October 30, 2003,
Midge Decter needs little introduction. She is the author of An Old Wife's Tale: My Seven Decades in Love and War and The New Chastity, among others. She is also, incidentally, married to Norman Podhoretz and mother of John Podhoretz (among others). Her latest book is Rumsfeld: A Personal Portrait. A longtime friend of the Rumsfelds, Decter was granted considerable access to the defense secretary while writing the book. She chatted with NRO a little about Rumsfeld earlier this week.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: You've taken a little criticism already from the likes of Maureen Dowd (do they give medals for that yet?) for being a little too Rumsfeld-friendly (I believe I've seen the words "hero worship)? How do you plead?
Midge Decter: I certainly and happily plead guilty to the idea behind Maureen Dowd's column, absurd though her general posture is. (I have said that had she known what a great favor she was doing me by telling other Rumsfeld admirers about the book as she did, she would surely never have done it. Too bad for her.)
Lopez: How noteworthy is it that Rumsfeld was a high-school wrestler?
Decter: He was not only a high-school wrestler, but a college and navy wrestler as well and a champion at all three levels. Now, I myself happen to know very little about wrestling: I must confess, for one thing, never in a long life to have seen a single wrestling match. Several of Rumsfeld's friends, however as I report in the book find it very significant about him, in that wrestling is a sport in which, relying only on yourself, you can be either the lone winner or the lone loser. "In wrestling," as one of them put it, "there is no such thing as second-place money."
Lopez: Did I read right? There was a day when Donald Rumsfeld was not a good speaker?
Decter: When he decided to run for Congress, his only support at first was from his high-school friends and classmates. And that is the story: He was at first not a very good speaker, and in what has in hindsight to be viewed as predictable fashion, he set about to remedy the situation, by hiring a speech teacher and making his friends listen to him and offer their criticisms.
Lopez: In 1963, as a young congressman, Rumsfeld, you write, "criticized the State Department for the way it had recently been engaging in friendly relations with the Soviet Union's Nikita Khrushchev and Hungary's Janos Kadar." Does Rumsfeld hostility toward Foggy Bottom have a long history?
Decter: He was certainly a Cold Warrior, and Cold Warriors were opposed to the policy that later came to be called dÈtente with the Soviet Union. At the time, any such hostility would not have been directed only at Foggy Bottom, of course, but at the then growing number of advocates of warmer relations with the Soviets.
By the way, he would not agree to the idea that he even now feels any hostility to the State Department. The most you can get him to say is that the people in Foggy Bottom have their role and the people in the Defense Department have theirs. He is someone who does not gossip, no matter how much one urges him to (the most disparagement of anyone I was ever able to get out of him was a mention of how Nixon's inmost circle of friends made him feel "uncomfortable").
Lopez: Speaking of hostility what's the story with Rumsfeld and Bush 41?
Decter: When Rumsfeld became Gerald Ford's chief of staff, Bush 41 was our ambassador to China. At one point Ford determined that he would rearrange his administration: Get rid of Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, remove Henry Kissinger from the White House and send him off to the State Department, get a new secretary of defense (who would, of course, be Rumsfeld), and bring Bush back from China to be the director of the CIA. Bush, quite mistakenly as he and we would one day discover, believed that heading the CIA would doom his ambition to run for the presidency. And he believed that Rumsfeld had been responsible for his appointment to that unwanted job. That started it. Then for a short while Rumsfeld showed interest in becoming Reagan's running mate the job that would, of course, be given to Bush and would lead to his becoming president.
Lopez: What if Reagan had picked Rumsfeld instead of Bush as his vice president? Would we have had a President Rumsfeld? Does he regret he never had that job?
Decter: If Reagan had picked him, we would surely have had a President Rumsfeld and a good thing, too, as far as I am concerned. No doubt he regretted not having been chosen and he did briefly (and unsuccessfully, of course) campaign for the nomination to replace Reagan in 1988, and quit when he never rose above the bottom of the polls. On the other hand, it would not seem to be in his nature to cry over spilt milk.
Lopez: Pre-9/11, Rumsfeld seemed to be on his way out. How are his relations within the Pentagon now (outside of leaked, frank memos)?
Decter: It is not true that pre-9/11 Rumsfeld was on his way out though there were people in the Pentagon, upset by the prospect of having to undergo the kind of reform of the military he had immediately begun to set in motion, who dreamed that he might be. These people floated rumors to that effect, but there wasn't the slightest possibility of its happening: He had the full cooperation and blessings of the president for what he was doing.
Lopez: What do the secretary and his wife make of his "Rumstud" status?
Decter: His wife, Joyce, and his children mainly seem to be amused by the "Rumstud" phenomenon. As for the secretary's feeling about it, how could he (or any man) be as indifferent to it as he often pretended to be?
Lopez: What does it say about our culture today and about American women (of all ages!) that Rumsfeld's become a sex symbol?
Decter: What Rumsfeld's having become an American sex symbol seems to say about American culture today is that the assault on men leveled by the women's movement, having poisoned the normally delicate relations between men and women and thereby left a generation of younger women with a load of anxiety they are only now beginning to throw off, is happily almost over. It's hard to overestimate the significance of the term "stud" being applied to a man who has reached the age of 70 and will not too long from now be celebrating his 50th wedding anniversary.
Lopez: Do you have a favorite "Rumsfeld Rule"?
Decter: It's hard, of course, to pick a favorite. For today, however, I think mine is: "When you're skiing, if you're not falling, you're not trying."