The Rumsfeld Mystique

Mackubin T. Owens

January 1, 2004

One of the most remarkable consequences of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 has been the emergence of Donald Rumsfeld, U.S. secretary of defense, as a political star.

As the main architect of the U.S. global war on terrorism, Rumsfeld has become by far the most prominent and influential cabinet member in the Bush administration. He has also reestablished civilian control of the U.S. military, which was allowed to atrophy during the Clinton years. But as a result of his televised briefings to reporters, Mr. Rumsfeld has also become better known to the American public than any other cabinet member in recent memory. His directness, candor and poise have endeared him to millions of Americans in this time of danger.

Of course, he also has ruffled a few feathers during his tenure as secretary of defense, especially within the U.S. Army. He has been called a “takedown artist,” a “control freak” who has little patience with the niceties of military protocol. His critics say he thinks nothing of insulting officers and running roughshod over those with whom he disagrees. Not surprisingly, the uniformed military has struck back. Anti-Rumsfeld leaks to the press have been unprecedented. Hardly a week goes by without a story quoting anonymous officers trashing the secretary for one reason or another.

Midge Decter, one of the foremost social commentators in America, examines the Rumsfeld phenomenon in Rumsfeld: A Personal Portrait.

How has it come to pass, she wonders, that Rumsfeld’s virtues and attractions have become “the subject of heated conversation at fashionable New York dinner parties?” What accounts for the fact that an astounding number of Americans, especially women, many of whom are unsympathetic to his politics, hold him in such high regard?

The fact is that Mr. Rumsfeld already had a long and distinguished career before George Bush tapped him to be his secretary of defense: naval aviator, member of Congress, head of the Office of Economic Opportunity during the Nixon administration, U.S. ambassador to NATO, White House chief of staff and secretary of defense in the Ford administration. He also ran a large pharmaceuticals corporation and chaired two important defense panels. So why the adulation now?

There is a line from the movie “Hud” that illuminates what Decter is after in this book. A major theme of the movie revolves around the battle between the morally reprehensible Hud Bannon (Paul Newman) and his father Homer (Melvyn Douglas) for the soul of Homer’s grandson and Hud’s nephew. The young man is fundamentally decent, but has fallen under Hud’s spell. Confronting his grandson after a bout of drinking and womanizing with Hud, Homer remarks that “the whole landscape of a country changes according to the men we look up to.”

Decter believes that the high regard in which Mr. Rumsfeld is held by most of his countrymen indicates that the landscape of America has been changed for the better. She wants to know why this is the case. She finds the answer in Mr. Rumsfeld’s character, and in the change of attitude among Americans since 9/11. As a friend of mind put it, great events do not call forth small men.

As this same friend notes, there is a significant difference between personality and character. Bill Clinton exudes personality, but Donald Rumsfeld is a man of character. In dangerous times, Americans apparently prefer the latter. They admire the stout heart, sound judgment, courage and steadfastness that make men of character so important during periods of adversity.

The sources of Rumsfeld’s character, says Decter, can be found in the virtues of the American Midwest where he was born and raised. These virtues include “vitality, determination, humor, seriousness, and abiding self-confidence, along with protectiveness toward loved ones, neighbors and country.”

Perhaps the most important of these virtues is the “willingness, even an eagerness, to assume and embrace the burdens of responsibility instead of running away from them.”

I believe that these are the virtues not just of the Midwest, but of the real America as a whole, and that these virtues fit the times to a tee. The United States could afford a Bill Clinton or an Al Gore during a time of peace and prosperity. But one can no more imagine Bill Clinton as a war president than one could imagine James Buchanan rather than Abraham Lincoln trying to save the Union at the time of the American Civil War.

One of the things that makes Decter such a profound yet entertaining writer is her refusal to adhere to “political correctness.” Thus she is not reluctant to attribute what she admires in Rumsfeld to “manliness.” This is certainly true, but in one sense, Rumsfeld is merely a particularly apt representative of the manliness that suffuses the Bush administration as a whole. Gone are the days of a president “feeling our pain” and biting his lip. In dangerous times, this is not reassuring to citizens, especially women who after 9/11 saw their families at risk. War requires men like President Bush and Secretary Rumsfeld, not what Decter calls “clever boys” like Bill Clinton.

A clear indication that Decter is on to something is the apoplectic reaction of the American “glitterati” to Rumsfeld. Ridiculing Decter’s reference to manliness, Maureen Dowd, the New York Times’ shrill, humorless, indeed hysterical columnist, wrote in an article published before Saddam Hussein’s capture that “I would describe [Rumsfeld] as the man who trashed two countries, spent hundreds of billions, exhausted U.S. troops, but still hasn’t found Osama, Saddam or WMD.”

It’s probably a good thing that Ms. Dowd wasn’t around to denounce FDR for “trashing two countries” at the cost of hundreds of thousands of American lives and billions of dollars during World War II.

Decter focuses on Rumsfeld as a social phenomenon whose impact on America as a whole transcends his role as the official responsible for overseeing the Pentagon. But it is this latter responsibility that will ultimately determine whether he has been a success or a failure. It’s clear that he has gone a long way toward reestablishing civilian control of the U.S. military and transforming it into an organization that will be better able to cope with future threats, but there is a real danger that these goals will be attained at the cost of a dispirited and demoralized army. Rightly or wrongly, there is a perception among U.S. officers that Rumsfeld wants to surround himself with “yes-men,” and that dissent will not be tolerated. Many refer to him as “Robert Strange McNamara II.”

This is a recipe for disaster.

Rumsfeld needs to take a cue from Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, David Ben-Gurion and other great democratic statesmen in time of war. By all means, he should challenge, cajole, probe, and question his uniformed military—and then challenge them again. But he should also encourage true dialogue, in the hope of achieving a dynamic, creative tension within the Pentagon on everything from war fighting to transformation. This is the path to healthy civil-military relations—and to true civilian control of the military.

Nonetheless, I believe Decter is right about the social importance of the Rumsfeld phenomenon. As Victor Davis Hanson has observed, the Greeks “invented the art of biography as an exercise in moral philosophy.” Thus in his Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, Plutarch recounted anecdotes from the early lives of preeminent figures that “might reveal an unchanging and essential character, its elements becoming more manifest during the crucible of adulthood and thereby accounting for the subject’s ultimate achievement.”

With Rumsfeld, Decter has reinvigorated this biographical tradition.

In this vein, one anecdote about Rumsfeld stands out. As a young congressman returning home one evening, he observed a fugitive trying to escape from the police. Without hesitation, Rep. Rumsfeld bolted out of his car, tackled the suspect, and held him until the police arrived.

Current fugitives such as Osama bin Laden might want to take note.

Mackubin Thomas Owens, an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center, is an associate dean of academics and professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College in Newport, RI. He led a Marine infantry platoon in Vietnam in 1968-1969.