Scathing re-examination leaves Kissinger tarnished, but not demolished, The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House, by Seymour M. Hersh. New York: Summit Books. 698 pp. $19.95.
The publication of Mr. Hersh's book once more proves what history has often shown - that even a cult hero as exalted as Henry Kissinger cannot enthrall indefinitely without provoking an agnostic response. In spite of Mr. Kissinger's impressive intellectual qualities and the at least transient success of some of his major diplomatic operations, it should by now be evident that he has been accorded excessive adulation - and reveled in it. A reappraisal was bound to come sooner or later.
The Hersh book does not deal with the virtues or shortcomings of Mr. Kissinger's policies but concentrates on his motives, methods, and style. As a polemic, it is one-sided and marred by overkill. Since the author's undisguised objective was to destroy the Kissinger myth, he inherently faced a difficult choice. Were Hersh to limit the book to the most important incidents, he could not prove the persistent pattern of conduct he was seeking to demonstrate; so he undertook to establish that pattern through the cumulative effect of piling detail on detail, and in that process blunted the sharp edge of his indictment. Although, as a result, the book is somewhat tiresome to read, only the most devoted of the cultists can shrug off the cumulative impact of Hersh's relentless recital.
No doubt Hersh's portrait of Henry Kissinger is as distorted on one side as is the cultists' icon on the other. But that does not destroy its utility. Kissinger's apologia in the form of two thick volumes and Hersh's massive single volume now so effectively bracket the target that future historians should find it far easier to fix a median trajectory.
Mr. Hersh's book covers only the initial phase of Kissinger's diplomatic ascendency, his role as national security adviser during the first Nixon administration, 1969-73. As described by Hersh, that period has a Gothic fascination, bringing into lurid relief the grotesque decadence of the Nixon White House. That dark assemblage did not, as some have suggested, resemble a Byzantine court; it was more bizarre.
An absolute Byzantine ruler could permit his courtiers to maneuver and jockey in a mood of relaxed indifference; but Nixon, disdaining the constraints of his own legitimacy, was bedeviled by a siege mentality that drove him not only to obsessive deception and concealment from the outside world but inspired a paranoiac fear of treachery by conniving henchmen. Thus, the suspicion that led to such Orwellian excesses as wiretapping gave the Nixon court a sinister atmosphere of furtiveness, conspiracy, and deviousness incompatible with Western democracy.
That Henry Kissinger not only survived but flourished in such an atmosphere proved his extraordinary virtuosity; yet the costs of that effort have not yet been fully tabulated. Future historians will neither overlook nor forgive his acquiescence in Nixon's reckless, cruel, and somewhat outrageous caprices and strategems - such as the ''madman theory,'' the Cambodian invasion, and the shameful Christmas bombing. Nor will they ignore his flattery and dissembling that far exceeded what was traditionally expected of even the most assiduous courtier.
It is an interesting conjecture whether the fact that Kissinger gained his first on-the-job training as a diplomat while operating outside the system permanently shaped his diplomatic habits and biases. How differently might he have behaved, had he been able from the beginning to regard the State Department as an instrument of his nation's diplomacy rather than an enemy to be outflanked and outmaneuvered? In that event, I doubt he would have shown such manifest disdain of the department when he came to preside over it. It is even possible that, had he been accustomed to using traditional diplomatic methods, he would have eschewed certain of the more egocentric aspects of his well-publicized diplomacy.
In spite of Herculean efforts, Seymour Hersh has by no means demolished Kissinger. Shining intermittently through the smudged lens of the Hersh book is the vision of a man of extraordinary capabilities, with keen insights and an exceptional gift for pithy formulation. If Moliere's Monsieur Jourdain spoke in prose, Kissinger speaks in aphorisms, and his writings should be a godsend for compilers of books of quotations in the years ahead.
Although narrowly aimed at an individual, Hersh's book is equally - if not more - important for the larger lessons it implies. Most of all, it vividly shows the danger of a practice that could well become an insidious obstacle to coherent American policy: the installation as national security adviser of an academic lusting to put his theories to the test. That has occurred on two occasions in recent administrations - first under Richard Nixon, then under Jimmy Carter. Though the cynical may be tempted to recall Karl Marx's observation that ''all great incidents and individuals of world history occur . . . twice, . . . the first time as tragedy, the second as farce,'' some inexperienced future president may still be conned into a third disastrous repetition.
Meanwhile, as recent events suggest, the world has by no means seen the last of Henry Kissinger, for he is above all a brilliant survivor. He was in many ways the single greatest beneficiary of Watergate. During an anguished period when the nation felt shamed by the squalid conduct of Nixon and his coterie, Kissinger's vivid diplomacy provided Americans a compensating sense of pride. Since then, during seven years out of power, he has shown a remarkable flair for maintaining himself as a personality.
Today even that may be changing. By a carefully calibrated series of policy accommodations - including an astonishing role in sabotaging SALT II, which he had helped to create - he seems well on his way to appeasing the Republican right wing. So, if Reagan is reelected, who can tell? The cult still breathlessly awaits the ''second coming.''