A note to our readers: In the process of assigning this post, we were informed that its author, historian Greg Grandin, was having his own Kissinger biography reviewed by the New York Times Book Review. While we were not informed of the date that the review would be appearing, it turns out to be in the same edition of the New York Times Book Review in which Roberts’ essay appears. In its review, the Times described Grandin’s work as a “fresh argument that, although more provocative than convincing, amounts to one of the most innovative attacks on Kissinger’s record and legacy.” This was relevant information that should have been included in the post, especially in a discussion of the ethics around writers’ conflicts of interest. We should have inquired with Grandin as to the timing of the review of his book and reported that fact in the post, and we apologize for failing to do so.
This Sunday, the New York Times Book Review will publish a review of the first volume of Niall Ferguson’s authorized biography of Henry Kissinger, Kissinger: The Idealist. The reviewer is Andrew Roberts.
Roberts brings an unusual level of familiarity to the subject: It was Roberts whom Kissinger first asked, before turning to Ferguson, to write his authorized biography. In other words, the New York Times is having Kissinger’s preferred authorized biographer review Kissinger’s authorized biography.
He had previously, through his friendship with Henry Kissinger, been offered the job of writing his official biography, but faced with the 30 tons of material in the former secretary of state’s archive and his reluctance to employ researchers – preferring to sift himself – he passed it by. Niall Ferguson has now taken the job. [Says Roberts:] “Niall is a tenured professor and has a team of researchers – he’s also, and I’m the first to admit it, far, far cleverer than I am and will do a wonderful job.”
And now, in the New York Times, Roberts has confirmed his own forecast: If the second volume ends up being as good as he finds the first, Ferguson’s biography will be, Roberts says, a “masterpiece.”
Oh, and Roberts isn’t just close to the subject of the book he is reviewing. He has also been, for a quarter-century, a friend of the book’s author. In a 2006 profile of Ferguson, “The Empire Rebuilder,” The Guardian pointed out that Roberts, who is quoted calling Ferguson “the brightest historian of his generation,” might be “a little biased,” because Roberts had been, at that point, Ferguson’s “friend of 15 years.”
The Times, too, normally checks those things. When I’m approached about reviewing books there, I’m usually asked if I know the author or have a conflict of interest.
My friend Corey Robin had a relevant experience. When his book The Reactionary Mind was coming out in 2011, the Times contacted a widely respected intellectual historian to review it. The potential reviewer didn’t know Corey personally or professionally. Although they had never met, Corey had begun blogging that year, and he and the would-be reviewer began exchanging occasional comments on sites like Facebook. Minimal as the relationship was, the Times nixed the reviewer because of their putative entanglement.
Last May, the Times’ public editor, Margaret Sullivan, weighed in on the topic: How close a connection between reviewer and author (and in this case, between author, reviewer, and subject) is too close a connection? “It’s fine if readers disagree with our reviews,” the Times Book Review editor Pamela Paul told Sullivan, “but they should not distrust them.”
Paul also explained that the Book Review sometimes picks reviewers with strong opinions on the book’s subject, who might be able to write an engaging, provocative essay. Fair enough: writers with opinions are more interesting than those who hold to a “on the one hand, on the other” style. Still, it’s a “tricky challenge,” Paul said, “to get someone informed but not entrenched.”
A spokesperson for the New York Times offered the following statement to Gawker, on behalf of Pamela Paul:
“We always ask our reviewers about any potential conflict of interest, as we define it, and disclose any possible conflicts in the review if necessary. In this particular case, we asked Andrew Roberts and were satisfied with his assurances that no conflicts of interest existed that would sway his review one way or the other.”
The Times might as well have asked Kissinger to review his own biography. Or, better, Ferguson himself, since, along with Roberts, there’s not a nano-difference between the three men, at least when it comes to controversies about war. Like Ferguson and Kissinger, Roberts was an early advocate for a military invasion of Iraq. Kissinger supported torturers in Latin America; Roberts “approves,” according to The Economist, “of American support for some vile regimes and ghastly civil wars in Latin America.” Roberts also advocates torturing the West’s current enemies: “the defense of liberty requires making some pretty unpalatable decisions, but it was ever thus.”
So how is the review itself? Contrary to the bet that an opinionated yet informed expert might turn in an exciting piece, Roberts’s essay is ponderous, and, if possible, even more hagiographic than the authorized biography itself.
“Kissinger’s official biographer,” writes the man Kissinger first asked to be his official biographer, “certainly gives the reader enough evidence to conclude that Henry Kissinger is one of the greatest Americans in the history of the republic, someone who has been repulsively traduced over several decades and who deserved to have a defense of this comprehensiveness published years ago.”
Let me be clear: I think it would be totally legitimate if, say, Ferguson, with his well-known conservative politics, were to review my new, critical book on Kissinger. That might indeed make for an engaging, fun debate; readers would know where author and reviewer stand. However, asking Roberts to review Ferguson, without acknowledging their connections, not to mention Roberts’ history with Kissinger, is a trench too far.
Thus a new genre is born: the authorized review of the authorized biography.
Greg Grandin teaches history at New York University. He is the author of Fordlandia, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, and The Empire of Necessity, which won the Bancroft Award in American History. His new book is Kissinger’s Shadow: The Long Reach of America’s Most Controversial Statesman.