The Don: A Look at Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld

FROM JUNE 2001: Donald Rumsfeld mended an old family feud to join the Bush Administration as Secretary of Defense, quickly emerging as one of the most powerful figures in Washington. Still, this smart, aggressive, hugely ambitious Chicagoan (New Trier ’50) probably never dreamed that his career would end in the same office he had occupied 25 years ago. Maybe it won’t.

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Among Don Rumsfeld’s scores of good friends, Vice-President Dick Cheney is one of the closest. Always a rung or two behind Rumsfeld on the Beltway ladder (and eight and a half years younger), Cheney was working for a Republican congressman in 1969 when he sent Rumsfeld a 12-page memo outlining how to overhaul the OEO. Rumsfeld, being Rumsfeld, was impressed rather than threatened and hired him. Later, when Rumsfeld was White House chief of staff, Cheney served as his deputy. Like Rumsfeld, Cheney has served as the White House chief of staff, Secretary of Defense, and a corporate chief executive officer. Indeed, Cheney has called Rumsfeld the model for his life.

That pattern held until last July, when George W. Bush called Cheney and asked him to be his running mate. The mentor had been leapfrogged.

Several times in the past, Rumsfeld had been close to getting the same sort of call. He made Gerald Ford’s short list for possible Vice-Presidents in 1974, but lost out to Nelson Rockefeller. Instead, Ford named Rumsfeld chief of staff, in Ford’s view a more vital role. The self-important Rockefeller had counted on being a co-President with Ford, but Rumsfeld—who considered the new Vice-President a pampered brat lacking convictions—worked to diminish Rockefeller’s influence. In the 1976 election campaign, after Ford dumped Rockefeller (who blamed Rumsfeld), Rumsfeld again won a place on Ford’s short list—but lost out to Bob Dole.

Four years later, Rumsfeld appeared on Ronald Reagan’s short list. His chances looked so good that cameramen staked out his mother’s house in Winnetka in case he was chosen. But Reagan went with George Bush. That had to be a blow. Rumsfeld considered Bush a lightweight—he “has not gone to the wall that often, if ever,” Rumsfeld reportedly said of his rival—and he disliked Bush almost as much as he did Rockefeller. As Ford’s chief of staff, Rumsfeld had maneuvered Bush into the directorship of the Central Intelligence Agency because at the time the beleaguered spy agency was considered a poison pill for higher office. Rumsfeld missed the possibility that Bush would build a success at the CIA. When Bush was elected President in 1988, Rumsfeld—who had served as special Middle East envoy for Reagan—was out in the cold. Today, Joyce Rumsfeld acknowledges that her husband and former President Bush “did not always track on all the issues” and that they had “very different approaches to governing and policy.”

But Rumsfeld’s ambition never cooled, and as the 2000 campaign took shape, his old acolyte, Cheney, came to the rescue. Rumsfeld didn’t know W., but Cheney saw to it that Rumsfeld was called in to advise the candidate on defense issues. Later, Cheney made sure the new President broke family tradition by putting a man in his Cabinet who had once failed the Bush family loyalty test. These days, Joyce Rumsfeld says that she and Don count the elder George and Barbara as their good friends. Last summer, during the campaign, the two old antagonists spent time together, and Rumsfeld praised the former President for his discipline and class in staying out of the campaign when his son was attacked. When they saw the Bushes in Washington after the election and the recount, Joyce recalls, they “embraced each other and kissed and hugged.”

But as Rumsfeld settles into the same suite of Pentagon offices that he occupied more than a quarter of a century before, people have wondered why he would want to become the answer to a trivia question: “Who was both the youngest man to serve as Secretary of Defense and the oldest (if he lasts a couple of more years)?” The businessman and philanthropist Martin “Mike” Koldyke says that Cheney talked Rumsfeld into taking the job. “The President is relatively inexperienced,” Koldyke says. “Cheney felt having someone of his experience would be helpful.” A New Trier friend, Edgar “Ned” Jannotta, the chairman of the investment banking firm William Blair & Company, says Rumsfeld did not need much persuading: He was eager to return to public service and to work again with his fellow veterans of the Ford White House, a group that had gathered almost every afternoon in Rumsfeld’s office—Paul O’Neill, now Treasury Secretary; Alan Greenspan; Cheney.

Washington insiders make another point. Dick Cheney is a workaholic survivor of four heart attacks, the most recent during the postelection recount, and even after more complications in March, he is keeping to a killer schedule. Many of those who know Cheney best figure that if worst came to worst, his two words of advice for W. would be “Don Rumsfeld.”

And even if Cheney makes it through this term, he might not run again in 2004—opening another spot for an ambitious Republican. Would Rumsfeld want it? His friends say yes. His wife and sister point out that he is better suited by temperament to be President than Vice-President, but the fact that Bush likes to delegate changes the calculus. As one man who has been close to Rumsfeld since high school says, Cheney and Rumsfeld are running things now anyway, and why shouldn’t Rumsfeld have the title to go with the responsibilities?

For decades, says Joseph Laitin, who has worked in several Administrations and was the Pentagon press spokesman for Rumsfeld’s predecessor in the Ford Administration, Don Rumsfeld has been “dying” to be Vice-President. Were Cheney out of the picture, Laitin says, “Rumsfeld would be Bush’s pick for Vice-President.”

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