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Opinion | What the world did wrong with Donald Rumsfeld

I tell this story because it shows that despite Rumsfeld’s portrayal as a shrewd or ruthless DC agent – which was common during his reign and will be common in his obituaries – ours was far from the typical transactional Washington relationship, and he was far was far from being a typical Washington boss.

In all of our 17 years together, I was one of the lucky few who had the opportunity to meet Donald Henry Rumsfeld, the youngest and second oldest Secretary of Defense in our history, from all sides. I saw the good, the less good, and the complicated. As his collaborator on his memoir, I read all of the memos and notes he had written up until his time in Congress in the 1960s. As his editor-in-chief at the Pentagon, I traveled with him to more than 40 countries and learned his rather tricky grammar rules (the word “very” was unnecessary and therefore forbidden). As his friend, I spoke to him hundreds of times on matters big and small – from using a pedometer to the reality of UFOs (“I’m not answering that!”) To his admiration for the liberal Adlai Stevenson. I even helped him a little bit to become an app developer at the age of 80 by adapting an online version of a solitaire card game that was once played by Winston Churchill.

For many who ponder the life of Don Rumsfeld in the coming days, predictably and in some ways understandably, will focus on his final years in the public service – as the embattled Secretary of Defense of George W. Bush during the worst days of the Iraq war, a sensational moment with serious consequences, which unfortunately was his last major appearance on the public stage. But to see him only through this lens is a disservice to him and to the history that he has helped shape for decades.

Don Rumsfeld was one of the most momentous figures of the past 50 years. As a moderate Republican Congressman from Illinois, he advocated civil rights legislation and a bourgeois political style against the extremes of his party. He turned himself to LBJ over the lies about the Vietnam War. As an official in the Nixon administration, he tried to get the fight against poverty going as the director of the Office of Economic Opportunity, which was founded as part of the Great Society of LBJ. A former protégé of Nixon who criticized the scorched earth tactics of some high-ranking aides, he was thrown into exile in Europe – where he luckily stayed out of the crossfire when a massive scandal took root.

President Gerald Ford is rightly recognized for erecting the ship of state to Watergate. But it was the man he turned to as his chief of staff, his old congressional friend Don Rumsfeld, whom he could rely on to hold the nuts and bolts of this ship together. Later, as Ford’s youngest Secretary of Defense, he supported a Reagan-style military buildup against the Soviets that hastened the end of the Cold War. And it was Don Rumsfeld that George W. Bush called back to the Pentagon decades later, where he reformed and modernized the Department of Defense while waging two wars and responding to the worst attack on our homeland in our history. He was the most powerful agent in government when things went well; his heat shield and shock absorber when things went bad. And he never complained.

Well, except once.

After he resigned as Secretary of Defense, I flew into Kansas with him and Joyce to speak. They were in a happy mood as they were often in each other’s presence. Their love affair began in high school and lasted – again atypical for Washington – for over 70 years. But I didn’t feel jovial.

I told him I resented Bob Woodwards’ media attacks on him, and repeated the customary wisdom that the man they all had once praised and admired in the early happy days of the Bush administration was now the villain to whom almost all of the blame must be attributed. They blamed him for pushing for the invasion of Iraq in the first place (regime change had been official US policy since the late 1990s, and numerous Democrats and Republicans in Congress demanded and voted to approve Saddam Hussein’s removal, if so there is guilt in this regard? it is a collective). They accused him of claiming there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq (a claim also made by the Clintons, foreign leaders with their own intelligence agencies, foreign policy experts like Joe Biden, Colin Powell, to the UN, who is the intelligence agency itself and by almost all experts who would later pretend they hadn’t said that). They blamed him for listening to “his” generals at the same time and then not listening to them. It was Don Rumsfeld’s curse that he was known as such a strategic thinker and tough manager (his Rumsfeld’s Rules of Management had become a DC legend); people assumed he was responsible for everything.

Of course he was not to blame for the Iraq war and its leadership. These are arguments that we will all outlive. But it wasn’t true either that it was just his idea to invade Iraq – constitutionally it wasn’t even his decision – and it certainly wasn’t his plan to stay there forever. Privately, he did not believe that the Middle East could be turned into a democracy almost overnight, as some ideologues inside and outside of government naively did.

Contrary to the image he cultivated as a tough micromanager, perhaps at his own risk he had learned from LBJ’s experience in Vietnam to trust the generals on site to oversee wars and often to subordinate them. These generals, or many of them, told him to stay on course even if a course correction seemed obvious. I heard that myself. Rumsfeld had a habit of forming strong opinions about people. If he liked you, he would let you get away with almost anything, and he was very fond of some of the generals who fought the war in Iraq. They were masters at overthrowing the regimes in Kabul and Baghdad, which they achieved brilliantly and quickly, but none of them – and Rumsfeld too – were unsuitable for a protracted occupation of a foreign country. It turned out that the members of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and National Security Council, which played or should play an important role in this occupation. But somehow their leaders largely escaped the condemnation of their expert class friends when weapons of mass destruction were not found, Iraq fell into a vicious civil war and democracy failed to gain a foothold in the Middle East as promised.

When this all came to a head as he was on his way out – he had to resign after massive Republican losses in the 2006 midterm election, partly due to the chaos in Iraq – I was mad as hell. I didn’t think it was fair. And I told him.

For a moment the Rumsfelds exchanged looks in the cozy bubble we three shared, and their faces turned raw. They let me by the cool veneer they’ve had since the Nixon years. It turned out that they weren’t really feeling that happy after all.

Joyce spoke first. She pointed out that her husband took heat off many people because of the Iraq war. She didn’t give any names, but she asked, “Where are you now?” Nobody came to his defense or assumed any complicity. An expression of approval and disappointment crossed her husband’s face. Maybe even sadness. It was the first and only time that I saw his confident demeanor shaken. But then, just as quickly, the tough, resilient Rumsfeld returned and it was about the business of the moment and the life to come.

Rumsfeld was one of the last of the old school officials who was kind to people in a small, quiet way; who helped a loved one cope with debilitating drug addiction while at the same time waging a war; who was friends with people from the Kennedys to the Cheneys to Sammy Davis, Jr., and who could put politics and politics aside to appreciate them as human beings. An avid squash player well into his 70s, he raced through the Pentagon trying to outflank younger and envious helpers. He set up a foundation to support entrepreneurs in developing countries.

He had a Boy Scout’s view of right and wrong. He was zealous for taxpayer expenses and taxes. He got rid of a personal pastry chef at the Pentagon because he thought it was a waste of money. He was assigned a military assistant whose job was mainly to follow him through the Ministry, arguing that the young man had better things to do and if the Secretary of Defense couldn’t be safe in the safest office building in the world, Lord Lord help us all . He reined in the notion that people didn’t always mean what they said and considered it an insult to be labeled “ambitious”. He was horrified when I used the term “pinball” when he told me that his father used to move his family to homes, where they renovated and resold them for a modest profit. He thought the term sounded improper.

My most memorable encounter with his ethics was in Mongolia. He had been given a horse, a tradition for visits by government officials there. It was customary to present the horse and then send it to pasture. When I suggested that the Mongols probably used the same sad old horse multiple times for different dignitaries, he was worried that I had such a “reptilian” vision. He couldn’t imagine anyone doing anything like that. Even after we left Ulan Bator on the way home, he remained convinced that he could somehow send this horse to America.

He could be harsh, even rude. And because of this, people feared him and were afraid to challenge him. I saw him reprimand and embarrass generals and senior aides for what appeared to be minor errors, such as failure to number the pages of a slide presentation. And he was never one to chop up words. There were two people in public life whom he despised all his life. One was former Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, whom he considered an overprivileged tyrant – Rumsfeld hated both attributes. The other was George HW Bush, or “Poppy” as Rumsfeld would call him, who – at least in his mind – embodied the derisive elitism of the American aristocracy. He never forgot the kind of people who looked down on the Illinois suburban boy who came to Princeton on a ROTC scholarship.

With another former colleague, Henry Kissinger, Rumsfeld had possibly the most momentous “frenemy” relationship in modern American politics. Both had formidable personalities, and although they could clash on occasion, in later years their rivalry became peppered with age, nostalgia, and a mutual charm offensive – based on mutual respect.

He was grim at times, but in a lovable way – and as I say it as one of many who knew and loved him. At my wedding he got up and danced to ABBA’s “Waterloo” – laughing, smiling, having fun.

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