As far as I can tell, somebody could have put Rummy in orbit – with no exit strategy. I’m talking about Donald Rumsfeld, who served for almost six years as President Bush’s increasingly controversial and unpopular defense secretary until he resigned – apparently under pressure – just days after the November 2006 elections. But for a guy who had one of the highest profiles in the whole world, firing off sharp, often smart-aleck sounding comments on life and death matters – I’m thinking of the Iraq War – I’ve picked up zilch about what he’s doing now.
We know Cheney – that’s Vice President Dick Cheney – hunts. But, I don’t remember hearing what Rumsfeld does in his spare time. Just about every high level elected official that I can think of, following the end of his or her tenure, is said to be gathering his/her important papers in order to write a book about the inside story of their time as presidential cabinet members. I recently read two books by Bill Clinton’s former secretary of state, Madeline Albright. Not being much of a Henry Kissinger fan, I managed to skip his books – several of them, actually.
Robert McNamara, Presidents Kennedy and Johnson’s equally controversial secretary of defense during the ill-fated (and equally ill-conceived) Vietnam War, wrote a stunningly candid, post-war book, ultimately recanting some of the positions he took during that dreadful time. Its title, In Retrospect – The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, is a telling preview of its contents.
Over time, images of McNamara have dulled somewhat. He’s recognizable, of course, but way back in my mental archives. But Rumsfeld, he’s right there. With his flip, dismissive remarks, his inscrutable, Cheshire cat grin, as Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld was a chilling presence.
So, what does a guy like that do, once he’s turned out of office? Probably plays some golf. Maybe a lot of golf, with other retired politicos, ex-lobbyists and the like. Does he travel? For some reason I can’t picture Rummy as a homebody, but on the other hand, as defense secretary, he flew to all sorts of cool, exotic places – and in the very best upscale accommodations those big government executive planes could provide. Once you’re out of office, it’s probably something of a comedown to fly commercial.
Possibly this ex-cabinet officer, once the head of such a mammoth enterprise as running our armed services, defending the whole country – and our allies (if we have any left), is into fishing. Relaxing, enjoying the outdoors. But somehow I just don’t picture Rumsfeld fishing – or relaxing for that matter. Instead, I picture him in an elegant high-rise office, perhaps on the 38th floor – most likely in Washington D.C. or New York.
Surrounding him is a large staff – loyal people who still believe in him and his war policies. There is a huge stack of boxes, along with file cabinets, desks, computers, and plenty of bustle. Rummy’s desk is the biggest one, perhaps slightly elevated and certainly in the choicest location, with the best view of the world below. He is directing the sorting out and cataloging of his official papers. This, we all know, is a massive job. Ex-presidents have to decide where they’ll locate their official libraries, who’ll take charge, how it will look, and how to present themselves the way they wish to be remembered. But cabinet members, especially ones that have served during wartime, helped set and guide war policies, consider carefully how they wish to go down in history as well.
I can picture Rumsfeld at his big desk, bent over stacks of official papers, the light from the large window nearby glinting off the lens of his large, rimless glasses. He’s still rather trim, at 70 something, but I just think he’s one of those intense guys who fidgets off any unwanted pounds. Maybe he goes to the gym – if he does he probably has a short, demanding routine that seldom varies.
And I’m sure Rumsfeld will write “his” book. His is no ordinary career. He’s served as defense secretary twice, the first under President Gerald Ford (1975-1977). Even before that, Rumsfeld held a whole cluster of important, high-level administrative posts, so he has plenty to write about. A number of these later positions had to do with national security and the military, where, we’d guess, he was honing his theories about the military and keeping this country “safe.”
Perhaps there is an understood period of delay before out-of-office cabinet members – or presidents for that matter, venture into print – and into their side of history. But, I’m convinced Rumsfeld is silently (for all I know) assembling his story. Somehow, I don’t expect it to be anything like Robert McNamara’s Vietnam policy revelations. As historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. puts it: “Can anyone remember a public official with the courage to confess error and explain where he and his country went wrong?” This is what Robert McNamara does in this brave, honest, honorable and altogether compelling book.
We can only guess when the Donald Rumsfeld we’ve know, will resurface publicly. Or when his view of history – his book about Iraq – will appear. But, I’m convinced it won’t be anything like McNamara’s, who wrote about Vietnam War policy, “…We were terribly wrong.”