The Tweets of Donald Rumsfeld, Cont.

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Yesterday I mentioned the fascinations of Donald Rumsfeld's Twitter stream. Among them: that a man who had exercised so much public and private power for so long was now sending out crowd-count Tweets from his book-tour events. Readers respond:

1) Maybe it's not him. A number of people suggest that this is just a young assistant doing promotion for the boss. Therefore nothing personal should be read into the messages. Could be. Although at least some of the messages do sound personal and like the man we remember from Pentagon press conferences:

RumsfeldTweet2.png

2) A literary perspective. Supplied by a reader:

>>Your post (and the update) put me in mind of this quote from Orwell.
 
" An autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful. A man who gives a good account of himself is probably lying, since any life when viewed from the inside is simply a series of defeats. "<<

How had I missed this Orwell quote over the years? It's the kind of meta point Rumsfeld himself might have made in some of his DOD briefings.
 
3) Job titles are one thing, 'achievement' is something else. A reader in Wisconsin writes:

Your post on Donald Rumsfeld talks about his achievements, but lists only the jobs he's held.
 
I'm not suggesting Rumsfeld has no achievements to his credit in his professional life.  Actually, I'm not suggesting anything about Rumsfeld at all.  I've just noticed that it has become awfully common for journalists to note the track of a career, absorb the opinions of its owner by those who know him or her, and conclude that great accomplishments are either contained therein or lie just ahead (in Rumsfeld's case, obviously, the former).
 
I've been thinking about something Richard Holbrooke wrote early in his career.  I don't have the exact quote before me now, but it had to do with how the increasing size and complexity of organizations increased the amount of time and effort required to master them.  A public official could be genuinely brilliant, energetic, and congenial in an enormous organizations like the federal government and still have so little time to spare for substance that, at the end of his or her career there would be little more to show for those remarkable qualities would be a list of positions occupied and a record of memos written and meetings attended.
 
I suppose that's an exaggeration.  However, I don't think it's too old-fashioned of me to regard actual accomplishment as a more useful tool with which to measure someone in public life than, say, the number and kind of tickets punched or the mega wattage behind one's celebrity.  I think of this with regard to Rumsfeld (who held five of the seven jobs you list in a period of only five years), our current Secretary of State (continually described as a powerhouse in every position she has held despite a modest record of achievement) and many others.

4) Great Lost Potential Tweeters of the Past. Mark Bernstein, former guest blogger here, takes up the question of how public figures of the past --James Madison, George Marshall -- might have used this technology:

>>The elderly Madison would have been a monumental Twitter disaster. In fact, we're still waiting for the first classic example of a sheltered celebrity who begins twittering in the early stages of a progressive mental disturbance.

I've always thought Marshall an exceptionally close man. I can't see the elderly Macarthur tweeting a lot, either. Montgomery, maybe?  

Henry Ford would have been a disaster, of course.

TR?  He pretty much did have Twitter; he wrote a ton after the presidency. Book reviews, art reviews, travel, natural history, politics.  His correspondents also shared (and sometimes published) his letters.  He was an outspoken guy; hard to think what he'd have Twittered that we don't have anyway.

How about Kim Philby? Or Ty Cobb? I bet Cobb had a few choice things to say about integration in the '50s, and he survived until '61.

Imagine, though, if the Mitford daughters had access to YouTube. Or, for that matter, Twitter conversations among Isherwood, Auden, and Capote.<<

For more Madison as potential Twitterer, go here.

5) It's like Ahab. From a reader in Washington DC:

>>I think this is consistent with the other Rummy psychological traits unearthed by his recent book campaign -- namely, some kind of Ahab/Lear complex and a pathological desire to untarnish his reputation for posterity. What responsible agent (or whoever manages this sort of thing) would allow him to talk to a stand-up comic on a slapstick radio talk-show? He is raging out there in the storm, somehow expecting to convince even the most hostile audiences of the justice of his actions. But what an extraordinary career in public service...<<

6) Accountability. One of a large number of notes in this vein. As it turns out, many of the replies to Rumsfeld's tweets have this tone too:

>>I think your Rumsfeld update somehow missed another element in considering his vitae.  The quantity of one's achievements could fairly be balanced by a measure of their value and impact. In the case of Donald Rumsfeld, the impact of his public service particularly as Sec Def overshadows completely the other personal or professional accomplishments in his life. There is little doubt that Rumsfeld's long partnership with Cheney was a direct cause of the disastrous Iraq War, the use of torture, hundreds of thousands of dead and wounded and more. The list is familiar and is to me a record that undermines any value of his public service. It's not simply a matter of policy disagreement but of holding people accountable for the results of their actions.<<

I think that is all on this topic -- unless, you know, I hear from the man himself. Thanks to people who thought about the issue and wrote in.
____
UPDATE: I said above that I had never come across the Orwell quote that every life is a "series of defeats." A reader suggests that there's a reason I hadn't seen it:

>>Maybe because he didn't say it? The internet is rife with false and misquotations, and Orwell is one of the leading "quote magnets."

I don't know for a fact that he didn't say it. (As if you could prove a negative.) But Google has some 7,000 hits for the quote, but none that I could find cite the place in Orwell's writings where it can be found or an account of someone remembering him saying it. There is only one hit for the quote in Google Books, from the introduction to a 2009 book on leadership, which also does not cite where the quote comes from.

As a general rule, anytime you see a quote attached to a famous person and it is not followed by a specific citation of where it can be found, you can safely assume that someone made it up. <<

Useful reminder. Might apply in this case. Sentiments in the quote are valuable nonetheless.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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