Book Review: Donald Rumsfeld, “Known and Unknown”

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Known and Unknown, by Donald H. Rumsfeld. New York: Sentinel/Penguin. 791pp.

The recent death of al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden brings to an end one of the most tragic and angst-ridden chapters of American history. His attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, which came after nearly a decade of smaller, targeted attacks on military and diplomatic outposts across the world, changed the entire world forever, in ways we are only now beginning to truly appreciate. One man who narrowly cheated death on September 11, 2001 was one Donald Henry Rumsfeld, Jr., who was then just eight months into his first term as Secretary of Defense for George W. Bush. Now, almost a decade later, Rumsfeld has offered his insider view of the War on Terror that began in earnest that day, plus 40 years of political history preceding it.

Donald Rumsfeld’s memoir, Known and Unknown, is easily one of the best-written, most engaging and entertaining such book this reviewer has ever read, and certainly the only one of any substance yet to emerge from any member of the infamous Bush/Cheney administration. For younger readers, Rumsfeld’s debut on the national scene can be traced to his joining that administration in late-2000. Having served in private life for over 20 years by that point, with brief, sporadic forays into advisory roles in government, he was almost a blank slate for an entire generation of political observers.

Of course, as his book makes clear (in consistently modest terms and measured tones), Rummy was no rookie. Indeed, among American statesmen he’s one of the most seasoned and skillful operators alive today. The background and experience that Bush 43 tapped into for reorganizing the Pentagon is elucidated in scrupulous detail in what may be one of the most thoroughly-documented “current affairs” books in recent memory. Known and Unknown was prepared by a staff of at least 26 people over the course of four years, yet throughout it maintains a single distinctive narrative voice.

His brevity can be disarming at some points, compared to the exhaustive detail he provides at others. He breezes through a fascinating early history: his birth in Chicago, 1932; concise-yet-captivating portraits of his parents, including a father who packed on pounds to qualify for WWII service; early flirtations with jazz trumpet; becoming a champion wrestler at Princeton, a Naval aviator; marriage and children almost qualifying for the 1956 Olympic team in wrestling, before a blown-out shoulder forced him to restrict his grappling activities to smoke-filled rooms in Washington.

By page 64, Rumsfeld has become one of the youngest congressmen in history, elected at age 29 in 1962, his only prior political experience being a brief stint working for two other congressmen shortly after graduation. His first act in Congress—actually before he was even sworn in—was to help unseat a ranking Republican, installing in his place a man whose paths would cross with Rumsfeld repeatedly over the next 20 years: Gerald Ford. Indeed, their career paths proved almost telepathic; as George W. Bush’s Secretary of Defense, Rumsfeld would help inaugurate the USS Gerald R. Ford, which occurred right near the end of the former President’s life.

Rumsfeld emerges in these pages as one of the premier talent-scouts of his time. He was brought into the White House by Richard Nixon, who had a similar gift. Among those he helped bring into public life were future SecDef Frank Carlucci, future New Jersey governor Christie Todd-Whitman and future Senator Bill Bradley, who became the recipient of a campaign contribution from Rumsfeld during his Democratic nomination fight against Al Gore in 2000. (It speaks to the man’s mental agility that he could write a check to Bradley’s primary bid while making clear his commitment to beating him in the general election.) At the top of the list, of course, is one Richard Bruce Cheney, who was rejected in his first job interview for Rumsfeld but went on to become his most trusted deputy and a lifelong friend. With an almost paternalistic eye, Rumsfeld does more to humanize Cheney is this book than probably every (non-related) person in the world, combined. He even taught Rummy’s oldest daughter to drive!

Incidentally, Rumsfeld inadvertently helped set off the sequence of events that would lead to the legendary meeting between Nixon and Elvis Presley. They met inLas Vegas, backstage after a concert where Rumsfeld and his wife had been surprised with front-row tickets by (believe it or not) their good friend Sammy Davis, Jr., who’d bonded with Rumsfeld over a shared commitment to minority outreach in the Nixon years. It’s the kind of thing that seems to only happen to Don Rumsfeld, and often.

Rumsfeld is perhaps at his best while writing about those crucible years that formed his vision of government and many of his key alliances—those tumultuous eight years he served during the administrations of Nixon and Gerald Ford. His appraisal of Nixon’s talents is tempered by Rumsfeld’s early assessment of the vulnerabilities that would eventually destroy his presidency; he plays a similar (though more sympathetic) role in regard to Nixon’s successor, of whom the worst that can be said is that he failed to do a job that was probably impossible, to begin with.

Rumsfeld served Ford in several capacities: chief of transition, Chief of Staff, and the youngest SecDef ever. But he prefers to characterize his job as “Javelin Catcher”. He spends much time documenting internal disputes, both of policy and procedure, with the great Henry Kissinger and the not-so-great Nelson Rockefeller; the latter, he calls “the most difficult personal relationship I experienced in all of my years in the executive branch of the federal government”, which is saying a lot.

Rumsfeld was present on each of the three occasions within a six-week span in which Ford, by all rights should have died. The gun jammed when Squeaky Fromme tried to shoot him, but Sara Jane Moore’s bullet flew from 40 feet right between the heads of Ford and Rumsfeld. A month later, Ford’s motorcade was caught in a chain-reaction that saw his limo hit three times within seconds, each time throwing passengers around in a cab without their seat-belts. Conspiracy theorists have often attributed these incidents to Rockefeller’s thwarted presidential aspirations, but Rumsfeld keeps it classy and avoids making insinuations that, had he made them, would have carried some weight. (He also glosses over the experience of being nearly killed in a rocket attack on the ambassador’s residence in Beirut, in that pivotal year of 1983.)

Rumsfeld appears to have a special skill for seeing the roots of a person’s undoing months or years before they do. Hindsight is 20/20, but the record indicates his thoughts were made clear early on, whether it’s LBJ’s slippery conduct in Southeast Asia, the Watergate cover-up, the personnel issues that would undermine Ford’s effectiveness, or Jimmy Carter’s weakness in countering Soviet aggression.

Rumsfeld’s wilderness years were profitable, with eight served as the CEO of G.D. Searle & Co., where he presided over a five-fold increase in the stock price, brought dry aspartame to market as “Equal” after five years of FDA regulatory limbo, then spun off its liquid form as NutraSweet and inked an exclusive deal to supply it as the key ingredient in Diet Pepsi. He increased Searle’s stock price and annual earnings fivefold, and earned a reputation as one of the country’s toughest and most effective corporate executives at the peak of the CEO cult. In 1990, he became CEO of General Instrument Corporation, a company that, by his telling, would have introduced high-definition television (HDTV) a full decade earlier than it finally was, had they not been held back by government interference.

Given the years of simmering animosity between Rumsfeld and Poppy Bush, Rumsfeld’s selection as Secretary of Defense—which made him not only the youngest person to hold that spot, but also the oldest—was the first clear sign that Dubya planned to pursuing a much different course of leadership than his patrician, pragmatic father. It comes off as an almost Oedipal move, albeit the right one. While serving under Ford, Rumsfeld had initiated the system of Pentagon tours that now edify thousands every year; he literally opened the building up for the public.

Rumsfeld is a gifted wordsmith, as contemporary audiences are now fully aware; he is the only Cabinet official to ever have his words published in verse-form. He has a real knack for turning the perfect phrase, for saying things that capture the moment or the subject spot-on. For example, his description of Bill Clinton: “An intelligent man with excellent political instincts,Clintonhad a talent for locking you in his gaze and saying insightful things you were interested in hearing.”

The years encompassing the George HW Bush and Clinton years are glossed over in about five pages. More time is given to the tragic Presidency of Jimmy Carter, whose victory over Ford sent Rumsfeld into the business world, but that is only to give a fuller accounting of Carter’s many shortcomings. Rumsfeld is quick to repeatedly distinguish between a leader’s personal style and their professional capabilities—a refreshing change in this era, where the two are often viewed as one and the same.

Rumsfeld’s recollections of 9/11 and its aftermath as reflected in US foreign policy begin on page 331, in Chapter 25 (“The Agony of Surprise”), and continues for the remaining 400 pages of the text. This is the meat of the book, and it is quite the stuff for chewing on, like the finest homemade jerky. His viewpoints contribute mightily to the historical record of that day, and reveal how fortuitous it was to have had him in service at such an important time. For example, he clarifies the issue of whether orders had been given to military jets to shoot down hijacked aircraft; they had, by Cheney at Bush’s command. Rumsfeld pressed to ensure clarity of those orders,

The counter-terror strategy essentially coalesced around him that day. He went to CIA chief George Tenet for actionable intelligence, and counseled the President on the words he used to explain the situation to the people; he notes repeatedly his disdain at the terrorists being characterized as “cowards”. He also pressed immediately for real action not just to punish the perpetrators, but to actively deter others from following their path.

The battle, for him, began before the attacks themselves. Rumsfeld had correctly presaged these issues during his time as Reagan’sMiddle Eastenvoy. He’d just finished briefing congressional leaders on the growing terror threat minutes before the Pentagon itself was hit. He watched the second plane hit shortly after they left, the soon felt a jolt that exposed the business at-hand straightaway.

Rumsfeld remained in the building most of the day, against the wishes of others who thought it unsafe; the idea that one of the most impregnable structures ever build would be considered then unsafe speaks to the magnitude of the event. He notes that the part of the Pentagon hit was half-empty for renovations and had just had reinforcements installed, saving many lives there. More ominously, he also mentions that had the plane stayed higher, flying over the center to hit the older, more crowded opposite side, most of the Pentagon command structure would have been killed instantly, including himself. It almost makes you wonder if that had been the attackers’ intent.

The book begins with the thing for which, despite all else, Rumsfeld is most likely to be remembered for: his unfortunate photo-op with Saddam Hussein in 1983, a picture that has been cited as proof for countless conspiracy theories, some of which may be true. Rumsfeld situates the infamous handshake photo within the broader context of America’s delicate and largely disastrous balancing act in the Middle East during that era, a dynamic that came to head with the truck-bombing that killed 241 Marines a few weeks earlier. He makes a key assertion that Osama bin Laden’s plan to destroy the towers was inspired by that attack, and that he began planning it much earlier than previously thought. It appears that he and Rumsfeld were the only ones on earth who read the tea-leaves inBeirut. In 1990, Saddam’s invasion ofKuwaitoccasioned the formal split of mujahidin forces from their enablers inWashington, locking bin Laden onto the jihadist track.

All political memoirs are highly subjective, necessarily so, but Rumsfeld shows a real rigor for self-assessment, which he’s raised to a high art. He’s as quick to point out his own mistakes as he is others, while carefully avoiding the temptation to present all choices through the prism of hindsight. He is especially vivid in recapitulating the hard decisions involved in the planning an execution of policy in post-warAfghanistan and Iraq. People like Condi Rice, Colin Powell and Paul Bremer are singled out for their role in blocking what Rumsfeld saw as his productive suggestions regarding the need to put a more obvious Iraqi face on the occupation, an error that he asserts led directly to the rise of a brutal insurgency that took years to neutralize.

A 70 year-old man pulling 12-hour days, seven days a week for almost six years doing some of the most mentally and emotionally challenging work possible is not there to play games. Beneath the smiles and grandfatherly charm is martial discipline and cold steel—Hattori Hanso meets Don Draper. Quite appropriately for the memoir of the greatest Secretary of Defense ever, this book makes a handy weapon; interrogators need never reach for a phone book again. Not only does it contain 52 pages of footnotes, 84 illustrations and over 1,400 footnotes (not to mention two pages just for deciphering the alphabet soup of acronyms referenced in the text), but the author stocked Rumsfeld.com with more supplementary material gleaned from exhaustively-compiled records.

Rumsfeld personally “consulted with” at least 73 of his colleagues, including 21 military officers and such luminaries as Lynne Cheney, Alan Greenspan, Henry Kissinger, John Negroponte, George Shultz and Paul Wolfowitz. It’s almost like he expected major scrutiny of his every word and, in the spirit of his former bosses, made his best effort as preemption. He takes clear pleasure in countering perceptions of certain people and situations. This is the work of a man used to working 15-hours days at a stand-up desk. Now, with a major component of the War on Terror now officially over, Rumsfeld’s recollections of the beginning are even more compelling.

www.rumsfeld.com

sheltonhull@gmail.com; May 2, 2011

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