Shadow Government

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Henry Kissinger remembers Peter Rodman

By Christian Brose This is apropos of nothing whatsoever. Last night, I started reading Peter Rodman‘s posthumously published Presidential Command. If I had been thinking of the idea for this blog last year, when Rodman was still alive, he definitely would have been on the list of people I would have begged to join our ...

By Christian Brose

By Christian Brose

This is apropos of nothing whatsoever.

Last night, I started reading Peter Rodman‘s posthumously published Presidential Command. If I had been thinking of the idea for this blog last year, when Rodman was still alive, he definitely would have been on the list of people I would have begged to join our little group project here. I respected Rodman’s work, but I never knew him. Henry Kissinger did, though, having hired him first and then mentored him for years. As I read Kissinger’s eulogy of his old friend, which is published as the introduction to Rodman’s book, it was so perfect and moving that I found myself reading parts of it aloud to my wife (who was thrilled, trust me).

Here’s an example:

Peter had a wicked sense of humor…. One of his specialties was to produce spoofs of option papers. One such effort concerned John Downey, who had been imprisoned in China since the early 1950s. After Nixon’s opening to Beijing, I asked Chou En-lai to release Downey on compassionate grounds so that he could see his mother one last time. When Ford became President, Peter concocted a spoof option paper with the following theme: 

Chou En-lai had released Downey based on our representation that his mother was dying. The mother did not die, generating a credibility problem for the United States. The President, according to Peter, therefore had the following options, in ascending order of severity: (a) He could apologize for Mrs. Downey’s survival and offer unspecified compensation; (b) He could send Downey back to China; (c) He could turn the whole matter over to the CIA.

Shortly after Ford had succeeded Nixon, I slipped Peter’s memorandum into a number of genuine option papers Ford was considering in my presence. When Ford came to Peter’s paper, I noticed he grew red in the face, saying “no” with increasing vehemence until it was nearly a shout at the last option.

And more seriously, there’s this:

In an increasingly narcissistic age, while many of his contemporaries analyzed themselves and their motives with rapt fascination, Peter helped sustain the nation by unobtrusive commitment to the cause of freedom fought in the trenches of the bureaucracy and the battlefields of diplomacy. Peter sought fulfillment, not glory. He served to do, not to be.

Not for Peter was the debate between idealism and realism. He had seen that the key governmental decisions were close, 49.5 to 50.5 percent, and that serious people were seeking to solve them. A grasp of circumstances was essential. Yet, by themselves, experts of circumstance inspire paralysis, not direction. Events cannot be shaped, nor challenges overcome, without faith in fundamental values. The highest task of a public servant is to take his or her society from where it is to where it has never been. This implies the courage to face complexity, the character to act when the outcome is still ambiguous. For Peter, the issue of courage did not arise because he perceived no alternative to pursuing his duty. And character was inherent, requiring no affirmation.

Peter was much too modest to have put his role into words as these. The fact remains that the nation has lost one of its sentinels, all the more indispensable for never having made that claim for himself.

Just a little reminder of what an amazing person Rodman was — and of how Henry Kissinger may be an even better writer than he was a statesman. Read the whole thing.

Christian Brose is a senior editor at Foreign Policy. He served as chief speechwriter and policy advisor for U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice from 2005 to 2008, and as speechwriter for former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell from 2004 to 2005.

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