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The Enigma of Rumsfeld


The Long Knives Come Out For Rummy

The Battle of Rumsfeld

Neo-Cons, Hawks, Circle The Wagons For Rumsfeld

Graduates of the Strangelove Institute

The Rumsfeld Tapes (2004)

How the Press Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Rumsfeld (2004)

I, Rumsfeld (2002)

Donald Rumsfeld, Master Spinner (2002)

  + RUMMY: THE BACKSTABBING YEARS     Now that time has come to write the political obituary for Donald Rumsfeld, pundits find themselves staring at blank pages, wondering what the hell to write about the guy. Aside for the inept war thing, of course.

Rumsfeld is a cypher, even more than other secretive club members of Bush's top echelon. His interviews and public comments resemble court depositions, with occasional "goodness gracious" interjections that sound suspiciously like a consultant's needling him to appear more human. He seems to have no interests outside his current job; the solitary joke he tells has him waking up his wife to read an insulting portrayal during his 1960s stint in the House: "Rumsfeld is distinguished principally by his total lack of social, financial and political standing in the community." Her comeback: "Go back to sleep, Don. It's tough to argue with."

Anything can be painted on an empty canvas, and some of the portraits of the Secretary of Defense have been surreal, particularly those from the weeks and months after the 9/11 attacks. A National Review cover story, "The Stud: Donald Rumsfeld, America's New Pinup," wasn't unusual in making Rummy a senior citizen sex symbol. New York Times fashion reporter Ginia Belafonte drooled, "...the post-Sept. 11 world has caused a certain kind of woman to re-evaluate what she is looking for in a man... She has seen the valiant efforts of rescue workers and remarked to herself that men like Donald Rumsfeld make big, impactive decisions in the time it would take any of her exes to order lunch." (Current Google hits for "Rumsfeld+hunk:" about 59,000). On CNBC, columnist Thomas Friedman saw Rummy as some kind of grandfatherly beserker -- but in a nice way: "He's just a little bit crazy, OK? He's just a little bit crazy, and in this kind of war, they always count on being able to out-crazy us, and I'm glad we got some guy on our bench that our quarterback -- who's just a little bit crazy, not totally, but you never know what that guy's going to do, and I say that's my guy."

But good background material does exist that fleshes out Rumsfeld, such as "Palace Politics," a 1980 memoir by President Ford's closest aide, Robert Hartmann. Here emerges a view of the real Rummy: an obsequious career bureaucrat with an oily sidekick -- and a machiavellian schemer driven by a hunger for the presidency.

Amid the uncertainty and distrust following Nixon's resignation, Rumsfeld had a unique chance to be a bridge-builder between the Nixon and Ford camps after the August, 1974 transfer of power. Serving as a Representative in the 1960s, Rumsfeld had been a reliable supporter of newly-elected House Minority Leader Gerald Ford. Rumsfeld likewise had high marks from the Nixon White House for taking on upopular assignments, such as running the Cost of Living Council -- non-political jobs that also kept him at arm's length from any direct taint of Watergate. He was a good choice to be Ford's special Assistant to the President in charge of coordinating the transition.

In those early weeks of his administration, Ford repeatedly promised that the Oval Office door would be open to anyone, unlike the Bad Old Days of Nixon, when access to the president was rigidly managed by H.R. Haldeman and later, Al Haig. Rumsfeld quietly and quickly undermined that policy, first by reducing the number of voices in the White House with a 10 percent, across-the-board staff cut, then by arguing that key members of the president's staff needed a "deputy" to ease their workloads. No one apparently complained -- or, perhaps, noticed -- that Rumsfeld's reorganization was elbowing out Ford's vision of freewheeling drop-bys with a more formal, channelized route to the president.

Critics did take note of the new organization chart that came out a couple of months into his tenure. Rumsfeld's "White House Operations Office" was now first among equals, with control over the Office of the Cabinet Secretary, the Office of the Staff Secretary, the Presidential Personnel Office, and provide all "military assistance" to Ford. Each office was now run by an ally of Rumsfeld, with no personal allegiance to either Nixon or Ford. And over them all was Rumsfeld's own deputy: Richard B. Cheney.

Hartmann's descriptions of Don 'n' Dick are to be savored:

Rummy was darkly handsome, like Tyrone Power. Cheney was a presentable young man who could easily be lost in a gaggle of Jaycee executives. His most distinguishing features were snake-cold eyes, like a Cheyenne gambler's. Rummy was expansive and, when it suited him, all smiles; Cheney's demeanor was low-key and even dour. He was tough, tireless, book-smart, with a touch of sarcasm occasionally overcoming studied subordination.

Rumsfeld and Cheney had achieved a coup by fiat, and they did it by means that foreshadowed the Bush administration's power grab after 9/11: they exploited uncertainty. The Nixon hold-overs resented yielding ground to anyone in the Ford clan (who are you to boss us around when our guy was elected president?) and barely concealed their contempt for the new president. Meanwhile, the Ford team was whiplashed that autumn by the considerable anger from the Nixon pardon (Ford's approval polls fell from 72 to 49 percent overnight), followed within days by the cancer diagnosis of Ford's beloved wife Betty, followed by frantic, last-minute presidential campaigning for the 1974 midterm elections. No one apparently was emboldened to challenge Rumsfeld's claim of broad "coordinating" authority that seemed to sweep up all White House ops.

By December, Rumsfeld was Chief of Staff and exercising power over the White House beyond even Haldeman's iron grip. Calling Rumsfeld and Cheney the "Praetorians," Hartmann described how they acted whenever they lost an argument. "Behind the President's back they set out to prove to him that he had made the wrong decision, relied on the wrong adviser and that it just wouldn't work."

Hartmann also tells a revealing story about a confrontation between Rumsfeld and Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, who had made a proposal for his office to take over the Domestic Council. Rumsfeld undermined the idea by apparently telling Ford that it would make the veep a de facto president for domestic affairs. When Rocky heard of this, he confronted Rumsfeld in his office:

"Look," Rockefeller heatedly interrupted, "the President asked me to give him my recommendation as to what should be done and that I have done."

"We don't do things that way around here," Rumsfeld retorted with a coolness close to insolence. "We give him options."

"Look, let's not kid ourselves," the Vice President shot back. "You don't give him options. You give him three alternatives, two of which are absurd and the other is the one you want. And you try to make him think that he is making a decision.

"To me that is avoiding responsibility -- the responsibility of saying what you think should be done, so he can judge the merits by the people who recommend various choices. You're putting the President on the spot by forcing him to make a decision on a phony basis."

"Well, this is the way we do it," Rumsfeld reportedly countered.

This wasn't the only time Rumsfeld tangled with the Vice President, and Rockefeller later told Hartmann he blamed Rummy for his rejection as Ford's running mate for the 1976 elections. Why? Because he believed Rumsfeld wanted the vice presidential nomination for himself, as a stepping-stone to the presidency.

All of Washington believed Rumsfeld really had his bifocaled eyes on the Oval Office. Even before he started working at the White House, columnist Jack Anderson predicted he wouldn't stay there more than six months before moving on to a cabinet position, probably as Secretary of Defense. As Rockefeller was being pushed out in 1975, a Washington Post columnist wrote: "The fact that a 34-year-old presidential aide named Dick Cheney is increasingly taking charge of the day-to-day White House business... [is because] his boss and mentor, Donald Rumsfeld, is quietly deepening his involvement in the management of President Ford's election campaign. And that is widely viewed in upper reaches of the administration as a means to one end: putting Rumsfeld on the 1976 ticket as Vice President."

Hartmann says he didn't know why Ford eventually chose Senator Bob Dole as his running mate instead of Rummy, but knew that Rumsfeld was one of three candidates under consideration in 1974. Rumsfeld did make it to Secretary of Defense for the final year of Ford's Presidency -- with Cheney slipping into his old job as Ford's Chief of Staff -- but he never had a shot at the White House. He wanted to run in 1988, but abandoned plans after failing to find financial backers.

Hartmann's isn't the only ex-White House staffer to offer a peek at Donald's closet skeletons. Another memoir by one of Nixon's bagmen, Harry Dent, suggests Rumsfeld didn't get the VP pick because the Ford White House discovered he had a still-undisclosed role in Nixon's "Operation Townhouse," which illegally funnelled campaign money to GOP candidates in 1970 when Rumsfeld held the position of Counselor to the President. Perhaps his life isn't so bereft of interest, after all.   (November 13, 2006)

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