Rumsfeld: A Personal Portrait

by Victor Davis Hanson


Vol. 116, Iss. 5

A Lost Breed Rumsfeld: A Personal Portrait by Midge Decter (Regan Books/HarperCollins. 220pp.)

Donald Rumsfeld, we are told, had a bad summer and a worse fall. Reporters tried his patience in a testy press conference by implying that the Secretary of Defense had lost operational control of the Iraqi reconstruction effort to a special working group run out of the White House by Condoleezza Rice. A leaked confidential memo by Rumsfeld to his subordinates was said to prove he was harboring more worries about post-bellum Iraq and the war against terrorism than he had publicly let on. General Wesley Clark, aspiring to the presidency, directed a barrage of criticism at the Secretary, aiming particularly at his alleged failure to assess the military situation properly and to deploy more than 140,000 troops in Iraq. Press and politicians alike were going after him for purported sins of commission as they would never think to do with, say, the diplomatic Colin Powell, whose long public record of error and hesitation-about striking back in Lebanon in 1983, about recovering Kuwait by force or going to Baghdad in 1991, about bombing Slobodan Milosevic, about removing the Taliban, about invading Iraq in 2003-has been mostly forgiven.

Midge Decter finished her brief book before this cascade of antiRumsfeld invective, in the heady days right after the three-week victory in Iraq last spring, when 71 percent of Americans (according to one poll) approved of his performance. Yet I doubt whether she would-or should-change anything about her positive portrait of this extraordinary public official, whose record and whose character remain mostly immune to the passing pique of Democratic hopefuls and the Washington press corps. To the contrary, to read her vivid and compelling account is to become worried in a different sense: the last thing Americans should wish is to drive from office the most gifted and successful Secretary of Defense in our nation’s history.

Consider: in little more than two years after the murder of 3,000 Americans on September 11, 2001, the United States military under Rumsfeld’s direction has won two wars, overthrown the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, inaugurated consensual government for 50 million Middle Easterners, scattered al-Qaeda terrorists, put both allies and enemies on notice that the entire way the United States uses its military is now under review, and crafted a new, lighter, and more mobile style of fighting-all without suffering another catastrophic attack on our territory and at the cost of about 300 soldiers lost. What Decter’s biography reminds us is that we need this seventy-one-year-old veteran far more than he needs us.

The Greeks invented the art of biography as an exercise in moral philosophy. The lives of “preeminent” statesmen and generals were to serve as ethical exemplars-bodi good and bad-for the rest of us, subject as we are to the same all-too-human appetites and temptations. Thus, the early years of an Alcibiades, an Alexander, or a Cicero were mined by Plutarch for anecdotes that might reveal an unchanging and essential character, its elements becoming more manifest during the crucible of adulthood and thereby accounting for the subject’s ultimate achievement. It is this biographical tradition-not the current American bathos of fact-filled, gossip-ridden megabooks about celebrities-that Midge Decter has returned to in her succinct essay on our current secretary of Defense.

Two grand themes predominate in her narrative. First, an examination of Donald Rumsfeld’s earlier life and political career allows us to make perfect sense of his sometimes contentious tenure since September 11-that is, to see it as simply a continuance of a long if occasionally controversial record of public service. For anyone curious about Rumsfeld’s propensity to be impulsive, blunt, and often at odds with protocol (remember his reference to “Old Europe,” or his comparison of the anti-Americanism of a German government with that of regimes like Libya), Decter explains that it was always so. She shows us the young Congressman on his way home in 1963, joining police in hot pursuit to tackle a fugitive criminal; the middle-aged ambassador to NATO running with the bulls in Pamplona; the corporate mogul of the Searle Pharmaceutical Company calling Monsanto’s bluff in the eleventh hour of a proposed buy-out and thereby garnering for his shareholders a $2.7 billion prize, and several millions for himself.

After September 11, a steady and unfazed Donald Rumsfeld mesmerized the nation in a series of weekly and even twice-weekly press conferences, during which, speaking without notes, he offered sweeping ad-hoc assessments on critical topics as wideranging as the nature of terror, the readiness of the U.S. military, and America’s relationship with both enemies in the Middle East and allies in Europe. just as character remains constant from youth to adulthood, so too, it seems, does the accumulated experience of a long public life explain the mature expertise applied by Rumsfeld to the war against terror.

Donald Rumsfeld was once, during the Ford administration, the country’s youngest secretary of Defense; 26 years later, he is the only American to have held the office twice. Not much that goes on in the Pentagon is new to him. (“A friend in Washington, D.C. is someone who stabs you in the chest,” is one of his maxims.) He was once Dick Cheney’s boss; he navigated the landmines of the dying Nixon administration; he worked with Henry Kissinger and Daniel P. Moynihan, ran the Office of Economic Opportunity, served as the United States ambassador to NATO, and ran afoul of George Bush, Sr. This was in addition to directing some of the largest companies in the United States, piloting jet planes, and, in 1987, running unsuccessfully for the presidency of the United States.

Not even the September 11 terror attack on the building he was working in posed a novel threat. As Middle East envoy under Ronald Reagan, Rumsfeld had met most of the region’s thugs and dictators. he had been asked to preside over some of our country’s less than inspiring moments-explaining to shocked Lebanese the abrupt flight of the U.S. Marine contingent after the October 23, 1983 bombing of the Beirut barracks; defending an opportunistic policy of American neutrality during Saddam Hussein’s war against the mullahs in Iran.

As Decter points out, our current policy linking terrorism-which, after all, is merely a method, not an enemy per se-to real governments reflects Rurnsfeld’s carefully acquired past understanding of how such killers work. As early as 1987, he was warning in public speeches that the United States could not stop terrorist attacks against its citizens “until it redefines the process as warfare by hostile governments rather than isolated acts.” To anyone curious about who is the driving force behind the idea of taking the war to regimes that abet terrorism while at the same time hunting down the miscreants themselves, the answer is Rumsfeld.

Decter’s Second theme is that the life of this Illinois native is emblematic of a long but now largely forgotten American tradition, grounded in the pragmatism of the Midwest, in which allegiance to family, to country, and to a code of moral behavior is seen as not only essential to the health of society but “manly”i.e., virtuous-in its own right. In this regard, Decter also argues that there is a lofty sort of male sexiness inherent in the septuagenarian Rumsieldhow else to account for his sudden popularity last spring with women of all ages? And she contrasts this noble sexiness directly with . . . well, you know whom:

The point is that by the time [Bill Clinton] departed the White House there were few women and even fewer men who would with any sincerity have awarded [him] the status of sux hero, let aloneO happy invention!-“studmuffin.” That designation would have to await the arrival of a highachieving, clear-headed, earnest, no-nonsense, Midwestern family man nearly seventy years old.

Decter makes much of Rumsfeld’s personal moderation; he seems immune to the classical excesses of drink, drugs, gambling, and cavorting. And here is an interesting paradox, for it is precisely this impeccably conservative personal life that seems so at odds with-or does it perhaps best explain?-his often radical approach to public affairs and his unswerving and quite public selfassurance. he does not much seem to care what people say or think about him as long as he is acting on the truth as he sees it. That millions of Americans appreciate this simplicity and steadfastness implies to Decter a hopeful shift in public mores, or at least a healthy nostalgia for men of an old and lost breed:

The popular discovery of Donald Rumsfeld spells the return of the ideal of the American family man, with all that such an ideal entails in the way of vitality, determination, humor, seriousness, and abiding self-confidence, along with protectiveness of loved ones, neighbors, and country. In the long run, this change may well be more important to the fortunes of his country than the changes he wrought in the armed forces.

Rumsfeld is not the last word on the Secretary of Defense, and it makes no apologies for its enthusiastic applause for both the man and his career. Others will write more-and more negatively. But at a time when American biography has too often assumed the? form of big books about little people, books in which thousands of irrelevant footnoted facts vie with raw gossip as substitutes for thought and analysis, Midge Decter’s life marks as refreshing a change as does Donald Rumsfeld himself.

©2004 Victor Davis Hanson

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