellations, before Kissinger’s secretary led me into the former Secretary of State’s office at Kissinger Associates, his extremely lucrative Park Avenue practice counseling CEOs and heads of state.
Actually, I wasn’t led into his office. I was made to sit in a waiting room for a good quarter hour while I listened to Kissinger shooting the breeze on the phone with Chis Matthews, the moderator of MSNBC’s popular Hardball. Obviously, Matthews took precedence over an unknown reporter with a vague agenda.
When I was finally ushered into Kissinger’s office – I noted an ancient Greek bust with a broken nose, Chinese calligraphy on the wall, and a stain on the couch – the former Secretary of State promptly started to nod off. He apologized that he was on some new medication. I reluctantly took him at his word.
But he became more animated when I pulled out the transcript of his long ago appointment as National Security Advisor that I’d safeguarded ever since. Kissinger was his best, or at least most devoted biographer, trying to frame his polarizing legacy before others could. So I was surprised when he expressed surprise and delight at the document. He’d never seen it before.
“That is interesting,” he said. “Can we make a copy of it? Could somebody make a copy of this?” he shouted through the door to his secretary.
“This was the beginning of a long, long journey,” he continued, turning philosophical as he flipped through the pages. “I had been Nelson Rockefeller’s adviser and I was Nelson Rockefeller’s close friend. I never expected to be appointed National Security Advisor. I was at the Republican convention in Miami that nominated Nixon, trying to tie up delegates for Rockefeller. I never met Nixon before he approached me.
“When he offered me the job,” Kissinger went on, “I told him I wanted to spend a week talking and thinking about it. I didn’t want to lose all my friends who knew me as a critic of his.
“Even on that day,” he said of December 2nd, 1968 “I’d never have expected I’d have become Secretary of State or so dominant as security advisor.”
When his secretary returned with the document – I made sure she handed me back the original – I asked Kissinger to sign it. “This is how it all started,” he wrote. But before he politely kicked me out of his office, perhaps to take a much needed nap, he emphasized, “It really means a lot to me.”
He confessed he had no idea that there was a dancing school on the other side of the Pierre Hotel’s door.
Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found be found on Substack.
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