Close-Up: Young Rumsfeld

The Donald Rumsfeld of thirty years ago was a lot like the man we know today—a divisive figure who relishes bureaucratic combat, aims to shake up the established order, and is tenaciously committed to his own ideas and ambitions. But he was also a social moderate and a dove

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."

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James Mann, an author and former Washington correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, is senior writer-in-residence at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in Washington, D.C. This article is adapted from his book Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush's War Cabinet, to be published in April.

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