So this is what it's come to: a president carries on a clandestine affair with an intern, and it's headline news every day for a year. But a secretary of state whispers sweet nothings to a violent dictator, and the mainstream media is bored to death.
Okay, so the story took place long ago and far away, on June 8, 1976, in Santiago, Chile. But it has its celebrities: Henry Kissinger, who was then U.S. secretary of state, and Chilean general Augusto Pinochet, whose government had a reputation for torturing and murdering its political opponents. And there's proof: Their tête-à-tête took place in front of witnesses, one of whom recorded it in a State Department memorandum.
Kissinger can only be described as sucking up to Pinochet. He dismissed U.S. complaints about Chilean torture and murder as "domestic problems" and promised to downplay the complaints in a speech scheduled for later that day (which he did). "In the United States, as you know, we are sympathetic with what you are trying to do here . . . . We wish your government well," he told Pinochet. Then he laid it on thick. "My evaluation is that you are a victim of all left-wing groups around the world and that your greatest sin was that you overthrew a government which was going Communist."
A different account appears in Years of Renewal, the third volume of Kissinger's memoirs, just published by Simon & Schuster. In it, Kissinger describes the tone of the meeting as far chillier than it is depicted in the memo and he fails to footnote the memo. One possible explanation for the sanitizing is that if Kissinger had denounced Pinochet's violent tendencies in June 1976, he might have prevented the assassination of former Chilean diplomat Orlando Letelier by Pinochet's secret police, which took place a few months later in Washington, D.C. Then again, he may still be protecting Pinochet. He admits in the book that he intentionally omitted any discussion of the current attempt to prosecute Pinochet for war crimes, but doesn't say why.
The sleazy flavor of their 1976 rendezvous might never have emerged, if not for Lucy Komisar, a New Yorkbased journalist who discovered the memo as part of her research for a book about U.S. foreign policy. Aware that the Santiago meeting had taken place, she filed a specific request for the memo in 1995. It was finally released to her in October.
That same month, Pinochet was arrested in London. Komisar wrote an article analyzing the memo and sent it to numerous publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New York Review of Books, Harper's, The Atlantic Monthly, Mother Jones, Rolling Stone, and The Nation. The response: a deafening silence. The New Republic held the story three weeks before passing. The New Yorker sent a note saying, "As we have only recently published a piece on Pinochet, it is too soon to return to the subject."
Komisar was disturbed by the lack of interest. "It raises questions about the news judgments of a lot of editors," she says. "They fill their pages with Monica and O.J. and Diana, but when it comes to something important about a person who is still playing a real, if unofficial, role in the world today I find it astonishing that they don't want to deal with it."
Komisar eventually gave up on U.S. media and sent queries to the London Observer and El País, the main daily paper in Spain. The reaction was swift. "I spoke to the Observer on Thursday and to El País on Friday," she says, "and both ran stories that Sunday [February 28]." Then she sent the story to the Pacific News Service, which broke the news in the U.S. on March 1.
That was the moment Peter Kornbluh was waiting for. Kornbluh, a senior analyst at the National Security Archive, writes about Chile for The Nation. In January, he obtained a copy of the memo in the course of his own research, but out of respect for Komisar chose not to write about it until she published her story in the U.S. After Kornbluh got a copy of the Kissinger book, he fired off a quick piece, comparing the official account of the Pinochet rendezvous with the sanitized account Kissinger offers in his book.
In his Nation piece of March 29, now out, Kornbluh writes that Kissinger's account of the rendezvous was less than candid. In a new and unpublished piece, Komisar accuses Kissinger of presenting a "selective and distorted" version of the meeting; for example, she says, Kissinger describes Pinochet as exhibiting "no special warmth," while the memo describes the general as "grateful" to his U.S. visitors.
So now the story has made its way up the food chain to The Nation. But that's still a far cry from the mainstream. As Kornbluh points out, just because editors might not have wanted to buy Komisar's account, they don't have an excuse for ignoring the story. "Any news editor worth his salt should have read that piece in the London Observer and tried to get the document and done a story on it," he says.
Meanwhile, the mainstream media have been laying wreaths at Kissinger's feet. Years of Renewal was excerpted in the March 15 issue of Time, which declared the book "worth the wait." In her 60 Minutes interview with Kissinger that aired March 7, Lesley Stahl threw only softballs. But then again, in this age of access journalism, who wants to be a bomb-thrower? It doesn't make you any friends. Back in 1976, when the Voice published the "Pike Papers," which were leaked documents from a congressional investigation of the CIA, Kissinger himself accused the Voice of distortion and of fomenting a "new" McCarthyism.
This time around, Kissinger did not return calls for comment.
Elizabeth Wurtzel, the 31-year-old author of Prozac Nation and Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women, recently published an op-ed in The New York Times explaining that when she was in college, she could have used a lot more discipline. But no matter how much she may want to be spanked, the wild child probably wasn't expecting the dressing-down she got at the Tenth Street Lounge on March 8.
That night, some 150 people, mostly young women, packed into the East Village bar to hear nine women writers read the work of other women writers. When it came Wurtzel's turn, she stood up and introduced the work she had been assigned to read, Flying by Kate Millett.
"Can you hear me?" she asked. When voices called out no, she sneered, "That's okay. It wasn't her finest moment." Hissing and booing ensued, whereupon she said, "Don't get me wrong. I'm a fan of hers, it's just that this work isn't her best." Then she began reading, stopping at one point to explain that the two people involved "seemed to have had a fucked-up relationship."
Suddenly, a voice boomed out from the audience. "Get down from there! I wrote that piece! I know how to read that piece!" It was Kate Millett herself, the author of the classic Sexual Politics, who is 64 and, by her own admission, flat broke. Long gray hair flowing, Millett grabbed the book out of the stunned girl's hands and finished the reading herself.
When she finished, the audience broke into applause. "Everyone just went, 'Oh, my God,' " says one woman who was there. "It was exciting and it was heavy." Then again, many women in the crowd were conflicted. On the one hand, Millett took control of a situation that she didn't like but what ever happened to sisterhood?
Wurtzel and Millett did not respond to a request to comment. But the story is so good that one of them is sure to write about it, or maybe it will appear in an upcoming book about intergenerational feminism by Amelia Richards and Jennifer Baumgardner, who organized the event.
How come all the twentysomethings get the book deals? Freelance writer Lucinda Rosenfeld, 29, has sold her first novel to Random House editor Daniel Menaker. Says Menaker, "It's a series of scenes in a woman's life starting with late grade school up to the age of 25, each of them an encounter with a different boy or man. It's really good. It's not meant to be erotic or pornographic. The scenes have as much humor as sex, as much melancholy as humor, and as much insight as any of those things."
Rosenfeld, who has written for the likes of Elle, Harper's Bazaar, and The New York Times Magazine, says it happened out of the blue: she was trying to find a copy of a book that Menaker edited. She called Random House, expecting to speak to Menaker's assistant, got him on the phone instead, and then dropped by the office to get the book. As she was leaving, "I mumbled something about how I was writing a book," whereupon he asked her to send him 50 pages. Maria Massie, of Witherspoon Associates, handled the deal.
Jake Tapper, a senior writer for the Washington City Paper who just turned 30, got famous last year when he wrote about his date with Monica Lewinsky. And now he's back. St. Martin's is about to publish Tapper's first book, an unauthorized biography of Jesse Ventura, and Salon has hired him as the new D.C. beat reporter.
"They're going to give me a laptop and point me to Capitol Hill," says Tapper, who calls himself more storyteller than pundit. He says that Salon editor David Talbot was impressed with recent cover stories Tapper wrote on Mike Tyson and journalist-pornography trader Larry Matthews. Then, when Tapper met with Talbot and news editor Joan Walsh last month, he says, "Everyone was in the same place professionally. We got in a circle and sang 'Kum-ba-yah.' "
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