Shortly after Donald Trump announced the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, it was revealed that Gorsuch had picked a Henry Kissinger quotation to caption his 1988 Columbia yearbook photograph: “The illegal we do immediately, the unconstitutional takes a little longer.”
It’s an odd remark for someone whose primary credential is his supposed textual fidelity to the Constitution. But it makes sense, when one considers that Gorsuch hails from a family of political hacks, including a mother, Anne, who was Ronald Reagan’s first director of the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA, signed into law by Kissinger’s boss, Richard Nixon, was but a decade old when Anne Gorsuch took over and, through a combination of corruption, mismanagement, and Trump-style vindictiveness, nearly destroyed it. “Anne Gorsuch inherited one of the most efficient and capable agencies in government,” The New York Times wrote in early 1983. “She has turned it into an Augean stable, reeking of cynicism, mismanagement and decay.”
The EPA recovered, somewhat, after Gorsuch’s mom’s tenure, but it might not survive the twin blows of Scott Pruitt at its head and Gorsuch on the Supreme Court. Patience, patience, as Kissinger counseled. All good things in time.
Kissinger’s remark wasn’t a one-off but part of his routine, the urbane wit that gossip columnists and foreign-affairs journalists continue to swoon over. This particular joke was used to disarm reporters’ attention to Kissinger’s role in Watergate, which was substantial and should have brought him down along with Ehrlichman, Haldeman, and the rest. But compared with these charmless “Prussians,” Kissinger was practically Noël Coward. One of the first times “the illegal we do immediately” quip was printed in public, as far as I can tell, was when it was entered into the Congressional Record in 1973, in opposition to Kissinger’s nomination as Secretary of State (prior to that, as Nixon’s National Security Adviser, Kissinger hadn’t needed Congress’s consent): “joking about Watergate and the constitution…exemplifies his notorious lack of any capacity for moral leadership; per his reported statement: ‘The illegal we do immediately. The unconstitutional takes a little longer.’ Elitist, professional ‘humor’ such as this disqualifies for high office.”
A month later, on October 28, 1973, The New York Times was running it as part of a compendium of Kissinger humor, in a column titled “The Sayings of Henry Kissinger.” Recently, a declassified document reveals that Kissinger repeated the joke to Turkey’s foreign minister in 1975, as the two men discussed ways to bypass a Congressional ban on arms sales to Ankara. “Before the Freedom of Information Act, I used to say at meetings, ‘The illegal we do immediately; the unconstitutional takes a little longer.’ [laughter] But since the Freedom of Information Act, I’m afraid to say things like that.” By 1977, when Kissinger was leaving office, his well-wishers were quoting it back to him in tribute. Oh, that Henry!