the "star" of this war so far? That's a vulgar consideration,
given the awful work that has to be done. But there is, undeniably,
an answer: Don Rumsfeld. Yes, Rumsfeld: defense secretary, TV personality,
sex symbol (no kidding more on that in a second), role model,
inspiration. As one Washington arbiter puts it, "Rummy"
is the man now. The man to whom the nation turns, the man
to whom it listens. Nearly everyone Republican or Democrat
sees him as the right guy at the right time in the right
Rumsfeld friend explains its nicely and in decidedly Rummyesque
fashion: "We're not playing pitty-patty anymore. We have a
foe that's proven deadly. People look for a different kind of person
to run Washington as far away from the Clinton type as you
Rumsfeld mania is everywhere, and it's mounting. Consider a few
have it that people gather round to watch Rumsfeld press conferences
the way they do Oprah.
Hollywood grande dame, hostess of a prized post-Oscar party, says
to another Hollywood grande dame, "I'll call you in the morning."
The second dame replies, "Okay, but be careful: Rumsfeld's
on at 9:45."
confide that they have . . . well, un-defense-policy-like thoughts
about the secretary of defense. Not just older women, either, and
not just stiff-haired Republicans: young ones, liberal ones, whatever.
Larry King is moved to ask Rumsfeld about his new status as sex
symbol. Says Rumsfeld, "Oh, come on. For the AARP, perhaps.
I'm pushing seventy years old." Yeah, so?
journalist who's a perfect parody of a liberal reflexively
so duly thinks that John Ashcroft is the devil incarnate.
But she confesses: "I love Rumsfeld."
Night Live ever a barometer of cool makes Rumsfeld
something of a cult figure, or rather, acknowledges his status as
such. Its parody of a Rumsfeld press conference is wildly successful.
"Rumsfeld" makes the reporters look ridiculous, responding
bluntly and tartly to not-so-bright questions. It's not every day
that this show makes a Republican military official look with-it,
the press corps not.
And so on.
Rumsfeld is definitely the man of the hour, a classic American type
returned to do a hard duty. He is direct, decent, and clear. It
doesn't hurt him, either, that he is, indeed, a "handsome Joe,"
as my grandmother would say. Rumsfeld is this war's pin-up, its
certain Rumsfeld staffers slightly nuts, of course, because the
SecDef SexDef? is a terribly serious guy, overseeing
a terribly serious operation, and all this "star" talk
is just style, image: but the style and image aren't necessarily
disconnected from the exigencies and obligations of the current
situation. What Rumsfeld is, is a throwback. That's the word that
keeps coming up in reference to him: "throwback." He's
a reminder of the Greatest Generation though he's about a
half-generation younger than that at a time when Greatest
Generation grit and clarity of purpose are called for. He's not
fighting on the battlefield, risking life and limb; but he is representing
reflecting those who do, as civilian leaders often
You can get
too sociological about this, but Rumsfeld is the anti-Alda. In a
feminized society whose idea of a male sex symbol has been
the Brad Pitt-style pretty boy he is a relief, or a rediscovery.
He has walked out of Father Knows Best, or some WWII flick.
And just as he's the anti-Alda, he is as everyone says
the anti-Clinton. The ultimate anti-Clinton. Whereas Clinton
was a pain-feeler, Rumsfeld is more a pain-inflicter, at least where
the country's enemies are concerned. And he must be the most uneuphemistic
person alive. He is totally immune, and allergic, to "spin."
Says an old Rumsfeld hand, "He doesn't like to be spun. He
sees it in a second, and you're dead if you try to do it. And he
doesn't spin other people."
About a 'No-Spin Zone'
Ask most serious reporters and other keen types what they like about
Rumsfeld or even think of him and they're liable to
answer, "He tells the truth." Simple as that. Says one
veteran newsman, "I've spent the better part of my life covering
public officials, and on matters of policy irrespective of
party most of them, when they're giving a briefing, cover
their a**. That's why briefings are opaque, why they have all the
spontaneity of a kabuki dance. But Rummy never dodges, never shucks.
He doesn't say, 'I'll have to take that under advisement.' He just
comes at you straight."
seems to be obsessed with the truth. Early in the war, he wrote
in an op-ed piece, "Some believe the first casualty of any
war is the truth. But in this war, the first victory must be to
tell the truth." He loves to admit what he doesn't know, and
loves to tell you what he does know. He'll usually do so
in "throwback" language. Featured in his lexicon are "golly,"
"holy mackerel," and "dadburn." Speaking of
U.N. and American inspectors in Iraq, looking for the worst, he
said, "We couldn't find beans, and it's there, and we know
it's there." He spoke of "getting al-Qaeda and the Taliban
the dickens out of Kabul and the rest of the country." "Beans";
"dickens" it goes with the Vitalis-friendly hair.
trading favorite Rumsfeld comments, and they're almost impossible
not to repeat. Asked whether the U.S. was running out of targets
in Afghanistan, he said, "We aren't running out of targets;
Afghanistan is." After the Taliban crumbled, he recalled the
time, days before, when "it looked like nothing was happening,
when it looked like we were in a all together, now
And he is almost
deliriously unhesitant about using what National Review's
Kate O'Beirne refers to as "the K-word": kill. Why, asked
a reporter, are we using such heavy bombs? "They are being
used on frontline al-Qaeda and Taliban troops to try to kill them."
Oh. Rumsfeld even goes out of his way to use the K-word,
abhorring euphemisms: "We have not been able, thus far, to
stop them, that is to say, kill them." A Pakistani minister
in Islamabad told the New York Times, "I am sorry to
put it in this way, but Rumsfeld's been extremely callous."
He has also been extremely realistic.
In his communications
with the public, certain things come up, again and again. Rumsfeld
bridles at suggestions that the U.S. or Israel is
engaged in "retaliation" or "retribution" or
"revenge." No, he insists: It's simple self-defense. "The
only way to defend against terrorists is to go after the terrorists."
He is relentless on the subject of what the war will require. Tim
Russert asked him (on December 2), "You think we have a few
months of long, bloody battle?" Said Rumsfeld, "Oh, I
wouldn't limit it to that." He continually describes war as
a "dirty job" a "tough, long, grinding, dirty
business." He also warns of casualties: "certain"
casualties. How about collateral damage, the accidental killing
of innocents? The terrorists' fault: They're the ones who started
and necessitate this war. Rumsfeld emphasizes the newness, the strangeness,
of the conflict, wherein "there isn't any army we can go out
and defeat, no navy we can sink, no air forces we can shoot out
of the sky." There will be no "exit strategies" in
this one, and "no signing ceremony on the deck of the Missouri."
And he constantly
reminds people of what the terrorists did on September 11, as though
worried that someone may forget. "They have done a terrible,
terrible thing, and have vowed to do it again. We can't let them."
One of his
many jobs in government was envoy to the Middle East, under Reagan.
His understanding of the Arab-Israeli conflict is both breathtakingly
simple and profound. He says, "There are many people in that
part of the world who'd love to shove Israel into the sea, and not
have it be there, and until people are willing to accept the presence
of Israel, Israel obviously is not going to be able to make a deal."
We are talking about "a very small country that doesn't have
a big margin for error." Those sentences are worth about ten
books by big-newspaper Middle East correspondents.
For me, a perfectly
emblematic Rumsfeld moment came in that earlier-mentioned interview
with Larry King. Here we have the Rumsfeldian element of surprise:
the surprise of candor, and of an unbending logic. Larry asked him,
"Is it very important that the coalition hold?" This seems
a no-brainer: Yes (most people would say). But Rumsfeld squints
his eyes, with those granny glasses, screws up his face, and
in a tone soaked with incredulity and exasperation says,
"No." He goes on to explain that coalitions come and go
according to a particular task, and that "the worst
thing you can do is allow a coalition to determine what your mission
Rumsfeld admirers worry that he's spending too much
time on television, when, after all, he's got both a war and a mammoth,
problematic department to run. But others say that this war needs
such a communicator, especially because it is a peculiar, confusing
war. Besides which: Who else can do this, like that?
When George W. Bush asked Rumsfeld to return to the Pentagon
he'd been defense secretary under Ford there were a few snickers,
a few groans. This was "throwback," indeed, and not the
positive kind. Rumsfeld wasn't even one of "Poppy"'s boys!
He was a Nixon-Ford guy! The taunts of New York Times columnist
Maureen Dowd sum up the now-ancient thinking about Rumsfeld. She
dubbed him "Rip Van Rummy," rudely woken up after 25 years
out of government. He was get this "clueless
about the press" (who are Stradivariuses in his hands). "You
can just hear Rummy slugging back a Scotch with Cheney in the Oval
after they've put the Kid [Bush] to bed, grousing about the gazillion
dollars' worth of investments he has to sell to avoid a conflict,
and growling: 'Real men can drink twice that much arsenic.'"
(Ah, yesteryear, when the greatest threat to us was that Republicans
would poison the water supply.)
changed and Rumsfeld stalwarts, while tickled, are a little
annoyed at the new, positive Rumsfeld image. He has always
been "the man," they say, even if the press, and the change-resistant
generals, and congressional anti-SDI-ers didn't like it. The common
line now is, "Rumsfeld wasn't much of a secretary of defense,
but he's a helluva secretary of war." This disgusts the Rumsfeldites,
who argue that their guy has been, more than anything else, vindicated.
it was cool, Rumsfeld was advocating a lighter, fleeter, more flexible,
post-Cold War military (so was George W. Bush). A military adapted
to protect against unseen phantoms of the night. In front of the
Armed Services Committee, in June, Rumsfeld said, "We cannot
know precisely who will threaten us in the decades ahead. But while
it is difficult to know precisely who will threaten us, or where,
or when, it is less difficult to anticipate how we will be
threatened. We know, for example, that our open borders and open
societies make it easy and inviting for terrorists to strike at
our people where they live and work." On the morning of the
11th itself, before the planes hit, Rumsfeld was in his office,
admonishing congressmen about the dangers of terrorism. For months
(and years), he had cautioned against complacency, against sitting
around "fat, dumb, and happy." He would talk of the need
for "homeland defense": and the very words would
cause eyes to roll.
staffers take pains not to say "I told you so"
their boss would be all over them "like ugly on ape,"
as the first Bush used to say but sometimes it slips out.
are proud to work for Rumsfeld, and they enjoy the reaction they
get when they tell people just folks where they work,
and for whom. Rumsfeld is the central-casting tough-but-inspiring
boss. One aide says, "You're scared to death to go in there
[to Rumsfeld's office] and not perform properly. After you get to
know him, there's a lot of banter and a lot of fun. But when the
light turns on when you're dealing with business you
gotta be on your toes. You learn as a staffer to do it right. He
trains you. It takes about twice."
famously a nut about precision: precise words, precise thoughts,
precise actions. A story is told from the 1996 Dole campaign that
is semi-legend. (For this story, please bear in mind that Rumsfeld
was chairman sort of a figurehead chairman of that
campaign, and that, in the years after he left the Defense Department,
he'd run the pharmaceutical company Searle.) Rumsfeld has a recent
law-school grad working as his secretary. The guy green,
un-Rumsfeldized screws up somehow, and Rumsfeld gives him
what-for. He lectures him as follows: "You must learn to be
precise. In the drug business, if I'm imprecise, people
will die. In the Pentagon, if I'm imprecise, people will
die." The poor kid left the office shook, but he did very
well from then on. Rumsfeld became a benefactor, securing for him
several jobs. On the campaign, the young man took to mimicking Rumsfeld's
tongue-lashing, to the delight of all, including the chairman himself.
It became kind of a giddy buzz phrase on a generally joyless adventure:
People will die!
you hear expressed for Rumsfeld is startling. It isn't sycophantic;
it is deeply held. Vin Weber, the former congressman and now multipurpose
Washingtonian, says, flatly, "He's the best man in government."
So do others. Weber says, "He's the one guy about whom I've
thought more than about anyone else 'It's really too
bad he wasn't president.'" Plenty of others say the same thing.
a man completely in possession of himself. He's close to
one would think the end of a long and honored career. He's
not nervous about what other people think of him; he's not afraid
to lose his job; he's not looking to move up, to continue climbing
the greasy pole. He is free freer than most to do
and say what he regards as right.
seen as a dour type and seems to revel in being a bearer
of bad news, or a reminder of the present grimness he's also
an optimist, pointing toward ultimate victory. Constantly, he stresses
the need to "hang in there," to see it through to the
end. Under Nixon, he was ambassador to NATO, and, speaking of this
time, he has said, "In the early Seventies, I'd have to fly
back to testify against the amendments to reduce forces in Europe
and to pull out of Europe and to give up and throw in the towel.
We'd win by three, four, five votes. But here we are: No Soviet
as much as the president is the face of American determination
in this war. Over the years, he has collected what he calls "Rumsfeld's
Rules," for succeeding in government, business, and elsewhere.
One of them is, "The most underestimated risk for a politician
is overexposure." There will perhaps come a time when Rumsfeld
is overexposed. But as the bombs are falling overseas and the home
front is tense, most people seem to be saying: more, more, more.