December 16, 2002 12:00 PM

He’s short, squat and pushing 80, with an unshakable German accent. He has won the Nobel Peace Prize, but others have accused him of war crimes. He was Joe DiMaggio’s hero and he dated Jill St. John. And even though he hasn’t served in government since the Ford Administration, Henry Kissinger retains a mystique that can make the Washington wonks go weak in the knees. “After 30 years,” says political scholar Norman Ornstein, “he’s still public policy’s equivalent of a rock star.”

Now the Manhattanite who coined the phrase “power is the great aphrodisiac” is back in the hot seat. On Nov. 27 President Bush tapped his fellow Republican to lead a bipartisan commission looking into intelligence lapses before 9/11. “I was very honored,” says Kissinger, 79, who heads the group with Democrat George Mitchell, the former Senator from Maine, as vice chairman. “It gives me an opportunity to contribute to the reconciliation of a great tragedy.”

Predictably the appointment sparked loud cheering from the right. “I can’t think of a better person,” says Kissinger’s fellow ex-Secretary of State Alexander Haig, 78. “He’s America’s preeminent foreign policy expert.” Some prominent Democrats agree—Florida Sen. Bob Graham, for instance, commended Kissinger’s “great depth of experience [and] wisdom.” But for many the return of Kissinger seems like a bad flashback. “It’s an insult to the victims of 9/11,” says Christopher Hitchens, whose book The Trial of Henry Kissinger finds Kissinger guilty of Vietnam-era war crimes. “He shouldn’t be investigating international terrorism but on the stand as the accused.”

Other critics claim Kissinger has a conflict of interest because of close ties, developed during a long career as an international business consultant, to several Middle Eastern regimes. Kissinger has refused to release a list of his clients, but White House Press secretary Ari Fleischer staunchly defended the ex-diplomat’s ethics, accusing opponents of “fighting old wars.”

Old wars may haunt Heinz Alfred Kissinger until the end of his days. The oldest son of Orthodox Jews Louis, a schoolteacher, and Paula, he grew up in the Bavarian town of Fürth, Germany. After Hitler took power, the family settled in New York City, where Kissinger attended night school at City College arid worked in a brush factory. In 1943 he was drafted into the Army, where his fluent German landed him in the Counter Intelligence Corps.

When World War II ended, Kissinger went to Harvard, where he earned a doctorate and landed a teaching post. An expert on nuclear weapons, he served as a foreign policy adviser to Presidents Johnson and Nixon, who named him National Security Adviser and Secretary of State; Kissinger held down both jobs under Gerald Ford after Nixon resigned over the Watergate scandal. “Henry is a workaholic,” says Haig. At the same time, Kissinger, who had divorced first wife Ann Fleischer in 1964 (the pair had two children, Elizabeth, 43, a doctor, and David, 41, a television executive), developed an unlikely reputation as a swinging bachelor, escorting the likes of St. John, Marlo Thomas and Liv Ullmann to clubs and premieres. Kissinger finally settled down to wed socialite Nancy Maginnes in 1974. The pair share a Park Avenue apartment and count among their close friends Barbara Walters and William F. Buckley Jr.

Since leaving Washington, Kissinger has earned millions as an author and international political consultant. But he has also been dogged by allegations of skulduggery during his time in office. Attacked for encouraging the secret bombing of Cambodia in 1969 and ’70, Kissinger has also been accused of assisting in the assassination of Chilean President Salvador Allende Gossens in 1973 and in “Operation Condor,” a covert South American campaign of kidnapping, murder and torture of left-wing activists. Judges in Paris and Buenos Aires have all requested that Kissinger appear before their courts in investigations relating to Condor—and while so far he has avoided such summonses, he reportedly consults lawyers before traveling. Says Hitchens: “He’s a wanted guy internationally.” Kissinger’s legal woes were further complicated in September 2001, when relatives of Chilean Gen. Rene Schneider filed suit against him in federal court, alleging that he had a role in Schneider’s death at the hands of the Chilean military.

Characteristically poker-faced amid the storm, Kissinger says his panel has daunting work in front of it, analyzing military, intelligence and immigration factors that may have aided the 9/11 terrorists. “It’s a huge task,” he concedes. Regardless of what one thinks of Kissinger, few would dispute that his resurrection should prove anything but dull. “Henry is always going to be a controversial figure,” says Ornstein. “But he’s masterful intellectually and still has an aura about him. You can look at others who’ve been out of office and still have that aura and count them on one hand.”

J.D. Heyman

J. Todd Foster in Washington, D.C.

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