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Writing an obituary for a war criminal: Q+A with journalist Spencer Ackerman

We talk about his viral piece on the life and death of Henry Kissinger.

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When Henry Kissinger died last week at the age of 100, there seemed to be a nearly-universal feeling of joy. Or at the very least, catharsis. And nowhere were those feelings summed up better than journalist Spencer Ackerman’s obituary of the late statesman for Rolling Stone, titled “Henry Kissinger, War Criminal Beloved by America’s Ruling Class, Finally Dies.” 

In his piece, Ackerman quotes Yale historian and Kissinger biographer Greg Grandin as estimating Kissinger’s actions during the Nixon and Ford administrations, “meant the end of between three and four million people.” People in Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Chile, East Timor and Bangladesh, among many others, felt the direct impact of his maniacal foreign policy.

Aside from fellow war criminals and the New York Yankees, few seemed to mourn the former Secretary of State’s passing. But that didn’t stop right wing media from getting their boxers in a bundle. The Daily Mail published a piece called, “Rolling Stone dances on Henry Kissinger's grave with brutal 'good riddance' headline,” and Fox News declared, “Rolling Stone, other liberal outlets jubilant over Kissinger's death at age 100.” Those pieces, it should be noted, do not provide any factual basis to dispute Ackerman’s assessment of Kissinger.

“There are some people whose deaths come as a relief, and sometimes they come as a relief because justice was never served for the acts of such a person,” Ackerman told me. “And relief is the closest thing to justice that people will experience.”

I spoke to Ackerman by phone on Friday about the art of headline writing, TikTok interpretations of his work, and how he may have accidentally prolonged Kissinger’s life. He is the author of the book Reign of Terror: How The 9/11 Era Destabilized America And Produced Trump, and has reported on the War on Terror since 2002. He publishes a twice-weekly newsletter called Forever Wars. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

MARISA KABAS, THE HANDBASKET: So, how did you actually find out that Kissinger died?

SPENCER ACKERMAN: Oh, my wife came running into the room with her phone out and shaking [it] to show me whatever notification it was.

KABAS: What was your initial reaction?

ACKERMAN: I can finally get paid?

KABAS: Tell me a little bit more about that.

ACKERMAN: When you write an obituary, you don't get paid until the piece runs. So this has been something that I had filed in the middle of 2022, and had not and could not be paid for until Henry Kissinger died. So, some financial reasoning took over in the moment.

KABAS: After that initial reaction passed, did the reality hit you? Like, wow, he's actually dead?

ACKERMAN: No, it didn't. The next thing was to message Noah Shachtman, the editor of Rolling Stone who commissioned that piece, and be like, “The boy really kicked it! Like, it's time! Do you still have the piece? Who needs access? How can I be helpful?” And it turned out, as is typical, Noah was already well aware and had the publication machinery in motion.

Ackerman mentions how Kissinger’s death was announced by his consulting firm.

KABAS: What did you think of that?

ACKERMAN: I thought it was an extremely Kissinger way to die. 

In 2003 or 2004, Kissinger was supposed to chair the 9/11 commission, which at the time was something of a political threat to George W. Bush. And so the appointment was seen as a way of ensuring that Bush would bear no responsibility for 9/11 because Henry Kissinger of all people is not going to draw that conclusion. And Kissinger surprised everyone by saying that he couldn't do that because it was quite possible that the client list from Kissinger Associates [his consulting firm] would pose a conflict of interest with the inquiry into the circumstances of 9/11. And he wasn't going to disclose his client list, perish the thought that we know who's paying Henry Kissinger, let alone what conflict of interest they have. I mean, we can probably conclude this is the Saudis with the inquiry into the circumstances underlying 9/11. And so he just doesn't do it.

And so it made a certain kind of poetic sense that it would be his consulting firm announcing his death rather than, I don't know, his family or something like that.

KABAS: I'm curious about the headline on this piece. Was that from you, or was it collaborative?

ACKERMAN: I wrote that. So for readers who don't know, reporters almost never write their headlines. Like, this is a prerogative of editors. So that means you, the reader, don't know who wrote a headline—even though we know how influential headlines are in journalism. It's an insane, and I don't think defensible, convention. But it's the convention, nevertheless. I had just gotten in the habit, whether I was filing a piece when I was on staff somewhere or as a freelance piece, of just writing a suggested head and deck [the sentence right below the headline], because, like, what do you have to lose?

I've worked with Noah [Shachtman] for like 13 years, and we’ve been friends for an extremely long time. I've worked for him at two different jobs. I know his headline style, like what we can do and not do. When you write your own head and deck, it's also an exercise and you sharpening what this piece is. And if you look at the [Kissinger] headline, I cash out every word of that headline. 

We know this is a story about Henry Kissinger. This is a story that talks about a war criminal, and this is a story that talks about how American elites for the half century that followed treated him as a titan of American statecraft. As a towering man of the age. Kissinger was famous for most of his life: Just this year, his 100th birthday party was attended by the Secretary of State, the USAID administrator, the guy who owns the New England Patriots. Like, that was at The Met. And also the sense that he is finally dead, that this man had lived so long and had such an impact on the 20th and now 21st centuries. And as you go across the headline, you see the various act breaks in the piece.

KABAS: You bring up something really interesting. I'm sure a lot of people read that headline and they were like, oh, Rolling Stone is just trying to be shocking and edgy. But it's like, no, actually you meant every single word of that headline. It really makes you look at the way we write headlines. Like, are we doing it for effect or is it just getting to the truth of the matter?

ACKERMAN: I like those kinds of headlines where it seems like it's a provocation, but then it turns out it's not; because what the piece is doing is showing you and not telling you that this is the way to understand Kissinger, his legacy and his reception. We did one that got a fair amount of controversy at the time for the Daily Beast in 2021 when Donald Rumsfeld died. It was something like, “Donald Rumsfeld, Killer of 400,000 People, Dies Peacefully.”

KABAS: And has the reaction to the Kissinger one been similar to the reaction to the Rumsfeld one?

ACKERMAN: No, just because this piece—it's weird to say it like this, but this piece was really big in a way that the Rumsfeld piece, if you didn't like it, you just sort of rolled your eyes at it and moved on. If you were in certain national security circles and were mad about it, you expressed that, and let me know, in some cases. But the Kissinger on—Fox news attacked us in multiple segments. The Daily Mail ran a piece about how appalling this was.

And then also just the reaction to this on social media has been really enormous. I'm not on Tik Tok. People who are on TikTok were showing me Tik Toks that were made involving the piece.

KABAS: Were they arguing on the substance of the piece? Or were they saying like, actually Kissinger was not a bad person?

ACKERMAN: I’ve seen people [on TikTok] treating it as everything from validation to catharsis: that amid the inevitably euphemistic and laudatory obituaries of Kissinger, there was this alternative recitation of some of his major and least forgivable infamies. And they would give specifics as well as a moral context for understanding Henry Kissinger.

KABAS: So in a way, a lot of people were learning about him for maybe the first time.

ACKERMAN: I don't know if I can say that, but I think people were sharing it for particular lines they liked. Also I had some people react to me saying things like, “my family were Cambodian refugees.” And it was validating to see a piece that just ran through Kissinger's rather direct responsibility to the past that brought them there. I got other people who appreciated the piece referencing the US-supported genocide that Pakistan inflicted upon Bangladesh.

KABAS: And I was curious, what did you think of Biden's statement on Kissinger’s death?

ACKERMAN: I mean, he can't tweet, “RIP bozo.” But for someone in his position, it was pretty much that. At a moment when he’s given a now regretful-seeming carte blanche to Israel to destroy Gaza and make it uninhabitable for Palestinians, he at least wasn't going to be caught saying something like “my friend Henry Kissinger,” like Hillary Clinton did.

KABAS: So you think the fact that it happened in the midst of, of the war in Israel and Palestine had a big impact on how he approached this high profile death

ACKERMAN: I would expect so. He’s pretty cognizant of the opprobrium much of the world is rightly putting on the United States for supporting Israel in its war on Gaza right now.

KABAS: Kissinger's death was maybe the first high profile death where so many people felt really comfortable expressing positive feelings about it. But there’ve been a lot of really bad people who died. And I was wondering where you thought that freedom to, for lack of a better word, celebrate now came from?

ACKERMAN: It came from, I think, people recognizing that Kissinger isn't unique, but he is exemplary in terms of the bloodshed he inflicted and sponsored under the guise of statecraft. And with the justification of preserving and expanding American global power economically, geopolitically, militarily. And I think people were also seeing him as a symbol of all of these aspects of American foreign policy that they consider disgusting and intolerable. And when they were celebrating the death of Henry Kissinger, that's what they were really inveighing against rather than him specifically. 

I had a conversation with my daughter who was like, “Why are people excited? So are you happy that this guy died?” And I was trying to talk about it in terms that I wanted her to take away from this. That it is a bad habit of the soul to celebrate anyone's death. But that emerges from our understanding of our humanity, what we owe to one another, the basic respect and dignity in viewing human lives as precious and in viewing them as valuable. And that's a contract. And there are gonna be some people, like Henry Kissinger, who break that contract at grand scale, and you don't have to be sad when someone like that dies. You can feel relieved. You don't want, in general, to be happy when people die. That is not a good way of being that will ultimately hurt you more than it will hurt them. But there are some people whose deaths come as a relief, and sometimes they come as a relief because justice was never served for the acts of such a person. And relief is the closest thing to justice that people will experience.

KABAS: Just one last question. Why did you start writing the obituary in mid-2022? Did you just have this feeling it was coming?

ACKERMAN: Well, it occurred to Noah [Schactman] in late 2021 that at some point, probably not in the far future, Henry Kissinger is going to die. And Rolling Stone magazine ought to be prepared for that. So he reached out to me and I was, of course, honored and psyched to be the guy who gets to write Henry Kissinger's Rolling Stone obituary. Big shoes to fill in terms of Rolling Stone and the senior figures of the Nixon era and eulogizing them. 

I worked on this one for months. I had this experience that I'm sure for other observers of Henry Kissinger know, was a unique and unpleasant one as I was writing it; because suddenly I had to wake up every day that I wasn't done with it and think to myself, “I really hope Henry Kissinger survives today because he can't die before I'm done with this.” And so, thank you to Henry Kissinger for that at least.

KABAS: So you're saying you actually prolonged his life in a way. With your thoughts.

ACKERMAN: It turned out I felt so powerfully that I accidentally propelled him to another year and a half of existence.

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