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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With strong roots in Chicago—his paternal grandmother worked all her adult life in Marshall Field’s mail-order shoe department—Don Rumsfeld was born here in the summer of 1932. His father, George, started working for Baird & Warner around age 13 and eventually managed the real estate company’s Winnetka office. For most of Don’s childhood, the family lived modestly in a succession of houses in that rich North Shore suburb. Don’s mother, Jeannette, taught school as a substitute and raised Don and his older sister, Joan. Joyce Rumsfeld recalls that Jeannette “worshiped” her son and kept definitive scrapbooks about him.

Shortly after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, George Rumsfeld, at 38 too old to be drafted, enlisted in the navy. He had to fight his way in, drinking milk shakes to gain weight. Jeannette packed up the children and followed her husband to North Carolina and Oregon where he was stationed. For a year and a half, they lived in Bremerton, Washington, and near San Diego while George served aboard an aircraft carrier.

Always industrious—“It was never in his nature to just sit around,” recalls his sister, Joan Ramsay—Don found odd jobs to make money. During the family’s first stop in North Carolina, Don, then ten, made a deal with a man who had a cart, a donkey, and watermelons. Don had noticed that the man hawked the melons in a voice so weary that he attracted few customers. In exchange for free melons for every few they sold, Don helped him sell and then, lugging the freebies door to door, he sold most of those as well.

Back in Winnetka, Don, at 145 pounds, wrestled at New Trier, becoming a cocaptain of the team that won the state high school championship. He began honing the discipline that would come to define him, exercising compulsively and eschewing cigarettes, alcohol, and sweets. While he showed little interest in politics, he was always goal oriented, recalls Len Vyskocil, who cocaptained the championship New Trier team. “That accounts for his success throughout his life.”

Joyce Pierson—petite, blond, popular—and Don were class officers their junior year and were expected to attend the junior prom. After hearing that Joyce and her boyfriend, the fullback on the football team, had broken up, the dean of students told Don, “Don’t get a date, because you may have to take Joyce.” They began to date seriously in their senior year. Joyce remembers him as a person who “brought an energy level with him—mature, worldly,” while she describes herself as “very young and naïve.”

Like his classmates Ned Jannotta and Brad Glass, Rumsfeld went to Princeton, where he was a scholarship student. He was the captain of both the wrestling and the 150-pound football teams and became a member of the prestigious Cap and Gown Club. George and Jeannette Rumsfeld drove to New Jersey to attend practically every wrestling meet. “It wasn’t that they were so interested in wrestling,” their daughter recalls. “They were interested in whatever their son was doing.”

At Princeton, Rumsfeld got hooked on politics. Barbara Glass—Brad’s future wife—remembers telling Rumsfeld that she found student politics stupid because students didn’t have any power. “He looked at me and said, ‘Barbara, politics affects every aspect of our lives,’” Glass recalls. Joyce, who went to the University of Colorado and majored in art history, says that Rumsfeld wrote her letters recommending books and articles on political subjects. They were married in December 1954 in the Methodist church in Wilmette, six months after they graduated from college.

Rumsfeld was already in the navy, training in Pensacola, Florida, to be a pilot. It was not a program for the faint of heart. “We lost 15 friends in that training program,” Joyce says. Rumsfeld won a coveted spot as a flight instructor and rose to the rank of lieutenant. Brad Glass was also in Pensacola. Barbara describes the pilots—her husband was not one—as “jazzy, confident, top of the world.” (Later, while living in Washington, Rumsfeld would skydive for fun.) He considered a career in the navy but decided instead to look into politics. In 1957, David Dennison, a Republican congressman from Ohio, wrote to the placement officers at several colleges, including Princeton, looking for an administrative aide. Rumsfeld’s name came back highly recommended, so Don, Joyce, and their firstborn, Valerie, went to Washington. Running for re-election in 1958, Dennison named Rumsfeld his campaign manager and dispatched him to Ohio. Dennison lost to the Democrat by 900 votes, but Rumsfeld, who had considered going to law school or into business, had the bug and found work with another Midwestern Republican congressman, Robert Griffin of Michigan. In 1960, Dennison again took on the same Democrat, with Rumsfeld’s help. They lost that election, too.

The Rumsfelds’ daughter Marcy was born later that year. By 1962, the family had moved back to the North Shore, to a small house in Glenview, and Don was working for an investment banking firm, A. G. Becker. When Rumsfeld heard that the popular Republican congresswoman Marguerite Stitt Church would not seek re-election, he recognized that it might be a long time before the seat was open again. The district—which included Chicago’s 50th Ward, Evanston, Skokie, Niles, and Cook County’s other north and northwest suburbs stretching from the lake to Elgin—was reliably Republican, but the GOP organization had backed state representative Marion E. Burks of Evanston. A stolid 50-year-old with strong ties to the insurance industry, Burks screamed experience when compared with the crewcut Rumsfeld, who was 29 but looked 18. The fight would be in the primary; the general election was a sure thing for whichever Republican won.

The Rumsfelds’ New Trier friends constituted a kind of youth crusade, a “New Trier Mafia,” says Ned Jannotta, who presided as campaign manager. They rang doorbells, hosted coffees, licked envelopes, operated telephone banks. Cap Adams (New Trier ’50), later chairman of Leo Burnett, donated his services to design brochures, buttons, bumper stickers, ads. Other North Shore luminaries helped raise money—Dan Searle, Arthur Nielsen Jr., William Graham (Baxter International), Robert Galvin (Motorola).

Burks probably would have won if the Chicago Sun-Times had not continually reported on a state investigation of his insurance firm. That was the turning point for Rumsfeld, who skillfully exploited Burks’s troubles. Steve Neal, then a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, later wrote that Rumsfeld “never made a public comment about his opponent’s difficulties,” but his “operatives” ensured that Burks “was asked embarrassing questions at each campaign stop.” (The operatives included Jeb Stuart Magruder, who would later go to prison on Watergate-related perjury charges.) Though Jannotta had rated Rumsfeld “a hundred-to-one shot when he started,” he won easily.

Just as his hyperorganized, disciplined manner made him a master campaigner—he made notes, compiled lists, followed through on every detail: “Nobody was left dangling,” says Jannotta—so it made him a master of constituent service. Dan Searle recalls Rumsfeld’s “tremendous appetite for work.”

During that first term, the Rumsfelds lived in a rented house in Maryland and tried to maintain their home in Glenview. With one daughter almost two years old and the other in kindergarten, they lived in Washington from January through Labor Day, then packed a U-Haul and moved back to the house in Glenview until Christmas. On December 26th they would pack a U-Haul and return to Washington. Eventually, they bought what might have been the narrowest house in Georgetown—11 feet wide—and stayed in Washington. For financial reasons and because, Joyce says, they believed in public education, their daughters started in the District’s public schools, among the worst in the nation. Their friend Newton Minow remains im- pressed: “We talk about liberals. They lived their principles out.” Valerie went to public school through sixth grade, then transferred to Sidwell Friends, the upscale private school where the Clintons sent Chelsea.

In Congress, Rumsfeld was a young man in a hurry. In 1965, he and a few other congressmen maneuvered their colleague Gerald Ford into the minority leader’s post, ruffling the feathers of the old guard and their choice, Charles Halleck of Indiana. When Rumsfeld sought a leadership post for himself in 1969, he lost, having rubbed too many of his colleagues the wrong way. “The road to having a significant influence in Congress—more so then than now—required many, many years of seniority,” says Dan Searle. Rumsfeld told Tom Littlewood, then a Washington correspondent for the Chicago Sun-Times, how frustrated he was because the Democrats ran the House with an iron fist and did not pay attention to the minority party.

During his days in Congress, Rumsfeld struck up a close friendship with Allard Lowenstein—another example of Rumsfeld’s eagerness to embrace, up to a point, someone bright from an opposing camp. Rumsfeld and Lowenstein met in the mid-1960s when Rumsfeld was a congressman and Lowenstein was a left-leaning activist and a backer of Robert Kennedy.  “He almost lived with us,” recalls Joyce. They debated politics until late into the night, with Lowenstein sometimes sleeping on their sofa. They grew so close that Lowenstein was with the Rumsfelds when their son, Nick, was born in 1967. The following year, Rumsfeld stood beside Lowenstein when he won his House seat from Long Island. Both wrestlers, they frequented the House gym. When Lowenstein ran for re-election in 1970, Rumsfeld—now at the OEO—publicly refuted charges by Lowenstein’s Republican opponent that Lowenstein was a dangerous radical. But then Rumsfeld endorsed that very opponent. He knew that his boss, President Nixon, expected him to. “That’s when you cease to be an independent operator,” Rumsfeld explained. Lowenstein lost and—unlike others who felt betrayed by Rumsfeld—never forgave him. (Lowenstein was murdered in 1980 by a disturbed former disciple.)

Rumsfeld ran the Office of Economic Opportunity until late 1970, when Nixon named him counselor to the President and gave him an office in the White House. Nixon seemed genuinely to like his handsome, confident adviser. The President’s top aides, John Ehrlichman and Bob Haldeman, were less enamored, especially when Rumsfeld refused to accept the top spot at the Republican National Committee. “Eventually the senior staff grew to realize,” Ehrlichman later wrote, “that the ambitious Rumsfeld would decline every assignment that did not enhance his personal goals.”

Rumsfeld had learned how important it was to polish his image and quickly realized that the press could provide the elbow grease. Tom Littlewood, a newcomer to Washington, received typical Rumsfeld treatment when Rumsfeld, then in Congress, called and invited him home for Sunday supper. When Littlewood wrote a “lightly critical” story about Rumsfeld, the congressman called, not to complain but to ask about a book Littlewood had mentioned in the article that espoused a theory of public affairs. With the move to the Nixon White House, Rumsfeld went national, allegedly feeding information to Dan Rather, then a White House correspondent for CBS News. Twenty-five years later, NBC anchor Tom Brokaw recalled the difficulty of covering the White House for NBC when Rumsfeld was giving scoops to his rival.

In the White House, Rumsfeld was again a young man in a hurry—to get out of town. He sensed something rotten going on that might jeopardize his career. In late 1972, he persuaded Nixon to send him to Brussels as ambassador to NATO. “His timing was impeccable,” says Jannotta. Rumsfeld reorganized NATO to make it run more efficiently, and he laid the foundation for his expertise in defense and foreign policy while becoming one of the few Nixon confidants to escape Watergate untainted.

On the day that President Nixon resigned, Gerald Ford summoned his friend from Spain, where the Rumsfelds were vacationing, and asked him to run the transition. Next, Ford invited him to replace Alexander Haig as the chief of staff. Rumsfeld at first declined, fearing he would become ensnared in reputation-ruining infighting, but then agreed, reluctantly. He called Cheney and told him to sign on as his deputy.

Critics complain that Rumsfeld played Ford like a puppet, maneuvering him into moves that, they argue, better served Rumsfeld’s interests than the President’s. One man long active in Republican politics in Illinois uses the phrase “cutthroat bureaucrat” to describe Rumsfeld. He is said to have pushed Ford into axing the perfectly competent Defense Secretary, James Schlesinger, to open up Defense. According to Joe Laitin, Rumsfeld, determined to be slated as Vice-President, “knew the chief of staff job was not a good launching pad. He had to get into the Cabinet. The best job was Secretary of State, but Kissinger had that and could not be unseated; the next was Secretary of the Treasury, but William Simon had that and would fight like an alley cat. The third was Secretary of Defense, so Rumsfeld decided to go after that.”

In November 1975, Rumsfeld became, at age 43, the youngest Defense Secretary in U.S. history. It was his ideal post—intellectually challenging, concerned with military and international affairs, excellent for the résumé: Running a big department would show he had the stuff to run the country.

In the aftermath of Vietnam, the defense job needed someone like Rumsfeld. Morale was in the basement, racial tensions and drug use were rampant in the armed services, and contempt for the military had become almost mainstream. Cap Adams recalls going to dinner at the Rumsfelds’ home in Chevy Chase, Maryland, and being surprised to find no security at all. Inviting Adams outside, Rumsfeld showed off a grave that former priest Philip Berrigan and two other antiwar protesters had dug in the front yard. “Don didn’t care about it, wasn’t big on security,” says Adams.

Warning that the Soviet Union was becoming a superpower, Secretary Rumsfeld successfully lobbied Congress to increase the defense budget. He also bested Secretary of State Henry Kissinger by persuading Ford not to sign the SALT II (Strategic Arms Limitation) treaty, arguing that it would be impossible to verify and that it gave the Soviets too much. Jannotta recalls Rumsfeld telling him that Kissinger was warning that “politically” the United States needed to have an agreement with the Soviets. “Don’s view was, you never need to have an agreement. Have the right kind of agreement or no agreement.”

Rumsfeld became one of the few to humiliate Kissinger and live to tell about it. Today, Rumsfeld counts the former Secretary as a close social friend. “I came to believe that if he ever reached the presidency,” Kissinger later wrote, “. . . he had the makings of a strong president.” (The New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd recently wrote, “Henry Kissinger once called Mr. Rumsfeld the most ruthless man he knew, all global despots included.” Kissinger has denied saying that.)

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