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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Donald RumsfeldIn 1969, on the fifth try, President Richard Nixon finally persuaded Donald Rumsfeld to give up his safe North Shore congressional seat to serve as the director of the Office of Economic Opportunity. It was a mean job. A legacy of the War on Poverty, the OEO had turned into a target of bitter dissension, clung to by liberals and anti­poverty workers, castigated by conservatives. While in Congress, Rumsfeld had voted against funding the agency, but he had been good on civil rights, and once he took over the OEO, he defied expectations and kept it alive, insisting only on stream­lining it. 

Still, one day a group of enraged community activists stormed the office, forcing Rumsfeld and his aide, Terry Lenzner, to grab a table and barricade the door. Rumsfeld called the police. Another time, more than 40 Howard University law students charged into a meeting that Lenzner was having with private lawyers affiliated with the OEO. The students held Lenzner hostage in the OEO conference room, pledging to keep him until he agreed to send government grants their way. Rumsfeld—a former wrestler who liked to drop to the floor on a whim and show off his one-handed pushups—unsuccessfully tried to bulldoze his aide through the students. Eventually Lenzner gave the intruders an ultimatum: to leave or face legal consequences. Rumsfeld had those who remained arrested, Lenzner recalls.


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Pressure from the Right bore down on Rumsfeld, too, much of it focused on Lenzner, who aggressively represented the poor, approving class action suits against corporations and state officials. California governor Ronald Reagan complained, but Rumsfeld turned him aside, as he did a GOP senator who raised a ruckus after discovering that Lenzner was not a registered Republican. To Lenzner—who would go on to work for the Senate committee investigating Watergate and serve the first subpoena on Nixon—his boss at the OEO was “gutsy.” But as Lenzner was to discover, there are limits to Rumsfeld’s loyalty. When Rumsfeld’s boss, Richard Nixon, started pushing to put a leash on Lenzner, Rumsfeld called his aide into his office and fired him.

That three-decade-old series of events tells a lot about the Chicagoan who is George W. Bush’s new Secretary of Defense. At 68, Rumsfeld today is as he was then—tough, pragmatic, ambitious, and confident enough to surround himself with top talent. People who have worked with him—even those who admire him—say “ambitious” is the trump card in that list of character traits, and Donald Rumsfeld’s ambition is far from exhausted. “I don’t think Don has wound down,” says William Rentschler, who ran Nixon’s 1968 campaign in Illinois and calls Rumsfeld “ferocious in pursuing what he wants. I would say he is a very aggressive promoter of his particular ambitions.” The national press corps seems to agree. The New York Times reporter Elaine Sciolino recently called him a “bureaucratic black belt.” (Rumsfeld would not comment for this article.)

Rumsfeld’s life story adds up to one of the great Midwestern résumés: wrestling champ at New Trier (class of 1950) and at Princeton (1954), navy pilot, congressman, U.S. ambassador to NATO, chief of staff for Gerald Ford and later Ford’s Secretary of Defense, chief executive officer of Fortune 500 companies, including the Skokie-based G. D. Searle. Throughout, Rumsfeld has been known as a tough operator who lives and works by a collection of rules he has assembled over the decades. Sample: “Prune businesses, products, activities, people. Do it annually.” (The full roster of 154 “Rumsfeld’s Rules” was once posted on the Pentagon’s Web site. Now it can be found here.)

Rumsfeld’s hawkish pronouncements since taking over the Pentagon last January reminded friends that he is a conservative, but he has not given up his taste for smart people who are passionate about ideas. Terry Lenzner, for one, has maintained a friendship with the man who fired him and says that Rumsfeld is “open to different personalities and ideas.” Rumsfeld and his wife, Joyce (also New Trier ’50), have collected scores of friends with liberal credentials, a few even worthy of Nixon’s “enemies list”—Hubert Humphrey, Marian Wright Edelman, Ben Bradlee, Sally Quinn, Dan Rather, Newton Minow. In January 1997, Rumsfeld appeared as a witness for Bill Daley at Daley’s confirmation hearing to become Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Commerce. In 1969, Rumsfeld hired Bill Bradley as a summer intern at the OEO at a time when his fellow Princeton graduate was starting his career with the New York Knicks. “He’ll be a Republican before the summer is out,” Rumsfeld predicted—wrongly, as he must have remembered when he wrote a check for $1,000 to Bradley’s recent campaign for the Democratic nomination for President.

Today, Rumsfeld has power, prestige, and—thanks to his forays in the private sector—wealth. But he has never enjoyed the one thing that people suspect he has always wanted most: the Presidency. Rumsfeld explored mounting a Presidential campaign in 1988, but quickly gave up. The Oval Office is probably now beyond his grasp, but perhaps not another White House office, very close by.

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Illustration: James Bennett



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