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What Henry Kissinger Can Teach John Bolton About Keeping the President Happy

John Gans is director of communications and research at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perry World House and author of the new book White House Warriors, a history of the National Security Council from 1947 to today.

John Bolton’s long summer got even longer just before Labor Day weekend.

In May, President Donald Trump publicly and privately distanced himself from his hawkish national security adviser, particularly on Iran and North Korea. Every few weeks since then, the media have documented someone else—a TV personality, a retired general, a senator or two—who has the president’s ear on foreign policy and wondered why Trump has kept Bolton around at all. Then, last week, the Washington Post reported Bolton had been cut out of a briefing on the U.S. plan to end the war in Afghanistan by way of a peace deal he has opposed.

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As a cruel summer turns to autumn, Bolton can take heart that many of his predecessors have spent time in the president‘s harsh glare. Some might be surprised to learn that even Henry Kissinger, who made the title “national security adviser” a household name, was in the doghouse with Richard Nixon 50 years ago.

Kissinger, as Bolton has, sought to shake up the national security bureaucracy by doing away with formal processes and developing a close partnership with the president. But when Nixon grew annoyed with Kissinger, the national security adviser struggled to refind his footing. Unfortunately, as I discovered researching for a new book on the National Security Council, the obsequious path Kissinger took on his way to getting back in Nixon’s good graces—indulging the president’s penchant for surveillance and desire to escalate the war in Vietnam—helped lead the United States down a dark and divisive path.

Bolton, who has both a longer government résumé than Kissinger and bigger policy differences with his president, now must decide what, if anything, he can do to earn Trump’s approval again. As he considers his options—and, perhaps more importantly, the fate of the country—Kissinger’s return from the cold is a cautionary tale.

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In 1968, Kissinger, a member of Harvard University’s faculty, did not have much government experience. That did not mean he lacked strong opinions about how government should work, however. In a seminar at the University of California, Los Angeles that spring, Kissinger suggested that a president must, in his first four months, “give enough of a shake to the bureaucracy to indicate that he wants a new direction, and he must be brutal enough to demonstrate that he means it.”

Despite his inexperience and cold-blooded view of policymaking, Kissinger had his eyes on the White House. He had served as the principal foreign policy adviser to New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s Republican primary campaign. When Nixon won the GOP presidential nomination and then the general election, Kissinger—and just about everyone else—was surprised when the president-elect requested a meeting and promptly offered him the job of national security adviser.

Nixon and Kissinger found that they shared a realist worldview about both protecting America’s interests and managing the government. According to Kissinger’s memoirs, Nixon made clear in their first meetings that he wanted to “run foreign policy from the White House,” an approach Kissinger supported. Nixon worried more about opposition from liberals in the bureaucracy, especially the “impossible fags” at the State Department, as he called them, while Kissinger worried about supposedly lesser thinkers messing with coherent strategy.

Nixon charged Kissinger with establishing a “very exciting new procedure” for managing the bureaucracy. During the transition period, Kissinger devised a plan—what became known as the “coup d’état at the Hotel Pierre,” where the Nixon transition offices were in New York—that called on the national security adviser to replace the secretary of State as chair of key foreign policy meetings. After a few months in office, Nixon and Kissinger started ignoring the formal gatherings altogether and began working closely with just a handful of aides.

The duo’s primary focus in the administration’s first year was Vietnam. At one session that spring, Nixon told some members of the National Security Council staff that they could “handle the rest of the world,” according to one staffer’s recollection. The president then turned to Kissinger and said, “And you and I will end the war.”

Nixon was clear, as he said in a call with Kissinger, that the way to end a war that had dragged on for years was to “go hard.” Without involving the secretaries of State and Defense—or with them only reluctantly—Nixon and Kissinger tried to do just that. They arranged covert bombings in Cambodia, coordinated back-channel talks with the Soviet Union, and cooked up a secret ultimatum to present to North Vietnam and the military plans to make good on it.

But it was not an easy partnership. Despite sharing a worldview, distrust of the bureaucracy, and certain paranoid feelings with the president, Kissinger was not a natural Nixon man. The president and his inner circle, including White House chief of staff H.R. Haldeman, were staunchly conservative. According to recollections from aides and reporting, Kissinger, who was suspected of being more open-minded in his habits, ideas and friendships, worried about appearing too liberal or “soft.”

Kissinger’s government inexperience was also a problem. As one member of his staff indelicately put it, the national security adviser’s office was “like a Moroccan whorehouse, with people queuing up outside his door for hours.” That was partly by design: Kissinger wanted everything to run through him. But he was also “less at home as an administrator,” as one aide later admitted.

As the Vietnam War dragged on in 1969, Nixon was demonstrating a “growing intolerance” for Kissinger’s “attitudes and habits,” according to Haldeman’s contemporaneous notes. The national security adviser was “getting heat for his staff inefficiency.” The president and his team also did not like Kissinger’s relationships with perceived liberals on his staff or enemies in the media. And when foreign policy initiatives—like the secret channels to Moscow or the ultimatum to North Vietnam—did not pan out as planned, Kissinger tended to blame others, demand more authority or threaten to quit.

In the face of what Nixon considered the national security adviser’s tendency to overreact, he created a “Henry-Handling Committee,” which included Haldeman and a few others. Its task, according to Kissinger biographer Walter Isaacson, was to keep the national security adviser from blowing his top, or at least to keep the eruption away from Nixon. It was a novel bureaucratic technique, but such redirection tended to just make Kissinger, who was already insecure about access to the president, overreact even more.

On October 27, 1969, as Haldeman later wrote, the “problem came to a head.” In a meeting with the president, Kissinger started complaining again about Secretary of State William Rogers, who he feared was interfering with and jeopardizing ongoing diplomacy with the Soviet Union. Nixon promptly shut down the meeting, and the president told Haldeman that Kissinger’s obsession was “impairing his usefulness.” Although Haldeman and others in the White House sympathized with Kissinger’s concerns and valued him, they wondered whether he could continue with such outbursts.

Getting back in the president’s good graces was not easy, in part because Kissinger had shaken the government so hard. With little formal process and everything running through the national security adviser, Kissinger needed Nixon for power. In the coming months, Kissinger distanced himself from some staffers and agreed to wiretap others, according to Isaacson and journalist Seymour Hersh. Kissinger also empowered some aides who helped make him a more efficient bureaucratic competitor. And he worked to give Nixon the options to hit Vietnam hard, including the escalations that would come in the years ahead.

By the end of 1969, Kissinger was on better terms with Nixon and had a more powerful place in Washington, but he had scars to show for his first year in government. At a dinner with some colleagues and their wives, the national security adviser, according to Isaacson, reflected on the Nixon experience: “It would have been very different with Rockefeller,” he said. “So much more normal.”

Of course, the years ahead would be anything but normal. Kissinger grew in prestige, becoming the first and only national security adviser to serve simultaneously as secretary of State. Through it all, he abided and occasionally abetted as Nixon took his presidency over the edge; the wiretaps became Watergate, and the escalations in Vietnam proved incredibly destructive, both in Southeast Asia and in the United States.

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Since Kissinger, plenty of national security advisers have been on the outs with their presidents. President Ronald Reagan grew so frustrated with William “The Judge” Clark that he made him secretary of the Interior. James Jones was never a great fit for President Barack Obama. And neither of Trump’s first two advisers—Michael Flynn and H.R. McMaster—hung on long.

In some ways, Bolton tried to avoid his predecessor’s fates with bureaucratic expertise. Compared with his predecessors in the Trump White House and even with Kissinger in 1969, Bolton is a seasoned Washington player, one who considers himself a “good bureaucrat,” who knows the traps and how to lay them. Even if Bolton never shared all Trump’s policy preferences, he was well positioned to give the government a shake.

Within a year of becoming national security adviser, Bolton got rid of much of the regular order of meetings and memorandums that had become the Washington norm in the 50 years since Kissinger put the national security adviser at the center of the government. Bolton has preferred informal sessions, consulted with fewer players and, for a time, took advantage of his proximity to the president’s office. Bolton’s approach appeared to work well enough at first.

Yet after he repeatedly pushed a harder line this spring on North Korea, Iran and other issues, Trump made clear that the national security adviser did not always speak for him. In late June, Fox News host Tucker Carlson accompanied the president to the Korean Demilitarized Zone; Bolton traveled separately to Mongolia. By now, the break between Trump and Bolton has gone on so long—longer than Nixon and Kissinger’s—and so publicly, that the reports about the Afghanistan meeting were shocking but not surprising.

As good a bureaucrat as Bolton claims to be, he seems to have been hurt by breaking the process. He had few outlets or allies to turn to when Trump stopped listening to him. After Bolton made the NSC far less inclusive, someone got away with doing the same to him on Afghanistan. The savvy insider has learned one of the town’s oldest lessons, a lesson Kissinger learned the hard way, too: Once you break a process, it won’t be there to save you.

Now that Bolton has been sidelined, the question is not only what he can do to regain power, but also whether he has the stomach for it. The lesson in Kissinger’s comeback is that power comes with a cost. For now, Bolton appears to be staying true to his own beliefs, a path that might be more comfortable but is certainly not sustainable.

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