Rumsfeld's Roots

James Mann talks about the political evolution and influences of Donald Rumsfeld

Donald Rumsfeld, Henry Kissinger once wrote, is "a special Washington phenomenon: the skilled full-time politician-bureaucrat in whom ambition, ability, and substance fuse seamlessly." "Young Rumsfeld" (in the November 2003 Atlantic), James Mann's examination of the future Secretary of Defense's tenure in the Nixon Administration, shows Rumsfeld at a time when these three qualities had not yet quite fused, when Rumsfeld found himself restlessly searching for—and never quite achieving—the kind of position he wanted within the Administration.

Mann's article both fills out and changes the common understanding of Rumsfeld. It reveals him as a fierce defender of his "bureacratic turf" who displayed surprisingly progressive views while head of the beleaguered Office of Economic Opportunity. It shows him offending some of Nixon's aides, such as H. R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, through his combination of naked ambition and unwillingness to be a team player. And it shows him to be a savvy political operator, who, while not involved in Watergate, "was not nearly so marginal a figure in Nixon's political apparatus as he was later portrayed." From today's perspective, perhaps the most unexpected revelation about Rumsfeld is that when it came to the Vietnam War, Rumsfeld was a dove, not a hawk—a fact that led Nixon to talk openly among his aides about "dumping" Rumsfeld.

Yet in other moods Nixon admired and valued Rumsfeld, and despite his threat to fire him, kept him around in various positions until the end of his presidency. In 1971-1972, when Rumsfeld was on the White House staff, he and Nixon had several talks about Rumsfeld's political future. Nixon, of course, loved to hand out political advice, and as a young former Congressman unsure about what his next career move should be, Rumsfeld was eager to receive it. The advice—not always good, often filled with sharply worded expressions of disdain for others—was certainly definite. Of particular interest are Nixon's comments on which countries Rumsfeld might want to get involved with and which ones he should avoid—comments that display a twisted sort of prescience:

"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."

Now, of course, Nixon's once-dovish protégé has long since become that special Washington phenomenon that Kissinger was talking about, and is testing the truth of Nixon's remark about the Middle East for himself.

Mann's article on Rumsfeld is adapted from his book Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush's War Cabinet, which will be published in April. He is a senior writer-in-residence at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in Washington, D.C.

We spoke by phone on September 26.

—Katie Bacon

You start your piece in 1971, describing President Nixon's frustration with Rumsfeld that he won't toe the line on Vietnam—he and others within the Administration keep asking why they can't move to end the war quickly. Could you talk about Rumsfeld's transformation from a dove to a hawk? Was the change purely situational, or does it reflect a shifting of Rumsfeld's own philosophy?

At the time, when Rumsfeld first was perceived as a strong hawk during the Ford Administration, most of the politicians and the officials working around him thought it was just situational. The Kissinger entourage and George H. W. Bush all took it for granted that Rumsfeld had serious political ambitions, and that he might want to be Ford's running mate in '76. They tended to think of what he was doing on détente as Secretary of Defense as kind of a political tactic. Here they'd seen this guy operate, as this article shows, as a moderate to liberal Republican during the Nixon Administration, so they thought that his hawkish attitude might be a short-term thing. In fact, in retrospect it really was a permanent change. In the decades since the Ford Administration, Rumsfeld has remained pretty consistently a hawk on foreign and defense policy. When he was in private business he would come to Washington and testify against arms control with the Soviets. When he ran against George Bush briefly in the 1988 election, he ran to Bush's right on foreign policy. And I found that in the last year or so of the Nixon Administration he was pretty tough and pretty hawkish. So it was a gradual change in the early seventies but a permanent one.

So maybe the anomaly was the Vietnam War. If there'd been a different sort of war at that point he might have been more hawkish.

That's exactly right. That's the specifics of Vietnam. And I have to say I think it's clearer now in hindsight than was understood at the time that there were strong hawks who really didn't like the venture in Vietnam, because they saw it as a diversion from combating the Soviet Union. And so in that sense, opposing Vietnam and then becoming a hawk, mostly on Soviet policy, wasn't an uncommon position.

How did Rumsfeld's experience in government during Vietnam shape the way he approached the military and national-security issues during his past and present tenures as Secretary of Defense?

The most obvious influence I see is Rumsfeld's decision to conduct almost daily briefings on the Iraq war. It's remarkable for this or other Administrations to have someone like the Secretary of Defense out there every day. And one reason he does that, of course, isn't specific to Vietnam. He's asserting civilian control of the military and his own dominance of the Pentagon. But also, he had observed in the Nixon and Ford Administrations different people saying conflicting things about Vietnam, and not saying them very well, and I think that probably contributed to Rumsfeld's idea that when he was running a war, he should be the main spokesman himself.

Virtually his entire first term as Secretary of Defense, which is a job he started roughly a half year after the end of the war, in 1975, was necessarily spent dealing with the impact of America's defeat in Vietnam. So the whole thrust of that first stint in the Pentagon was really defensive. He was trying to prevent what he saw as the deterioration of American power. On the one hand he's warning within the Administration of Soviet military build-up and trying to head off détente with the Soviet Union, but on the other hand, more to the point, he's fighting Congress, trying to prevent cutbacks in defense, trying to prevent Congress from bringing troops home. This time the entire situation is completely different. He's not dealing with American decline but with the implications of American military dominance.

In some ways, Rumsfeld and the military seem like oil and water, with Rumsfeld pushing to transform the military and increase civilian control, and the military pushing back. Do you see any roots in Rumsfeld's early career for his contentious approach toward reforming the military? How does his relationship with the military this time compare with that during his first tenure as Secretary of Defense?

The battles with the military didn't show up so often the first time. If I were a general in 2001 trying to figure out from Rumsfeld's career, How is this guy going to operate as Secretary of Defense?, it would have been wrong to go look at his first time as Secretary of Defense, because that was different. What that general should have been looking at was Rumsfeld's career in private business in the eighties and early nineties, because when Rumsfeld was brought in as a CEO at your company, you were in for a pretty wild ride. He would really shake things up.

Do you sense that the war in Iraq or its aftermath has changed that relationship in any way?

I think that the dynamics are the same. But of course both the war and certainly the post-war reconstruction and the personnel demands of that have exacerbated the tensions a bit.

You portray the young Rumsfeld as someone whose greatest concern seemed to be himself and his political career. Now that he's presumably in his last government position, is he paying less attention to serving his own interests? If so, how has that changed the way he operates?

Just as an amusing aside, I did hear one of Rumsfeld's friends after the war in Afghanistan, maybe in late 2001, say casually, Gee, if Cheney ever had health problems, Rumsfeld would be a natural guy to be the vice presidential nominee in 2004. I didn't take that seriously. Rumsfeld gave up his presidential ambitions a good fifteen years ago, and he's a wealthy man too, and so you're right, the standard personal interests, meaning political ambitions or financial ones, don't apply to him. At this point, and it depends whether you call this a personal interest, but his interest is his own legacy and achieving success on the issues he cares about, like transforming the military. On the other hand, the fact that he doesn't have political ambitions can make him even more tenaciously committed to getting the policy goals that he wants. If you're someone Rumsfeld is challenging within the bureaucracy, like a unit of the Pentagon he might want to close down, he could be tougher now than before. He's not worried about you going to the Republican Party chairman in New Hampshire or South Carolina. He really doesn't care.

Nixon, in a fit of pique at Rumsfeld, commented to H. R. Haldeman that Rumsfeld had the "charisma for national office" but not the "backbone." Rumsfeld did run for President, in 1988, but didn't get very far. Do you think Nixon was right?

Well, in a way I think that quote is as much a commentary on Nixon as it is on Rumsfeld. The larger question is, What does backbone mean? To Nixon, backbone meant standing up to the anti-war movement, challenging the critics of the Administration, so he was unhappy with Rumsfeld for not doing that. Of course, from a different perspective, you can define backbone as standing up within the Nixon Administration, which Rumsfeld did.

You describe the young Rumsfeld as someone who is both brash and overconfident, someone who is eager to "upset the existing order." Would he have gotten further if he'd had a little more respect for the status quo?

If Rumsfeld wasn't eager to upset the status quo, I'm tempted to say he wouldn't be Rumsfeld. The guy challenged people and therefore made adversaries in the Nixon years, the Ford years, in the current Administration, every one he's been in except for maybe his very short stint as Reagan's Middle East peace negotiator, and I think he was beginning to make adversaries there too. He would have gotten further in political terms if he hadn't made enemies, but he wouldn't have been who he was.

Do you think the Bush Administration was looking for someone who they knew would upset the status quo in the military?

No, I don't. I don't think that's why Rumsfeld was chosen. Bush had made a pretty vague commitment for defense transformation in the 2000 campaign. And I think he meant it, and Rumsfeld's taken on the goal. But I think Rumsfeld was chosen as Defense Secretary for different reasons. The short version is, they wanted a very, very strong, powerful Secretary of Defense within the Administration, and they went out and got him.

Do you see any path where Rumsfeld could have been elected to national office, or do you just think it wasn't to be?

One, there was never a clear path. Two, it does take a certain amount of luck and self-made luck. There was never any particular election year where there was a clear shot. On the other hand, he really had trouble negotiating the divisions within the Republican Party that grew out of the seventies and early eighties. That is, he was a hawk on foreign policy, but he was also, because of his career in Congress and in the Nixon years, perceived as a nice, progressive moderate Republican in some ways. A good suburban congressman. And so, in the intense battles between the Rockefeller wing of the party and the Reagan wing, he was certainly mistrusted by the Rockefeller wing, if there is such a thing, but at that point he wasn't quite accepted by the conservatives either. So he had trouble negotiating the shoals of Republican politics. He didn't have a single political issue with which to attract Republican support and make him stand out.

After being overlooked for several other jobs in the Nixon Administration, Rumsfeld was named the head of the Office of Economic Opportunity, an agency established during President Johnson's War on Poverty. Were you surprised to learn that Rumsfeld threw himself into this job? Do you think he did this because he believed in what the OEO was doing, or more because this was his first job in the executive branch, and whatever the job, he wanted to do it well? How deep did Rumsfeld's liberal tendencies run?

It was surprising. I was just starting in Washington when Rumsfeld was starting at the OEO, and I vaguely remember him being outspoken for the agency and for the poor, but when I went through the documentary material in the Nixon archives, it really came through that he was fighting pretty hard for OEO and fighting in an Administration with a President who really didn't like the whole agency and its mission. And what comes through, of course, after thirty years is that we know that that's not an automatic thing. We've got all kinds of counter-examples over the years where people were named to be in charge of government agencies where they did their utmost to weaken the power and the mission of those agencies. That's a commonplace phenomenon in Washington, the fox in the henhouse. Regulators who don't like regulation, anti-environmentalists who get appointed to environmental jobs. Rumsfeld wasn't like that. He was trying to do a good job and trying to make some sense of this program that he'd been appointed to take over.

It seems from your account that Nixon found Rumsfeld useful, but didn't value him enough to find him a Cabinet position. Thus Rumsfeld spent a lot of time floating around the White House without a specific role. What was it that kept Nixon from really going to bat for Rumsfeld?

Part of it, for sure, is the fact that among the staff who Nixon's dealing with hour by hour, particularly Haldeman, Ehrlichman, and Kissinger, Rumsfeld had 0.0 fans. So they certainly weren't helpful to him, and quite the reverse. Having said that, it's pretty clear that Nixon himself had suspicions about how loyal Rumsfeld would be, and he wanted loyal people. And ironically, it's also true that while Nixon could be and was suspicious, he was also not great at firing people. For instance, he really didn't like his Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, George Romney, but couldn't quite fire him. So he couldn't open up a place for Rumsfeld, either.

One of the pleasures of this piece is reading Nixon's unvarnished, snappish comments. (For instance, Nixon once warned Rumsfeld away from trying to be appointed a secretary of the Army, Navy, or Air Force by saying, "The service secretaries, well, they're just warts.") Did working on this piece make you think about Nixon in a different light? What new insights did it give you into his relationships with his Cabinet-level staff?

I'd listened to some of the Nixon tapes before, for a previous book and newspaper articles, so in that sense the fact that he's profane and just incredibly blunt and cynical and that he tends to assume that to some extent people are in this for themselves and their own ambitions wasn't new. Having said that, it was different for me to be listening to the Nixon tapes not for abuses of power or for a policy area like China but really just to hear his conversations with or about a particular person. You really get a sense of Nixon operating from day to day, his view of the world and of life. I'd always heard and read that in retirement Nixon just loved to call politicians to his home in New Jersey, and that those were amazing sessions, because he would play statesman and give this advice, some of it full of insights, and some of it crazy. And you hear this in the tapes with Rumsfeld. It's hard to top having him sit Rumsfeld down, Rumsfeld's looking for what he should do with his future, and Nixon's telling him what parts of the world he should stay away from, because they won't help. Stay away from Latin America, he says, and then it's hard to top for historical irony Nixon telling him, Don't take on the Middle East, there's nothing you can do about it.

Henry Kissinger apparently once commented that Rumsfeld was the "only person who could best him in a bureaucratic fight." How would you describe Rumsfeld's relationship with Kissinger? Did Rumsfeld learn any of his political or bureaucratic savvy from him?

Now, when I think in terms of the past ten or fifteen years, these guys have long ago buried the hatchet. They were adversaries in different ways in both the Nixon and the Ford Administrations. During the Nixon years, although Nixon gave special weight to elected politicicians, there's no doubt that Kissinger was by far the dominant figure, that Rumsfeld was not on the same order or level within the Administration. In the Ford years, he gets brought in essentially as Ford's chief of staff (he didn't have the title at first), and he is in indirect and subtle ways at odds with Kissinger, and then he becomes Secretary of Defense, and the animosity really blossoms forth. I don't think that Rumsfeld learned his bureaucratic skill from Kissinger. Both these guys, I don't know if they were born with it, but they certainly took to bureaucratic infighting probably better than any two Cabinet officials in decades. One part of Rumsfeld's style or ability in bureaucratic infights is that he tends to see through all the pitches and all the numbers. Sometimes in Washington, people just make up an argument that's a way of advancing their cause. Rumsfeld would just reject it. I'm sure that in their battling over détente and other things, Kissinger ran through his whole repertoire with Rumsfeld, and Rumsfeld ran through his whole repertoire with Kissinger. But their styles were really different. Kissinger's way of operating was to charm, to flatter, to manipulate. Rumsfeld would say no, tell you you were wrong. If bureaucracy was football, Kissinger was like an admittedly chubby open-field runner with a lot of moves. And Rumsfeld was all power, he'd come straight at you.

Rumsfeld was once told by a reporter that he was viewed "with open hostility" in the Nixon White House. In his current role some in the military have essentially said that he's seen as a domineering bully. How much do you think Rumsfeld cares about the way he's viewed?

If you watch Rumsfeld at his press conferences, he is sometimes thin-skinned. So in that sense he cares. He'll go off about things that he read in the press. But that's really sort of perceptions and press coverage. As far as enemies or outright hostility, I really don't think he cares that much. He cares about what's in the press, because he's going to come through with his response and his criticism, but it's "Darn it, I'm going to get my version of events across—I want you to accept my version." Particularly within the government bureaucracy, if it's a battle with the military or with the State Department, I don't think he cares whether people like him or not.

Certainly he doesn't seem to care how the military views him. Some of the descriptions of how he has dressed down generals are painful.

Yeah. I guess I'm surprised that the military is so... that this is so out of the realm of their experience. Many people have worked for someone who was trying to shake them up or change things, and there's always a dynamic of opposing change, resisting change, trying to persuade the boss not to change. The military seems more surprised than it should be. After all, every eight years or less, there's a new President or a new Defense Secretary who comes in with his own ideas. They just seem more surprised than they should, I think, that Rumsfeld really means it. And they're obviously just stunned by his style—that they can't come in with an argument and be thanked. Rumsfeld's going to come right back at 'em. There's no "Gee, this is a wonderful idea" routine.

You describe Cheney and Rumsfeld as a "complementary pair." "Rumsfeld was full of energy; Cheney was low-key... Rumsfeld loved to shake up the established order; Cheney conveyed an air of reassurance and stability." Rumsfeld's brash, abrasive style often made people uncomfortable, while Cheney put people at ease. How much do you think the Cheney/Rumsfeld dynamic has shaped the current Administration? Has the dynamic changed at all from what you describe in your article?

Of course, Cheney is the higher ranking official now, and I think anybody in those Nixon years would have been just utterly amazed to find that this guy working as Rumsfeld's doorkeeper was now his superior. A lot's happened in thirty years. But they still have a strong relationship. The other part of the dynamic that's changed a little is that—in one sense—Cheney's role has changed. His instinct in his career generally has been to avoid the limelight. He was probably the most senior House Republican leader who really avoided giving floor speeches and gravitated toward committees like the Intelligence Committee that operated behind closed doors. He's still a very skilled backroom operator, and that's where he spends a lot of his time. But he's really become, in this Administration, more of an out-front public spokesman than he was before. So, that crucial time in August 2002, when he got up and gave a big speech in the VFW laying out the arguments for action against Iraq—some of Cheney's old people were just amazed that he was taking on the role of lead public spokesman. This is not something he'd done before. Rumsfeld, of course, was—and is—as comfortable at being a public spokesman as anything else he does.

It seems like there's some sort of good cop/bad cop element in their relationship.

I think that's right. Cheney usually has a way of conveying "This is just business... this is not personal," and then being extremely conservative in his positions, whereas Rumsfeld really challenges. And that's been true consistently. The mere fact that you have a very strong Vice President and a very strong Secretary of Defense who are comfortable with each other and have known each other for this period of time creates a dynamic in this Administration. And that's added to the fact that the strong Vice President was himself previously Secretary of Defense, which creates just a remarkably strong bond at the highest levels of government.