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Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Winnetka’s Donald Rumsfeld—If You’re Interested In Who He Really Is, Read This Book

Peter Baker’s “Days of Fire” is one of the finest portraits of any presidency, and a revealing take on the New Trier grad.

Pete Souza/Chicago Tribune

I spent months writing and researching a profile of Donald Rumsfeld back in 2000-2001,  when Bush appointed Rumsfeld (New Trier ’50) to his second tour of duty as defense secretary—the first was under Gerald Ford.

With that background and a careful watch of the Bush terms, I thought I understood Rumsfeld pretty well—until I read Peter Baker’s Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House. The book, by the New York Times’ chief White House correspondent, is among the finest portraits of the inner workings of a war-time presidency, or any presidency, that I have ever read, and my book shelves are drooping under the weight of such books. 

The portraits of Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld (who probably should also have been in the title) are nuanced, human and layered; Baker claims to have done 400 original interviews.  George W. Bush was not among them, but Cheney and Rumsfeld were, as were other key players (and Rumsfeld rivals/antagonists) Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell.  

My hunch is that no matter how much the reader dislikes Bush and Cheney, he/she may come away with somewhat more respect for them as complex, loyal—too loyal, it turns out—and decent and deeply patriotic if flawed men, acting in a lethal drama largely of their own making that spun out of control. Not only is the book a genuine page-turner, full of anecdotes and personality qualities and quirks, it’s also a great history lesson, and a look into the inner workings of the White House.

And, to some extent, the reader will come away with a feeling of relief that Alice Roosevelt Longworth’s quip—“If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog”—is not always true. 

Rumsfeld, brilliant, arrogant, aloof, difficult, is another story. Reading Baker’s book, one can only wish that Rumsfeld, whose ambition was to be President (well, VP to start) had decided that one time as Secretary of Defense was enough. He started out in W’s administration with a bang, so to speak. Post-Afghanistan-invasion, as he delivered his daily war briefings in his terse, tough, macho style, he became the “rock star” of W’s cabinet and “America’s stud.” As Bush moved on to Iraq and that invasion became not quite the “cakewalk” that Kenneth Adelman—close friend of and former aide to Rumsfeld, as well as another former Chicagoan—had predicted in the Washington Post, Rumsfeld devolved into the villain. And worse yet, the joke of Bush’s bloody two-term blunder.

Here’s a small sample of Baker’s portrayal of Rumsfeld. 

—Rumsfeld was a congressman from Illinois in 1968 when he first met Cheney. The next year, Nixon picked Rumsfeld to head the OEO. Cheney, unasked, wrote a 12-page memo to Rumsfeld about how to handle the OEO job. Rumsfeld summoned Cheney to his office: “You’re congressional relations. Now get the hell out of here.”

When an FBI background check on Cheney turned up arrests for drunk driving—arrests Cheney had disclosed—Rumsfeld stuck with Cheney. The result was a life-long friendship; when Rumsfeld became Ford’s chief of staff, he named Cheney his deputy; when Ford named Rumsfeld his defense secretary, Cheney took over as COS, and on it went over four decades. Cheney’s loyalty to Rumsfeld—he never stopped defending him to Bush or advising Bush to stick with him—was admirable, but, in the end, damaging to the country.

—W’s first pick for defense secretary was Frederick Smith, founder of Federal Express, but Smith had recently had bypass surgery. In 2006, when Bush finally decided to fire Rumsfeld, he again put feelers out to Smith who again declined, this time because his daughter was ill. 

—On 9/11, Rumsfeld was helping evacuate victims of the hijacked plane crash at the Pentagon. Five hours later, at a meeting in that same smoldering building, bodies still being pulled from the wreckage, Rumsfeld “broached the idea of attacking Saddam Hussein, even though there was no evidence of his involvement.”

On September 14, during a meeting, Rumsfeld “turned the table” over to his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, who made the case for going after Saddam. Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Advisor Condi Rice were among those who objected, Powell saying that targeting Iraq would “shatter the emerging coalition.” If the coalition didn’t want to confront Iraq, Rumsfeld responded, perhaps “it’s not a coalition worth having.” Bush said while he believed Iraq was involved, “I’m not going to strike them now. I don’t have the evidence at this point.” Yet not long after, in a private Oval Office meeting, Bush asked Rumsfeld to “…develop a plan to invade Iraq…. Do it outside the normal channels.”

—At the close of that meeting in the Oval Office, “Bush raised a personal matter.”   Rumsfeld’s son had just entered a treatment center to deal with persistent drug abuse.  Rumsfeld started to cry. “I love him so much,” Rumsfeld told Bush after composing himself enough to talk. Bush got up from his chair, walked around the desk and hugged Rumsfeld. 

—On the first anniversary of 9/11, Rumsfeld, with Cheney in attendance, briefed senators about Iraqi WMD. Rumsfeld came off as “…so aggressive that some senators left assuming an invasion was a foregone conclusion.” Sen. Max Cleland wrote a note to himself:  “They have already made the decision to go to war.” 

—In signing off on “interrogation techniques” for Guantanamo, Rumsfeld, who used a stand-up desk, wrote that “I stand for 8-10 hours a day. Why is standing limited to four hours?” 

—Rumsfeld was seen in Bush’s orbit of White House officials as more arrogant, stubborn, and “prickly” than Cheney. Rumsfeld also seemed that way, Baker writes, to his own uniformed officers. General Hugh Shelton is quoted as saying that Rumsfeld should place a sign on his desk that read, “Don’t tell me, I already know.” Paul Bremer, whom Bush installed in post-invasion Iraq, told the President, “Don terrifies his civilian subordinates, so that I can rarely get any decisions out of anyone but him.”  

—To Condi Rice, Rumsfeld was a nightmare. When she called a meeting on the subject of what to do with captured enemies, Rumsfeld refused to attend, telling Rice, “I don’t do detainees.” When Rice tried to talk through with Rumsfeld their poisonous relationship, Rumsfeld told her, “you’re obviously bright… but it just doesn’t work.” Rice saw in the remark condescension and the much older Rumsfeld telling the first woman to serve as a president’s NSA that she’s not a peer.

—Colin Powell advised Rice to ask Bush to “rein in” Rumsfeld, but Rice declined to do so.  The consensus was that anyone who dared to contradict Rumsfeld “risked being marginalized.” Leaders in France and Germany and many others, were appalled when Rumsfeld, pushing for war in Iraq, distinguished between “Old Europe” and New Europe.”  The prime minister of Spain told Bush during a meeting at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, “we need a lot of Powell and not much of Rumsfeld.”

En route to the United Nations where Powell delivered his evidence-based speech on the existence of WMD in Iraq, Rumsfeld pushed “a favorite idea”: striking, during Powell’s speech, a chemical weapons plant in northern Iraq. “That would wipe out my briefing,” Powell complained.

—After the invasion and the collapse of the Hussein regime, as looters wrecked government buildings and museums full of antiquities, Rumsfeld airily responded, “Stuff happens.” 

—Rumsfeld regularly passed letters of resignation to Bush, and Bush regularly refused to accept them, in part because he knew how close Cheney and Rumsfeld were. But unlike many Bush biographers, Baker presents W. as strongly independent of his Vice President, except on the issue of Rumsfeld.

Although Baker portays Bush as genuinely believing that pushing out a Secretary of Defense mid-war would send the wrong message. Rumsfeld told Bush, “I want you to know that you have my resignation… anytime you feel it would be helpful to you.” After Bush rejected the resignation, Rumsfeld told him, “I just don’t want to put more rocks in your knapsack.”

The photographs, then going public, of torture scenes from Abu Ghraib prompted Rumsfeld to resign again: “the damage from the acts of  abuse that happened on my watch… can best be responded to by my resignation.” Again Bush said no. Instead he went to the Pentagon briefing room and described Rumsfeld as doing “a superb job.” 

—Baker reports that Colin Powell believed that Cheney and Rumsfeld were “treasonous” and Cheney and Rumsfeld believed that Powell was “treasonous.” Baker also reports that even Wolfowitz thought Rumsfeld had to go, complaining to a friend: “the way Rumsfeld was handling Iraq … `was criminal negligence.’”

—When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in August 2005, Rumsfeld refused to send in the 82nd Airborne Division. White House officials were furious with him and thought Bush should tell Rumsfeld to “issue deployment orders by noon or resign.” (Rumsfeld did eventually sign the deployment orders.)

—When “retired army and marine generals” urged Bush to fire Rumsfeld,  “their criticisms backfired. Rather than convincing Bush, it got his back up.” It was just days later that Bush addressed reporters in the Rose Garden with the much-ridiculed words, “I’m the decider and I decide what is best. And what’s best is for Don Rumsfeld to remain as secretary of defense.”

When Bush was well into his second term and his anxiety over Iraq was growing, he finally acted. At a meeting in the White House residence, he asked his top aides for a show of hands on Rumsfeld going or staying. Most hands went up in favor of going. Cheney’s hand stayed down. As the Preident strategized a change—he settled on Bob Gates, his father’s CIA director and president of Texas A & M University—he worried about Cheney’s reaction. This time Bush told Cheney that Rumsfeld would be going instead of asking his opinion, and Bush walked away as soon as he gave Cheney the news, “…not giving his vice president a chance to object as he had so many times before.” Nonetheless, Cheney warned Bush that he was making a mistake.

The resignation letter landed on Bush’s desk on election day 2006, leaving anger in its wake as the midterms proved disastrous for Republicans in the House and Senate. “Republican allies were spitting mad,” writes Baker, “convinced that waiting until after the election had cost them their majorities.” White House staffers, on the other hand, were “jubilant.”

But at Rumsfeld’s Pentagon “full honor review,” Cheney described his friend as “the finest secretary of defense this nation has ever had.” 

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