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

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.

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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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