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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Rumsfeld had been Defense Secretary for just a year when the Ford/Dole ticket lost in 1976. Though he had next to no experience in private business, he came home to the Chicago area and took over G. D. Searle, the Skokie-based drug company. As Robert “Tubby” Bacon, a fellow New Trier graduate, puts it, Rumsfeld “brought it back from the depths of hell.”

At the time Rumsfeld joined the company, Dan Searle, the great-grandson of the founder (and the finance chairman of Rumsfeld’s first campaign for Congress), Searle’s brother, and his brother-in-law were running things. The company was losing money; analysts considered it unfocused, and some of its drug studies were under investigation.

Though Dan Searle was pushed aside—he became chairman of the board, but had no operating responsibilities—he credits Rumsfeld with having done “an incredibly good job. And he certainly did what the family might not ever have been able to do until it was too late.” He shed subsidiaries and sliced the payroll by more than half. Fortune named him one of the ten toughest bosses in America.

Ned Jannotta says the Searles deserve credit for taking the “big gamble” of bringing in a man who had virtually no business experience and no ties to the pharmaceutical industry. But what Rumsfeld did have were ties to government and an insider’s grasp of the workings of Washington. That proved a bonanza to Searle. Rumsfeld was able to hasten Food and Drug Administration approval of aspartame (sold under the brand name NutraSweet), which had been delayed because of questions about some of the first animal tests on the product. (Aspartame has been controversial from the start, with charges, unproven as yet, that it might be a carcinogen and could trigger such maladies as migraines and seizures.) Rumsfeld had been at the helm of Searle for four years when the FDA approved aspartame in 1981 for use in dry foods and in 1983 for soft drinks. By 1984, aspartame would account for more than half of Searle’s net income.

In 1985, Monsanto bought Searle for $2.7 billion. The investment banking work, generating a $1.8-million fee, was handed to William Blair, whose managing partner was Ned Jannotta. On leaving Searle after the sale, Rumsfeld was named a senior adviser to Blair while he figured out what to do next.

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When he moved from Washington to Chicago in 1977 to take the job at Searle, Rumsfeld had to take an advance from the company to buy a house in Winnetka. But Searle made Rumsfeld a wealthy man; according to financial disclosure documents, his fortune today is estimated at between $50 million and $210 million. (Getting back into government may cost him a bundle, though. Under ethics rules, he must rid himself of investments that could present conflicts, and 40 percent of his personal fortune is said to consist of private investment partnerships, which are difficult to sell in a sputtering economy.)

In 1986, Don and Joyce Rumsfeld sold their Winnetka house and moved downtown to a spacious condominium, a duplex with a garden, at 1411 North State Parkway. From there, Rumsfeld began to plot his next move—to the Presidency. But as the 1988 campaign beckoned, he had been out of Washington for 11 years. He also lacked a political base, not to mention a sexy issue, and it had been 20 years since he had run for office. He had considered challenging Adlai Stevenson III in the Senate race in 1974, but the Watergate scandal made that year a bad bet. He had considered running against Alan Dixonfor the Senate in 1986 but backed off, reportedly on the advice of Richard Nixon. He had considered running for governor that same year, but Jim Thompson stayed put.

Still, Rumsfeld formed an exploratory committee, staged a dinner at The Drake, heavy with New Trier friends, and spent well over a million dollars. Even his friends acknowledge that he did not seem to have had a compelling issue or vision—just the confidence that he could run the country brilliantly. But he withdrew before the primaries. An avid reader of history, Rumsfeld knew that no businessman had won the nomination of a major party since Wendell Willkie in 1940. Joyce says that he could not stand the thought of going into debt again. It took them, she recalls, five or six years to pay off the debt for one race for Congress.

In the end, he reconciled himself to remaining a private citizen who would engage in public service when asked. His friend Robert Galvin, Motorola’s former chairman, says Rumsfeld did not have the “zeal” to risk the consequences of going all the way.

In 1990, Rumsfeld became the chief executive officer of General Instrument, a Chicago-based manufacturer of equipment for the cable and satellite TV industry. As he had at Searle, Rumsfeld cut staff by two-thirds and sold off extraneous businesses. He also plowed money into research and development and focused on products such as high-definition TV and set-top boxes. In 1992, he took the company public, made a load of money, and left the following year.

He spent the rest of the nineties serving on a number of blue-chip boards (among them, Tribune, Kellogg, and Sears, Roebuck). In 1998, he chaired the bipartisan Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States, which issued the influential Rumsfeld Report. It concluded that rogue nations such as North Korea, Iran, and Iraq could threaten the United States with long-range missiles much sooner than the CIA had predicted.

He also relaxed at the family house in New Mexico. In high school, Rumsfeld had spent a summer at a Boy Scout ranch near Taos. After he was out of government, says Joyce, “and we could save two dimes, we knew we were going to claim something in the West.” They chose Taos, she says, because of the dominant Hispanic and Native American cultures. Their adobe house, across from a working dairy farm that abuts Pueblo land, dates back at least 150 years. They keep horses, a donkey, a mule, cats, and their dachshund, Reggie. Don has the Reaganesque fixation with clearing brush and chopping wood. He and Joyce both ride, ski, hike, fish, and skate on the dairy farm pond. On New Year’s Eve, the extended family gathers.

Though friends say the Rumsfelds have what seems to be an uncommonly good marriage, it has not been easy being married to Don. His career has required Joyce to move her family more than 30 times, to live, pre-Searle, on a no-spree budget. Then there is the fact that he seems not to age. Joyce’s pretty face, rarely without a smile, is graced by kindness, intelligence, curiosity. She seems without artifice; her hair is gray; her glasses hang from a chain around her neck. While she looks more or less her age, he looks the way he did when he was Defense Secretary the first time around, just a bit more gray and lined.

From the first congressional campaign—“I aged him,” Joyce says. “I showed that he had some stability”—she has played a traditional role. “Joyce had no power needs of her own and no need to bask in the light of reflected glory,” says Dan Searle. Ned Jannotta calls her “the velvet glove for Don. He’s a little hard-edged; she’s got a great touch with people.” (The sharp edges, Don would argue, are a virtue. “Don’t necessarily avoid sharp edges,” reads one of his rules; “occasionally they are necessary to leadership.”)

While her husband was busy at Searle, Joyce was taking some time for contemplation of “this wild ride” her family had been on, touched by assassinations, the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, the resignation of a President. The experience that resonated most was that of sending her girls to the public schools in Washington. In particular, she sensed the lack of an education in character. “Our children’s classes would have benefited enormously from some code of discipline, honor,” she says. In 1984 she established what would become the Chicago Foundation for Education, a little-publicized nonprofit group aimed at giving public elementary school teachers here the grants and training to teach students about values and ethics, among other subjects. Linda Lenz, the editor and publisher of Catalyst, which covers school issues, gives CFE a grudging endorsement as playing “a small but important role in school reform.”

Two years ago, Joyce stepped down from heading her foundation, relishing the prospect of spending more time in Taos. “I am moving into my rural period,” she told her family last September. When George W. Bush went on television on December 28th and announced his pick for Defense Secretary, the scope of it all did not hit her immediately. But two weeks later, when she sat with her daughter Marcy and her granddaughter at Rumsfeld’s six-hour confirmation hearing, it all came back. “I know what this is, and it is a total commitment,” she says. “And at that point I understood how we would move to Washington completely.” They sold their condo here and bought a place in Kalorama, a Washington neighborhood favored by diplomats.

At the confirmation hearing, just about the only uncomfortable moment came when Rumsfeld was asked about a Chicago Tribune report recounting a taped 1971 conversation in the Oval Office between Rumsfeld and Nixon. On the tape, Rumsfeld seems to agree—“Yes” and “That’s right,” he answers—with some of the President’s racist observations. Rumsfeld told the members of the Senate Armed Services Committee that he was acknowledging, not agreeing. He was probably also being Rumsfeld. Sitting across from the President in the Oval Office and criticizing the Commander in Chief’s observations would not have been politic.

None of the Rumsfeld children followed their father to Princeton—“They couldn’t get in,” says Joyce, in her typically unvarnished manner. None have shown their parents’ intensity of interest in public service. The girls, says Joyce, “love being mothers.” When this reporter called Marcy, a divorced mother of two living on the North Side, she said, “I don’t take any media calls; I refuse to do it. Bye.” Valerie, who has a Ph.D. in psychology, married an artist and architect and lives in Santa Fe. The youngest Rumsfeld child, Nick, worked for an Internet company in Portland, Oregon. He recently left that job and is living in the family home in Taos with his fiancée while he figures out what to do next.

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Since Rumsfeld’s return to the Pentagon, he has faced virtually a crisis a week. The defense budget cannot grow as much as Rumsfeld thinks it must and as he seemed to promise at his confirmation hearing. The missile shield—a natural outgrowth of the commission he headed that warned of the possibility of sudden attack—will not be easy to sell: Opponents argue that it will trigger a new arms race; Nobel laureates denounce it as a boondoggle that will not work. A U.S. nuclear-powered submarine accidentally rammed and sank a Japanese fishing trawler, killing nine Japanese civilians. Five Americans and one New Zealander died in a training exercise in Kuwait when a U.S. Navy jet dropped a bomb on its own military personnel. And two dozen U.S. military personnel on a routine surveillance flight over the South China Sea were held by the Chinese after their navy spy plane apparently was bumped by a Chinese fighter plane. During the tense 11-day standoff, Secretary of State Colin Powell was front and center while Rumsfeld—the hardliner—remained in the background. Once the plane crew was released, he quickly emerged to criticize the Chinese.

Rumsfeld has had to fight a turf battle almost daily with the superstar Secretary of State, who has talked as if he were going to run Defense as well as State, and who is said to have wanted Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge at Defense (a choice Cheney vetoed). The Cabinet officers disagree on a range of foreign policy issues, with Powell surrounding himself with moderates and Rumsfeld sticking with people who, some critics charge, think the cold war is still on. No wonder that Rumsfeld, uncharacteristically grumpy after four days on the job, was quoted as saying that it felt like four months. This isn’t Ford’s Pentagon, and Rumsfeld may wish he were riding horseback in Taos instead of having to sell his belief in arming the opposition in Iraq in the hope that it will eradicate Saddam Hussein.

Then again, during the early months of the Administration, Rumsfeld’s protégé, Dick Cheney, has certainly lived up to his billing as the man behind the curtain, operating the controls, while the President travels to friendly states selling his programs, with time out for naps and workouts. Even if Cheney’s health allows him to last out the first term, there will be pressure to take him off the ticket in 2004. Would the Secretary of Defense take his place?

That remains to be seen, but in the meantime, Don Rumsfeld has learned that the only way to move up is to stay in the arena. He might even write a rule about it.

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