HOW TO BECOME HENRY KISSINGERBy David Brooks
Excerpted from The Weekly Standard
December 4, 1995
In this country, any boy or girl can grow up, get on the speaking circuit, and deliver after-dinner speeches to conventions filled with shoe salesmen for $50,000 a pop. All it takes is hard work, dedication, and a reputation for global omniscience.
But how do you establish yourself as one of the intellectual giants of the age? In the old days, it was easy. All you had to do was write an eternal masterwork such as The Wealth of Nations or Democracy in America. But that sort of thing won‘t even get you a booking on the Today show. These days you have to have a multi-media marketing strategy.
And you have to start young. The world is full of people who want to be the next Henry Kissinger, and the competition is fierce. Perhaps you spent your 20th summer reading Proust, but they spent theirs sending express-mail packages: "Dear Mr. Koppel, That was a brilliant show on the collapse of American foreign policy. I made many of the same points in my latest poli-sci term paper (copy enclosed)."
The crucial decisions begin with college graduation. There's only one real career path for an aspiring intellectual giant: adviser. Get yourself attached to some think tank, council, or foundation. From there, if you want to be the Defining Genius of your epoch, these are the career guideposts you will have to follow:
AGE 22: A year out of college you should be a research assistant at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. You will Nexis-search for a former Secretary of Commerce, who spends his 3-hour workdays arguing for a free-trade accord between the United States and the European Union. You will be in a paradoxical and uncertain state. You will fall in love with this famous boss and believe he can make your career. You'll imagine performing heroic feats in his view. But sitting around with the other young staffers, you'll be doing devastating impersonations of him, causing general hilarity. Making fun of your boss is so funny because it is the careerist's form of blasphemy.
AGE 24: At this stage in your life you are fully qualified to be offering advice to presidents and senators. If you'd gone into law school, you'd still be sitting in lecture halls. If you'd gone into journalism you'd still be on the police beat. But the wonderful thing about the think-tank world is that it requires absolutely no qualifications. So there you sit as a research assistant in your rabbit warren at the Private Property Foundation, drafting contemptuous Issue Briefings "Cowards in Congress: Senators Bow to Telecom Lobbyists, Threatening Real Reform."
AGE 27. You should have changed jobs six times by now, up the greasy poll of the think-tank world. This will not be difficult, as the advice industry is expanding rapidly. And each new person who enters the business is another person who sponsors panel discussions and issues retreats, thus creating more engagements for all the other policy johnnies. Wonk supply creates wonk demand. That's Say's Law, 1990s style: The more people say, the more there is to be said.
After a brief gig as an assistant editor at Foreign Policy magazine, you will be offered the job of program coordinator for the Aspen Institute. This will elevate you to the status of Powerful Factotum.
There are many jobs in the international advice industry that carry a lot of power, but senior people don't want to do them because they involve a lot of drudgery. The job of managing editor at a policy journal falls into this category. At Aspen, you will coordinate the Institute's seminar series. You get to influence who gets invited and which invitee gets to fly first class on the way to the meetings. You will coordinate the drafting of the final report. This is awesome power, and former European prime ministers will be kissing up to you on a regular basis.
AGE 35: By now you will no longer be one of the people who sit in panel discussion audiences. You will sit on panels. To reach this spot you will have to make several crucial decisions. First, you will have to choose a field of expertise. What will you write about?
The answer is easy: yourself. The implied subject of all your pieces will be your own brilliance and good taste. But you can't celebrate yourself directly. it is considered good form to mask your ambition under the guise of intellectual purity. Therefore you must reflect your good qualities off some field of specialization, a market niche.
You could choose a country, maybe China, to be an expert on. But foreign policy experts have long fallow periods. China experts have plenty of TV bookings when there is a crisis, but there are years and years when attention is elsewhere.
The federal budget comes around every year so a budget expert is always in some demand. But that is too boring; you'll be on PBS, but not CBS.
The poor are always with us, so there is some reward in being a welfare expert. But the social issues are at the low end of prestige scale. They are studied by people who wear beards and crumpled suits. Foreign policy issues have higher prestige, and at the summit are the foreign-policy issues that involve banks (during the Cold War, issues involving missiles higher, but they have since fallen.)
Stop by a conference on exchange rates at the Council on Foreign Relations and you are in the company of trim executives with trans-Atlantic accents, their skin aglow from a diet of subtle sauces and individually tailored exercise regimens. You decide to become an expert on capital flows to nations in transition. You will assure that you spend a good part of each year in $400-a-night Kepminski hotels in formerly communist lands. You will also have a grounding in currency matters, which nobody else understands. That will give you an aura (even if you don't's really understand currency matters yourself.)
And what is your philosophy? Are you a liberal, a conservative? That short answer is that it doesn't really matter, so long as you possess a manners that suggests easygoing messianism. Sure, you have a plan to save the world, but if people don't agree with you, you certainly aren't going to make a scene. It's the etiquette of opinion-holding that mattes most.
Nonetheless, content does matter a little. If you are just graduating from college now, it is best to be vaguely associated with the Democrats. The other aspiring sages will go with the dominant Republicans, and that means that there will be more crowding on the right-wing side for the plum jobs in the years 2020-2040.
You are now in your prime op-ed writing years. You'll want to begin each piece by quoting Yogi Berra's line, "It's deja vu all over again." When you pitch a piece to an op-ed editor, let him know that the publisher of his newspaper is really keen that the piece be published (this doesn't have to be strictly true). Assure him that "this one will really move the debate." After it is published call him back and report that "the piece really caused a stir in the White House."
You'll also want to publish your first book. The subject isn't that important. just remember that you are going to publish four books during your lifetime and you have to choose the right publishers. Your first wonkish book should be published by Basic Books. Your next worthy but dull book should go to W.W. Norton. The prestigious Bigthink book at the peak of your career should go to Knopf. And then at retirement your blockbuster memoir should go to Harper Collins.
There will also be some onerous duties at this stage in your life. You will have to attend conferences at the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik in Munich and talk seriously with old men who are retired diplomats and miserable about it. Your only TV invitations will come from obscure cable channels whose penetration is to 35 homes in North Dakota. Nevertheless, you must appear because you need the practice. Meanwhile, your fantasy life will be built around episodes in which you make devastating comebacks on Meet the Press. You can picture the cameramen laughing at your wit. The producer will beam, and Tim Russert will practically burst into song. You never quite imagine the exact words you utter to cause this great reaction.
Other people think that a think-tank job is preparation for a White House post, but you know that a White House post is in fact preparation for your next think-tank job. It is the press contacts made while in government that will serve you well when you return to the private-sector advice industry. As such, you spend 60 percent of your time talking to the media.
At first you make the mistake of leaking discrete news tidbits to the beat reporters. But you then refine your technique. You mostly leak to columnists. That way you get a useful story on the day of your leak, and then favorable mention ("one of the administration's brightest foreign policy seers") several months hence when the columnist repays the favor. Remember, it doesn't enhance your reputation to leak little things. Only leak those of your memos that undercut the entire intellectual premise of the administration in which you serve.
While in office, plant rumors that you are being mentioned as a possible president of the World Trade Organization. At the tail end of the administration you might want to arrange a transfer to Treasury. Your kid's scholarship at Princeton may fall through later in life, in which case you'll have to land a job as vice president at Goldman Sachs-one of those jobs where the bank pays you to appear at Davos conferences on panels entitled "Are the Bretton Woods Twins Obsolete?" and to deliver pithy one-liners to CNN's Lou Dobbs on his nightly show Moneyline. At Treasury you can make the contacts.
AGE 47: By now you've got a quasi-academic job (go to the School for Advanced International Studies, Brookings isn't sexy enough), a consulting business, and some offers to sit on the boards of medium-sized companies. You should be soundbiting like crazy.
But don't quotemonger about domestic or political issues. You're going for prestige. That means you must establish yourself as a teller of uncomfortable truths. By appearing gravely concerned you will lend yourself an impressive dignity. The key word at this time of your life is "unsustainable." Whatever it is you are talking about, warn your audience that the current situation is unsustainable and that terrible things will happen unless painful and courageous measures are taken.
You'll have NPR on your speed-dial and you'll call them every week or so just to let them know you are available. But it's also time to write a book title for Knopf (you'll also have to put 450 pages of text behind it, but that scarcely matters). Your goal is to produce one of those titles - The End of Ideology being the first of them, back in 1959 - that are remembered for decades, even if the contents of the book are forgotten.
Obviously, your title will predict The End of ... something. History, politics, inequality, racism-all these have been taken. Find something new. The End of Gardening, perhaps, or The End of Time, the thesis being that no matter when you leave for an appointment you are always late.
On your book tour, you must catch the eye of those who control corporate consulting contracts and industry group speaking invitations. This means you have to have a management catch-phrase to show that you are on the cutting edge. There are two ways to pick your phrase. One is to adopt an oxymoron. You could identify yourself with the Social Market, Cooperative Individualism, or Sustainable Development. Or you could simply take the words Liberation, Innovation, Advantage, Competitive and combine them in a random pair: Competitive Innovation or Liberating Advantage. Either way, your catch phrase should be vague, uplifting, businesslike, and forward-looking. You should explain that it is the key to managing change in the global business environment.
Whatever you stand for, it will be safely in the mainstream. If you are too far left, the right-wingers will sink your future nominations. If you are too far right the left-wingers will sink them. The people with principles thereby commit mutual suicide, and the path is clear for a safe nominee like you.
If possible, insist in your public statements that you stand for "true conservatism," arguing that the conservatives of the day have betrayed their creed rightly understood. Also, since you are a Democrat, you must pay homage to the Market. Democrats get immense credit for this. It is a sign that they are sensible and serious (look it up under RUBIN, Robert).
At this point in your life, you may be offered a slot as a columnist for a newspaper or magazine. Ask yourself if you have what it takes to be a columnist. That is to say, do you have enough self-confidence so that after studying a magazine article on brain surgery for 20 minutes, you feel comfortable giving a lecture to a thousand brain surgeons on what's wrong with their profession?
Of course you have this self-confidence. Nonetheless, turn down the column offer. A regular column is nothing but slavery.
AGE 53: In order to make the difficult leap from Significant Player to Major Institution, you must at this stage in your life be always in the spotlight. That means you must convey an image that is more and more rarefied as you appear on media that are more and more populist.
It no longer helps to write for policy journals. In fact, your writing career is at an end. From now on everything that you "write" will actually be composed by somebody else.
By now you should be appearing constantly on television, in the company of Lee Hamilton or Sam Nunn if at all possible. Television is an attention medium rather than a persuasion medium, so your purpose is to merely remind people that you exist, and to exude a positive image.
To separate yourself from all the other blue suits on TV, you will have to develop an audio-visual signature. Kissinger has the voice, Tom Wolfe has the white suit. Even Warren Christopher has the funny shirt collars. Choosing your signature is a decision fraught with peril. Robert Novak already has the vest. Moussedback hair is too reminiscent of Richard Darman. Choose carefully.
In order to get as many bookings as possible, you will have to transcend any past specialty you might have claimed. Now you will simply be an expert in history, like Michael Beschloss, or foreign affairs, like Zbigniew Brzezinski. You will specialize in knowing something about everything.
To convey the impression of this great learning, you will have to cite the Federalist Papers. But don't sound like a broken record. Work out a ratio for your highbrow references and rigorously stick to it: For every five times you refer to the Federalist Papers, make three references to Tocqueville, three to Clausewitz, one to Plato's Cave, two to Santayana and four to Sam Rayburn.
You'll be in the public speaking business at full bore at this point. Make sure your agent lines up no more than 50 speaking engagements a year. And never go anywhere for less than $8,000 a speech. If you lowball, the other big talkers will be mad.
Your goal at industry-group talks is to convey an air of insider knowledge while stating the blindingly obvious: "Al Greenspan was telling me the other day - you know Al, the Fed chairman, goes out with Andrea Mitchell - he was telling me the other day that there are three branches of government, executive, legislative, and judicial. And Newt confirmed it. You know Newt's a real early riser. Calls at home all hours. Anyway, Newt agreed that there are these three branches and he assured me it was going to stay that way. He's not going to shut one of them. Doesn't think he could get it through." Give a knowing grin. Remember, you're on the entre nous circuit.
AGE 68: By now you are a Colossus. You know because now your friends are mostly glamorous ladies on the charity circuit. In your twenties, your friends were fellow wonks. As you became successful you hung around savvy lawyers. In middle age, it was corporate chieftains who hosted you at their hunting lodges. But now you have reached the top and can be assured a good table at the Metropolitan Museum's annual ball.
You sometimes visit your office at the Hoover Institution, but most of the time you're traveling with Felix Rohatyn on business for Lazard Freres. They bring you into meetings just as deal negotiations are underway, to dazzle the various parties.
By now you are so important you no longer need to be interesting. You drop your words down on people, as if you are always speaking from a tall lectern.
You are so rarefied that it does your image good to appear once a year on the Jay Leno show, and every couple of years you will play yourself on Friends.
You are no longer a mere individual; you are a Cultural Institution. That means you never travel alone, but you only appear alone when you go on Nightline. No shouting over others to be heard.
As the years go on, you will want to discover religion, so that all your pronouncements have a tone of prophecy. As you are riding on the cigarette boats of your friends, you might note that when you get right down to it, no creed makes any sense unless it is based on faith in God. You might collect your tossed off thoughts on the human condition in books with titles like Our Epoch.
After all the years of striving, flattering, maneuvering, and sweating, you have now reached that happiest state: smug complacency. No criticism can possibly dampen your high opinion of yourself. And some fine afternoon, during a slow news cycle so your obits won't be overshadowed by other events, you will pass from this earth. God, it transpires, has a staff of angels to advise Him on divine affairs. It's a long climb to the top to be the brains behind God, but this time, at least, you have an eternity.