Donald Rumsfeld: Survivor

Click to Listen to the Show (24 MB MP3)

Riddle me Donald Rumsfeld. He stands at the podium, gray-suited and grease-combed, archaic as a slide rule; he’s ancient but doesn’t look old. He looks, in fact, like Dad, a mid-century version of the guy who disappears with a starched collar every morning to do unfathomable things at the office. When you ask at day’s end what he’s been doing he smiles, uncreased and thinly patient, and explains that you can’t possibly understand what he does. It’s proper and cute that you ask him, but you’re better off letting him handle it, and there is no greater family sin than needless worry.

And he’s tired. He’s been standing all day.

Rumsfeld, Ford and Cheney

Rumsfeld. Ford. Cheney. One of these guys is replaceable. [Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum]

The act would prove comforting if things were going well in Iraq, but they don’t seem to be, and a lot of what’s broken in the last five years — the way we detain and handle prisoners, the way we deploy and equip our military, the way we occupy a country after beating it — is something that Donald Rumsfeld tried to fix. He was young once, a whiz kid not quite a generation behind Robert Mcnamara, a wrestler from Princeton with an twenty-something’s itch to anger bureaucracy. Then he ran for Congress, won, internalized that itch, scratched it and and is now still scratching a half-century later. It sustains him, this itch. With it he has outlasted Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, and he doesn’t look likely to leave Washington before George Bush.

In his eternal war with and within bureaucracies Donald Rumsfeld is a tactical genius, but is his private, metaphorical war with the Pentagon good for America’s public and very literal war in Iraq? “I’m a survivor,” he told the troops last year, speaking, of course, of his unparalleled ability to hold on to appointed office. It’s an odd thing to say to an audience for whom survival means actually not getting killed.

How does he do it? How has he been doing it for so long? What does it take to lick every bureaucrat, politician and Joint Chief reckless enough to take him on?

Michael Gordon

Chief Military Correspondent, The New York Times

Co-Author, Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq

Midge Decter

Author, Rumsfeld: A Personal Portrait

Midge Decter

Author, Rumsfeld: A Personal Portrait

Jim Behrle

Poet and blogger, Behrle

James Mann

Author, The Rise of the Vulcans

Related Content