During the midday hours of Wednesday, April 7, 1971, Richard Nixon was sitting in his office hideaway in the Executive Office Building, next door to the White House, attempting to prepare himself for that night's prime-time presidential address to the nation. The subject, as usual, was Vietnam. And yet as Nixon went over the speech with his two top aides—Henry Kissinger, the National Security Adviser, and H. R. ("Bob") Haldeman, Nixon's chief of staff—the conversation kept returning to a different topic: namely, what the President, with growing irritation, called "the Rumsfeld problem." Nixon was thinking of getting rid of Donald H. Rumsfeld, a former congressman who was then serving on the White House domestic-policy staff. "I think Rumsfeld may be not too long for this world," he said, adding, a few minutes later, "Let's dump him."
The problem was that from Nixon and Kissinger's perspective, Rumsfeld was becoming a troublesome antiwar advocate. Rumsfeld had emerged at the center of a small group of Administration officials, all of them involved with domestic policy, who were asking in staff meetings why the Administration could not move more quickly to end the war. The internal opponents also included George Shultz, the director of the Office of Management and Budget; Clark MacGregor, the counselor for congressional relations; and John Ehrlichman, the special assistant to the President for domestic affairs.
"They don't know a god-damn thing about foreign policy!" Nixon had said to Kissinger on the telephone a day earlier. "They're only concerned about, frankly, peace at any price, really. Because all they're concerned with is, well, revenue-sharing and the environment and all that crap—which doesn't amount to anything, in my opinion." Kissinger had concurred, saying, "They don't know what we'll be hit with if this whole thing comes apart."
The Vietnam War had reached a new milestone the previous week: it had now claimed more American lives than the Korean War. Vietnam had thus become the fourth most lethal conflict in American history, after the Civil War and the two world wars. At home it was creating ever greater upheaval on college campuses, in the streets of major cities, and in American politics. That spring a new round of antiwar protests was building. The Democratic senator Edmund Muskie was gearing up to run against Nixon in 1972 and was challenging him on the war; polls showed that he was even with or ahead of the President. Even Republicans in Congress were becoming restive; earlier in the month nine Republican senators had met with Defense Secretary Melvin Laird at the home of Senator Jacob Javits, of New York, to plead for an end to the war.
For nearly two months Rumsfeld had been seeking some new role in the Administration in which he could influence policy on Vietnam. In the process he had become a particular annoyance to Kissinger. Rumsfeld's first attempt—in a memo to Nixon dated February 27, 1971—was to propose the appointment of a special presidential envoy "to review and report on postwar Southeast Asia during the winding down of hostilities." The detailed memo left no doubt that Rumsfeld had himself in mind for this job. The special envoy could lay the groundwork for the postwar reconstruction of Southeast Asia, Rumsfeld argued; and he insisted that such an envoy would not intrude on Kissinger's turf as National Security Adviser. Rumsfeld told Nixon that making such an appointment "would focus attention and emphasis on Indo-China peace instead of Indo-China war." He was asking Nixon, in bureaucratic language, to give peace a chance.
Henry Kissinger was not about to yield any authority over Vietnam policy to this pushy politician. Kissinger's deputy, Alexander Haig, first postponed any response to Rumsfeld's Nixon memo for weeks, and then sent a reply saying that introducing a special envoy "would confuse our allies as to who was doing what." Undaunted, Rumsfeld broached the idea again in a one-on-one Oval Office meeting with Nixon. The President brushed him off and suggested instead that Rumsfeld broaden his foreign-policy experience with a brief mission overseas. "It might be better from your standpoint—I think you want to take a trip to Europe," he told Rumsfeld. The trip, ostensibly for the purpose of exchanging ideas with European officials about drug abuse, was scheduled for later that spring.
But Rumsfeld did not let go of Vietnam. On the morning of April 7 he pressed Kissinger, in the presence of other White House staff members, for an explanation of why the Administration couldn't move more quickly to bring the war to a close. Afterward Kissinger grumbled to the President that Rumsfeld had never quite said exactly what he wanted Nixon to do. He had never called specifically for Nixon to set a "date certain" for the end of the war (as Nixon's critics were requesting), and had spoken only vaguely of setting a date by which the United States would reduce its presence in Vietnam to a "residual force." It was this challenge at the staff meeting, and Rumsfeld's stance on Vietnam, that prompted Nixon to talk about firing him. The President also worried that Rumsfeld might quit first.
"He's ready to jump the ship," Nixon said at his later meeting with Haldeman and Kissinger.
"No, I don't think he's ready to jump," Haldeman replied. "And I doubt if he ever would, just because [staying on in the Administration] serves his interests more than not. But I don't think he's ever going to be a solid member of the ship." "He's just positioning himself to be close to The Washington Post and The New York Times," Kissinger interjected.
Nixon returned to business. "Well, then let's dump him right after this," he said. "Good God, we're sending him and [the White House adviser Robert] Finch on a two-month holiday to Europe. Shit. For what purpose?"
"To get him out of town," Kissinger said, gently reminding his boss that Rumsfeld's "holiday" in Europe had originally been their idea.
Nixon tried to go back to rehearsing that night's speech, in which he would announce that he planned to withdraw 100,000 Americans from Vietnam by the end of the year, but would also explicitly refuse to set a date for the end of the war. Still, he couldn't put Rumsfeld out of his mind.
"Coming back to the Rumsfeld problem—I'm disappointed in Don, Bob," he told Haldeman a few minutes later. "Understand, I don't want to be disappointed, just because—I don't want somebody who's just with us, God damn it, when things are going good, you know what I mean? If he thinks we're going down the tubes, and he's just going to ride with us, maybe he's going to take a trip to Europe occasionally—then screw him, you know?"
What galled Nixon especially was that Rumsfeld, who was viewed as one of the Administration's most effective public speakers, refused to go out and defend the Nixon Administration to the American people. "He won't step up to anything," Nixon grumbled. "We have given him, time and time again, opportunities to step up, and he will not step up and kick the ball."
Haldeman agreed. "I used to think at one point he was a potential presidential contender, but he isn't," he said.
"He's like Finch," Nixon said. "They both have the charisma for national office, but neither has got the backbone."
Rumsfeld was one of several aides Nixon talked about dumping but never did. The President's irritation with him eventually subsided, and he remained in the Administration until its premature end. The Vietnam episode provides an illuminating glimpse of his work in the Nixon Administration and contradicts some of the simplistic perceptions Americans have since had of Rumsfeld.
During the following three decades Rumsfeld came to be viewed as an ardent hawk, a champion of U.S. military power. That perception does not fit the early phases of his career, when, as a fervent proponent of domestic reform, he was a moderate-to-liberal force within the Nixon Administration. His dovish views suited his political ambitions: the war was unpopular, and as an adviser on domestic policy, he had no personal or professional stake in winning it. Indeed, Rumsfeld, who throughout his government career has seemed to relish bureaucratic combat, may have viewed Vietnam as an issue on which he could challenge Kissinger's primacy within the government (something he later did with greater success in his more hawkish guise during the Ford Administration).
Over the years another assumption about Rumsfeld has taken hold: that he had no connection to the seamier side of Nixon's presidency—the bare-knuckle apparatus that waged combat with Nixon's political enemies. This assumption arose in part from the fact that Rumsfeld was appointed the ambassador to NATO and was thus thousands of miles away, in Europe, during 1973-1974, when the Watergate scandal crested and Nixon resigned. Gerald Ford, an old friend, who brought Rumsfeld back to Washington to take charge of the White House staff after Nixon's resignation, helped to foster this perception. "He wouldn't tolerate political shenanigans," Ford wrote in his memoirs, "and the men around Nixon knew he wouldn't, so to protect themselves, they kept him out of the loop."
Nixon's secret White House tape recordings reveal a more complex reality, however. Rumsfeld was not entirely divorced from Nixon's political operations. There is no sign that he was involved in any of the illegalities of Watergate, but he was willing to offer Nixon other help of a not particularly exalted nature—some dirt on political enemies, some covert ties with a prominent pollster. The Nixon tapes reveal that Rumsfeld often worked with and was a special favorite of John Mitchell and Charles Colson, Nixon's roughest political operators, who viewed Rumsfeld as savvier than other White House aides. Indeed, when Nixon first considered naming Rumsfeld the NATO ambassador, in the summer of 1971, Mitchell urged the President to keep him around until after the election, and Nixon decided Mitchell was right. "Let me say this—he has done some good political stuff for Mitchell," Nixon told Haldeman about Rumsfeld at one point. "He'll cooperate. NATO's fine, but it pulls him out of politics ... He's an operator." In short, the tapes demonstrate that Rumsfeld was not nearly so marginal a figure in Nixon's political apparatus as he was later portrayed.
Nixon and Rumsfeld seem to have formed a curious but strong bond early on. Rumsfeld saw Nixon as a mentor. In a series of lengthy one-on-one conversations in the White House, Rumsfeld repeatedly sought both to advance to a Cabinet job and to obtain Nixon's advice on his political career. Rumsfeld was, of course, gaining private tutelage from America's most skilled political infighter.
Nixon valued Rumsfeld too. From his perspective, Rumsfeld stood in a different category from Haldeman, Ehrlichman, and Kissinger: as a former congressman, Rumsfeld was the only senior White House staff member who had repeatedly subjected himself, as Nixon had, to the hazards and potential public humiliations of running for elective office. Nixon's political defeats in 1960 and 1962 and his long, acrimony-filled career had left the President with not only a strain of self-pity but also a strong sense of personal identification with other politicians. Haldeman and Ehrlichman loathed Rumsfeld for his ambition and his self-promotion, but for Nixon these qualities did not count against Rumsfeld. Moreover, Nixon thought Rumsfeld was a good public face for the Administration and hoped to make use of him, especially to court voters on college campuses and in America's suburbs. "He's young, he's thirty-nine years old, he's a hell of a spokesman," Nixon said.
And yet their relationship remained largely private. In public Rumsfeld never seemed to be a central part of the Nixon Administration. Nixon discovered, to his frustration, that Rumsfeld was often too willing to challenge existing policy inside the White House and not willing enough to defend it in public. For Rumsfeld's part, he never managed to obtain the central role or the Cabinet appointment he wanted. As things turned out after Watergate, Rumsfeld was fortunate that he had never been closely identified with Nixon.
Donald Henry Rumsfeld's father, a Chicago real-estate broker, had moved his family around the country during a stint in the Navy in World War II and then returned to settle on Chicago's North Shore. Donald went to New Trier High School, where he was the star of the school's state-championship wrestling team. He went on to Princeton, where he became the captain of the wrestling team. One teammate, two years ahead of him, was Frank Carlucci, who would, like Rumsfeld, rise to the top of America's national-security establishment.
After college Rumsfeld spent three years in the Navy, where he became a pilot and a flight instructor and, yet again, a wrestling champion. According to Steve Neal, a Chicago Tribune reporter who chronicled Rumsfeld's early years, Rumsfeld hoped for a chance at the 1956 Olympics, but gave up because of a shoulder injury. In the late 1950s he worked as a congressional aide in Washington. Eventually he decided to run for Congress himself. He entered the 1962 Republican primary for a congressional seat from Chicago's northern suburbs, a heavily Republican district. His main rival was an Evanston insurance executive whose company had been under state investigation. According to Neal, one of Rumsfeld's campaign aides—the young Republican Jeb Stuart Magruder, who was later convicted of perjury in the Watergate scandal—made sure that Rumsfeld's rival was asked repeatedly about the investigation. Rumsfeld won the primary and captured the seat.
In Congress, Rumsfeld first began to reveal the distinctive style that would mark his career for decades. Fellow congressmen found that he hated clichés and enjoyed embarrassing in public those who lapsed into jargon-filled speech. He served on the House Committee on Science and Astronautics, and took a special interest in the space program; once, an official of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration began telling members of the committee how NASA would do this project "in-house" and that project "in-house" and another project "in-house." Exasperated, Rumsfeld finally interjected, "What about the out-house?"
Rumsfeld's voting record was not unlike those of other Republicans from the northern suburbs: he was economically conservative but socially moderate; he supported civil-rights legislation; he was a leader in the drive to replace the draft with a volunteer Army. (Four decades later, after he became George W. Bush's Secretary of Defense, two members of Congress who were opposed to military action against Iraq introduced legislation to reinstate the draft. Rumsfeld, drawing on his arguments from the 1960s, said that draftees had added "no value, no advantage, really" to the armed services. He was quickly obliged to apologize to veterans' groups.)
Rumsfeld also took a modest interest in foreign policy. In 1962 Richard Allen, the conservative Republican who later became Ronald Reagan's National Security Adviser, helped to set up the Center for Strategic Studies, a think tank at Georgetown University. Rumsfeld was one of the center's earliest congressional allies. "We organized a little salon at night back when the members of Congress still had time to think and breathe," Allen says. "Rumsfeld would come over along with a little coterie of Republican and Democratic congressmen. And Rumsfeld and I formed a friendship. We didn't have any money; we drove Volkswagens and went to each other's houses and drank jug wine and ate spaghetti."
Rumsfeld's main achievement during this period was his role in a successful challenge to the existing political order on Capitol Hill. Following Barry Goldwater's humiliating defeat in the 1964 presidential election, some Republicans in the House of Representatives decided to push for new party leadership. The Republican minority leader at the time was Charles Halleck, of Indiana. Rumsfeld emerged at the head of this group of insurgents, which included Representatives Charles Goodell, of New York; Robert Griffin, of Michigan; Albert Quie, of Minnesota; and Robert Ellsworth, of Kansas. The group moved to dump Halleck and replace him with Gerald Ford, of Michigan. The effort succeeded, and Rumsfeld became one of Ford's closest advisers.
For a generally conservative Republican congressman, Rumsfeld maintained some surprising friendships with Democrats. One of his closest associates in the House was Allard K. Lowenstein, a leader of the antiwar movement and perhaps the most liberal member of Congress at the time, who in 1967 led the fight within the Democratic Party to drop Lyndon Johnson as its presidential nominee. Rumsfeld and Lowenstein had served together as congressional aides in the late 1950s and once dreamed of buying a country newspaper.
During the 1968 campaign Rumsfeld performed one noteworthy bit of service for the presidential nominee Richard Nixon. Knowing that Rumsfeld came from Chicago, Nixon had asked him to help run a small Republican operation inside the Conrad Hilton Hotel during the Democratic National Convention there, in August. The twenty-eight-story Hilton was serving as the headquarters for Vice President Hubert Humphrey, the leading Democrat, and for Eugene McCarthy, the antiwar candidate; many Democratic delegates were staying there too. Working with several other Nixon supporters, Rumsfeld was supposed to serve as a spokesman for the Republican nominee, providing reporters with on-the-spot responses to Democratic accusations. In addition, Nixon, a lifelong voracious consumer of political intelligence, asked Rumsfeld to report back on what he saw and heard that week, both from the participants at the convention and from the protesters expected outside it. When violence erupted, Rumsfeld served as Nixon's lookout man.
In the afternoon and evening hours of August 28 the Chicago police chased antiwar demonstrators through downtown streets and attacked them with nightsticks. Some of the worst beatings took place along Michigan Avenue, directly in front of the Hilton. As he watched the bloodshed from his hotel window, Rumsfeld provided an account for Nixon and his aides, who were relaxing in Key Biscayne and preparing for his fall campaign.
"He would call up and say, 'They're breaking bones! Omigosh, look at that!'" recalls Robert Ellsworth, Nixon's national political director, who took Rumsfeld's calls from Chicago. "The information wasn't that politically useful, but it was titillating to the candidate. Nixon loved those details."
By 1968 Rumsfeld had been serving in Congress for nearly six years. He was ready for a change. After campaigning for Nixon throughout the country that fall, he hoped to be named chairman of the Republican National Committee if Nixon won the election. He didn't get the job. As would happen on other occasions throughout his career, Rumsfeld's driving, combative style had pleased the top man but had earned him powerful enemies among others near the top, particularly Haldeman. According to Ellsworth, Haldeman blocked Rumsfeld both from the party chairmanship (which eventually went to a more easygoing congressman, Rogers Morton) and from various top jobs in the Administration. Rumsfeld then sought to become head of the party's Research and Planning Committee but lost out on that post, too—to Representative Robert A. Taft Jr., of Ohio. In the process of leading the movement for Ford, Rumsfeld had antagonized some other party leaders in the House. By the early months of 1969 he seemed to be stuck, an up-and-coming congressman looking for the next rung to climb.
Three months after Nixon's inauguration a job finally opened up. Two Republican governors had turned down Nixon's invitations to head the Office of Economic Opportunity, an agency established during the Johnson Administration to run new programs aimed at eliminating poverty. Nixon offered the job to Rumsfeld, who had voted in Congress against many of those programs. The job "was less than what he wanted, but more than Haldeman wanted him to get," Ellsworth says.
Before taking the job Rumsfeld bargained hard. At a meeting with Nixon in Key Biscayne, he won assurances that he would be named not only head of the anti-poverty agency but also an assistant to the President, with Cabinet-level status and an office in the White House. The concurrent White House appointment turned out to be important, because it helped to overcome a legal obstacle: the Constitution bars a member of Congress from accepting any job in the federal government if the salary for that job has been increased during the congressman's time in office. While Rumsfeld was in Congress, the salary of the OEO director had been increased from $30,000 to $42,500. However, the Nixon Administration obtained a memorandum from its bright new assistant attorney general, William H. Rehnquist, explaining that the constitutional problem could be circumvented if Nixon agreed to pay Rumsfeld no salary for his work as the OEO director and $42,500 for his work as a White House adviser. Thus Rumsfeld got his first job in the Nixon Administration partly through the convoluted legal reasoning of the future Chief Justice of the United States.
One of Rumsfeld's first actions in the Administration was a seemingly minor personnel decision whose impact would reverberate for decades. Rumsfeld was looking for a right-hand man. He found and hired a twenty-eight-year-old Capitol Hill staff aide and graduate student named Richard Cheney.
Cheney grew up in Casper, Wyoming, the son of a career civil servant with the Department of Agriculture. He was a football star and a class president at Natrona County High School, where he dated the state-champion baton twirler, Lynne Vincent. He won a rare scholarship to Yale University, but dropped out within two years. "I didn't relate to Yale at all," he later explained. "I had some romantic notions about wanting to get out and see the world—or at least traveling all around the West."
Cheney moved back west to be what he later called a "lineman for the county," building power lines on construction crews in Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah. Eventually he returned to college, at the University of Wyoming; married Lynne Vincent; and went off with her to graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, where he became a doctoral candidate in political science and she became a doctoral candidate in English. He was eligible for the draft during the Vietnam War but obtained deferments, first as a student and then as a parent, after his and Lynne's first daughter, Elizabeth, was born, in 1966. (More than two decades later, when he was questioned by the Senate Armed Services Committee about those draft deferments, Cheney offered a memorable reply: "I had other priorities in the sixties than military service." He said he would have been happy to serve if he had been called, and that he felt the U.S. involvement in Vietnam was a noble cause.)
Cheney went to Washington in 1968, on a fellowship from the American Political Science Association that enabled him to work for a member of Congress. One of the congressmen with whom he interviewed for a job was Rumsfeld—but the future Vice President failed to impress the future Defense Secretary. The applicant was neither particularly eloquent nor dynamic. "It was one of the more unpleasant experiences of my life," Cheney recalled in a 1986 speech. "The truth is, I flunked the interview. After half an hour it was clear to both of us that there was no possibility that I could work for him."
Cheney landed in the office of William Steiger, of Wisconsin. He was working there in the spring of 1969 when he noticed a note on Steiger's desk from Rumsfeld, looking for advice and help in his new OEO job. Cheney spotted an opportunity. Over a weekend he wrote an unsolicited memo for Steiger on how to staff and run a federal agency. The following week Steiger passed the memo on to Rumsfeld. A few weeks after reading it Rumsfeld called Cheney and offered him a position as his special assistant.
It was the beginning of Cheney's long apprenticeship with Rumsfeld. Over most of the next seven years in the Nixon and Ford Administrations, Cheney served as Rumsfeld's doorkeeper and top administrator in Washington. He proved to be quiet, discreet, and efficient. Those working for Rumsfeld soon discovered that the way to get things done was to go to Cheney. Rumsfeld's style was to run day-to-day operations by remote control, issuing edicts and obtaining information through his special assistant. As that assistant, Cheney gradually took on an importance of his own. "When you gave something to Dick," one OEO veteran recalls, "it happened. It got done."
They were a complementary pair, each offering traits the other didn't have. Rumsfeld was full of energy; Cheney was low-key. Rumsfeld overflowed with words and ideas; Cheney, the laconic westerner, never used a word beyond what the situation required. Rumsfeld always seemed to want more: more turf, expanded missions, a bigger job. Cheney appeared to the world as unfailingly modest and patient. Rumsfeld challenged people head on, and in the process made many others nervous or resentful. The self-effacing Cheney, in contrast, usually managed to leave adversaries thinking that whatever had happened to them was merely the business of government and nothing personal. Rumsfeld loved to shake up the established order; Cheney conveyed an air of reassurance and stability.
Yet despite their contrasting styles, the two men tended to think alike. They would work together, on and off, over more than three decades without any strong differences of opinion emerging between them.
Cheney was merely one of several future leaders working at the OEO in those years, at a time when the eradication of poverty was given much higher priority than it would be later on. Rumsfeld also recruited Frank Carlucci, his friend and wrestling teammate from Princeton, to serve as one of his top aides. Thus, curiously enough, during the Nixon Administration three of America's future Secretaries of Defense—Rumsfeld, Carlucci, and Cheney—were working alongside one another in an agency dedicated to social change. The OEO's employees in the late 1960s and early 1970s also included Bill Bradley, the future senator and presidential candidate; Christine Todd Whitman, the future governor of New Jersey and EPA administrator; Mickey Kantor, the future U.S. trade representative; Jim Leach, the future congressman; and Terry Lenzner, the future investigator and staff member for the Senate Watergate Committee. John D. Rockefeller IV was one of the earliest recruits of Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), the OEO program that served as a domestic version of the Peace Corps; VISTA assigned Rockefeller to West Virginia, where he later settled down and was elected first governor and then U.S. senator.
Many of these people had been attracted by the idealism of the agency's mission. When Lyndon Johnson established the OEO, in 1964, he told Congress, "For the first time in our history, it is possible to conquer poverty." In addition to vista the agency had in its early years started up the Job Corps, for disadvantaged youth; legal services for the poor; and Head Start, the education program for preschool children.
In the OEO's first three years, under the Democrats, as its personnel began to organize and speak up for the poor, the agency aroused intense opposition from governors, local officials, and the business community. The strongest opposition arose when lawyers for the anti-poverty program in California helped to represent migrant farm workers in disputes against agricultural interests, and Governor Ronald Reagan in response tried to cut off OEO funding for the legal-aid program.
During the 1968 campaign Nixon had promised to bring the OEO to heel. According to Leonard Garment, Nixon's White House counselor and former law partner, Nixon's main objective for the agency was "getting control of all the meshugenehs who were driving governors and other people crazy."
Thus Rumsfeld was stepping into a potentially poisonous situation—taking over an agency that had been created by the Democrats and was filled with enthusiastic young employees but was despised by the President for whom he worked. He quickly moved to curb some of the OEO's excesses.
Nevertheless, within a few months Rumsfeld became a staunch and surprisingly tough advocate for the anti-poverty agency. This was his first job in the executive branch, and from the very start he demonstrated a particular talent for defending his bureaucratic turf. To get what his organization needed he quietly pushed the White House and the budget officers, and he also learned to go outside the Administration, to Congress and the press, to counter resistance from within the Administration. He was trying to do his best for the agency, hoping to make it succeed.
In a speech to the National Press Club seven months after taking charge of the OEO, Rumsfeld even defended the concept of federally funded legal services, saying that "justice for the poor" was part of his agency's mission. By this point he was beginning to be seen as a rare moderate, even progressive, voice within the Administration, and was becoming a target of the conservatives. At the press conference that followed this speech, the very first questioner asked Rumsfeld about reports that he was viewed "with open hostility" in the Nixon White House.
The following year Rumsfeld sponsored a notable initiative that would eventually become a cherished cause of American conservatives: tuition tax credits. It was the first salvo in an education controversy that has persisted for decades. Rumsfeld argued that with tax credits or vouchers, "poor parents would be able to exercise some opportunity to choose, similar to that now enjoyed by wealthier parents, who can move to a 'better' public school district or send their children to private schools."
In a memo to Nixon about the tax-credit idea, Rumsfeld said he thought he could convince Jewish groups that their fears about a violation of the separation of Church and State were "groundless." However, Rumsfeld went on, "the education lobby ... is clearly correct in perceiving the potential threat that these experiments pose to their comfortable world." That memo encapsulated Rumsfeld's brash style, his overconfidence in his persuasive powers, and his eagerness to upset the existing order.
By late 1970 Rumsfeld had decided that it was time to move on. He had managed to keep the OEO from being gutted by the Nixon Administration, but his conservative friends were telling him that he had already stayed in the OEO job too long and that it was becoming a political liability. He also had hopes for a bigger job in the Administration.
Soon after the 1970 congressional elections, in which the Republicans did poorly, Nixon and his team began talking about an Administration shake-up. Rumsfeld figured prominently in the maneuvering. Haldeman wrote in his diary for November 7, 1970, "Decided major personnel changes. [George] Romney out [as secretary of Housing and Urban Development], Rumsfeld to replace him." But Romney refused to leave, and although Nixon and his aides talked about firing him, the President couldn't bring himself to do so. Rumsfeld was moved instead to the White House full-time, as a senior adviser, leaving him on hold for a future Cabinet-level position and postponing the question of exactly what he would do while he waited.
Throughout 1971-1972, while Rumsfeld was serving on the White House staff, he had a series of intermittent private talks with the President about his own future and about American politics, American foreign policy, and the state of the world. Those long, meandering conversations, preserved in Nixon's tape recordings, provide a remarkable insight into the two men.
Rumsfeld continued to speak up for moderate-to-liberal causes that ran against the generally conservative drift of the Administration. His work at the OEO had given him a constituency and, for a time, a sense of purpose. "We need to be able to communicate with the young and the black and the people who are out, even though we don't get their vote," he told Nixon in one private conversation in March of 1971.
Nixon decided that Rumsfeld's liberalism could be put to good use, winning support in places where the Administration was weak. "I think Rumsfeld doing, frankly, two [kinds of] people, suburbia and young, sounds awfully good," he told Haldeman. "Forget the environment, farting around with the old folks, the Negroes, and everything. Right now there has to be organized—I want to get something done on college youth."
Nevertheless, Rumsfeld's political stances were hard to separate from his intense ambition, which was served by the idea that his progressive views could help the Administration attract support from the political center. Rumsfeld's plea in behalf of "the young and the black and the people who are out" was made immediately after the President asked him for his opinion about Vice President Spiro Agnew. Nixon wondered why Agnew was so unpopular.
RUMSFELD: The Vice President's demeanor ... tends to tell people that he's not communicating with them. Look at his background. He came to this straight out of Maryland.
NIXON: Pretty hard to go straight out of Maryland to the top.
RUMSFELD: You better believe it! My goodness. I mean, I had three times as much experience in government as he did.
It is hard to escape the conclusion that Rumsfeld would have liked the President to dump Agnew and run on a Nixon-Rumsfeld ticket in 1972.
The principal item on the agenda in these conversations was Rumsfeld's career. Nixon was engaging in one of his favorite pastimes: dispensing political advice. At the time of their talks both men assumed that Rumsfeld would eventually run for the Senate from his home state of Illinois. The main question was what jobs or experience would help him win a Senate seat. Nixon encouraged him to do something in foreign policy.
"Believe me, in any big sophisticated state, and yours is a big sophisticated state, it's about the world," Nixon told Rumsfeld. "It's not about their miserable little subjects." He recounted his own experience as a representative from California, becoming active in the House Un-American Activities Committee and in the investigation of Alger Hiss, so that when he ran for the Senate from California, in 1950, he was considered a foreign-policy "expert" and voters looked up to him.
Rumsfeld agreed that he'd like to be involved in foreign affairs, because "that'd give me a credential." Nixon suggested that Rumsfeld might consider a job in the Defense Department, but warned him away from becoming a secretary of the Army, the Navy, or the Air Force. "The service secretaries, well, they're just warts," the President said. "I like them as individuals, but they do not do important things."
Nixon also outlined which countries and regions of the world might help to further the career of an aspiring politician and which ones wouldn't. "The only things that matter in the world are Japan and China, Russia and Europe," Nixon explained. "Latin America doesn't matter. Long as we've been in it, people don't give one damn about Latin America, Don." Stay away from Africa, too, Nixon warned. As for the Middle East, getting involved there carried too many potential hazards for a politician. "People think it's for the purpose of catering to the Jewish vote," Nixon told Rumsfeld. "And anyway, there's nothing you can do about the Middle East."
But although he repeatedly dangled the possibility of an assignment overseas or some big new domestic post, Nixon offered nothing specific. "We always expected you to go to a Cabinet spot," he told Rumsfeld in March of 1971. "I still expect you to, but yet the damn thing just hasn't opened up." Four months later he apologized again. "What we talked about is not going to materialize," he told Rumsfeld. Romney was going to stay on in the Cabinet, and so was Transportation Secretary John Volpe, who occupied another job to which Rumsfeld might have been appointed.
While he waited, Rumsfeld did what he could to please the President—and that meant helping out with White House political operations. He worked with Mitchell and Colson, the key figures in Nixon's political apparatus. One bit of help Rumsfeld volunteered was to use his old Princeton ties for secret contact with the Gallup organization, which Colson felt had "dovish" instincts. "We have decided that we'll try Rumsfeld working with Gallup," Colson told the President in July of 1971. "He went to school with George [Gallup] Jr. at Princeton." Nixon and Colson were eager to try to influence the results of major polls, notably Gallup and Harris, perhaps getting the pollsters to phrase their questions or present their results in ways that were helpful to Nixon. "I mean, if the figures aren't up there, we don't want them to lie about it," Nixon explained to Colson at one point. "They can trim them a little one way or another."
There is no evidence in the Nixon tapes that Rumsfeld tried to sway the outcome of Gallup polls. He did, however, manage to glean some advance information about upcoming Gallup-poll results, giving Nixon a few days to prepare. Rumsfeld appeared to realize that he was asking Gallup to go beyond the traditional independent role of a pollster. At one White House session in October of 1971 Rumsfeld urged Nixon to keep these contacts with the Gallup organization top-secret.
RUMSFELD: Say, I want to just report, sir, about my conversation with George Gallup.
NIXON: Oh yeah, you went to school with him, didn't you?
RUMSFELD: I did. And I kind of want to be awful careful about telling people around the building that I'm talking to him. Because all he's got in his business is his integrity.
Rumsfeld then informed Nixon that soon-to-be-released poll results would show that the President's popularity had recently gone up.
Nixon and Haldeman seemed to believe that their contacts with the Gallup organization were paying off in subtle ways. On the eve of Nixon's trip to China, Haldeman told the President that a Gallup poll would be timed to help Nixon. "I can't believe that Gallup would tell Rumsfeld that he would hold a poll," Nixon exclaimed. "Because Gallup was always, 'Jesus Christ, I call them as I see them.'" Haldeman explained that Gallup wasn't rescheduling the poll itself but merely altering when the results would be made public. "He would wait and release it next month, after you got back," he explained.
Rumsfeld busied himself in other ways. When he and Robert Finch went on their European tour, in the spring of 1971, they focused primarily on the issue of drugs; but Rumsfeld also brought a bit of political dirt home to Nixon. Speaking of the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, Rumsfeld said that one U.S. ambassador "gave us a pile of bad stuff about Muskie and his extracurricular activities."
Nixon immediately perked up. "What kind of extra-curricular activities?" he asked. "Business? Women?"
Rumsfeld apparently hadn't thought to be quite as inquisitive as Nixon. "I took it to be business or women," he replied vaguely. Thus he carefully passed on the ambassador's message without getting involved in the details, leaving them for the President to pursue on his own if he wished. (Nothing ever came of the allegation, which, it appears, was without substance.)
For Rumsfeld, the amorphous job of White House counselor was frustrating. He had no agency or department to run, and no particular mission. He kept pushing Nixon for some specific task. "You once told me I should do something in a line area, and I agree," he told the President. "I like that. There is a problem, potentially, with a guy floating around the White House." If he was going to stay in the White House, he suggested, he should have a specific title or portfolio.
Nixon's top aides had disliked Rumsfeld since the start of the Administration, and especially resented him after he became a full-time White House aide. "The senior staff grew to realize that the ambitious Rumsfeld would decline every assignment that did not enhance his personal goals," John Ehrlichman later wrote.
At one time or another Rumsfeld tossed out possibilities to Nixon: Secretary of Commerce, an emissary to Latin America, or "something in the trade area," as well as special envoy for postwar reconstruction in Vietnam. He also appears to have asked friends to put in a good word for him with the President when a job opened up as ambassador to Japan. Nixon groused to Haldeman that someone had suggested "maybe I could talk him into" the Tokyo job. "I'm not going to talk him into doing anything," Nixon said. "If Rumsfeld wants to be an ambassador, let him say so! But Jesus Christ, Bob, what the hell—I don't think Rumsfeld can do Japan, you know, because I don't think he'd be tough enough [for] our side, the side of business, you know what I mean?"
Finally, in the summer of 1971, Nixon settled on what he could offer. He suggested the possibility of Rumsfeld's becoming U.S. ambassador to NATO. Rumsfeld was interested. "It would certainly fill a gap in my background," he told the President.
Yet Rumsfeld was wary. Nixon's first appointee as NATO ambassador had been Ellsworth, who was handed the job after a brief stint in the White House during which he ran afoul of others in the Nixon Administration. Rumsfeld told the President that when Ellsworth became NATO ambassador, "it looked as if he was being dumped." Rumsfeld didn't want his own appointment to NATO to be handled "in a way that it looked like I was being kicked upstairs." Don't worry, Nixon replied.
Nixon, it turned out, was even more hesitant. Six days after the President had broached the NATO job to Rumsfeld, his own top aides urged him to delay the appointment until after the re-election campaign. Haldeman relayed to the President the advice from Mitchell: "He said he'd strongly urge, don't let him go to NATO, he is a very valuable property here ... John thinks it's ridiculous to send him on foreign missions."
The solution was to postpone the NATO appointment for more than a year, until Nixon's second term. In the meantime, the President found other work for his restless young adviser. That fall Nixon named Rumsfeld to run the new Cost of Living Council, which temporarily kept him busy. Meanwhile, Rumsfeld went on serving as a go-between with the Gallup organization, giving speeches for the Administration, and doing other political chores.
Nothing was made final until after Nixon's re-election. By that time the White House aides with whom Rumsfeld was regularly at odds would have been happy to get him out of the Administration entirely. Haldeman recorded in his diary that in a meeting with Ehrlichman on November 20, 1972, Rumsfeld had appeared to agree to go back to Illinois and run for the Senate. "But then when he got in the meeting with the president, he said no, that just wouldn't do, that he had to have an Administration job for a year, which was a complete shock to the President and Ehrlichman," Haldeman claimed. "Typical Rumsfeld, rather slimy maneuver." Rumsfeld finally prevailed on Nixon to give him the NATO ambassadorship.
The following year Haldeman and Ehrlichman both lost their White House jobs as the Watergate scandal grew ever wider. Meanwhile, Rumsfeld was safely off in Europe, far removed from the taint of the Nixon White House. Eventually the details of his service for Nixon would largely be forgotten; few would remember the era long ago when Donald Rumsfeld was a dove, more interested in issues of postwar reconstruction than in war itself.