| Cover Story 12/17/01
With tough talk and humor, Rumsfeld's second act at the Pentagon is a wartime hit
BY MARK MAZZETTI AND RICHARD J. NEWMAN
Beware the man at the seat of power who holds no greater ambition. He is unmoved by the organizational catechisms. He won't bend to convention or expedience. He will break the china and say exactly what's on his mind, consequences be damned. In Washington, of course, such folks usually don't last too long. They're undermined, politically gutted, and, ultimately, marginalized. Before September 11, that seemed to be the fate of Donald Rumsfeld in what had been a rocky second tour as secretary of defense. Capital whispers said he was destined for an early out.
Then the man and the moment met. Suddenly, America was united and at war. Rumsfeld's once derided prickly arrogance was now a formidable asset. No longer was he seen as imperious or overbearing. He became the Pentagon's answer to Harry Truman, a straight-talking Midwesternervia Princetonwho relished telling the public that, yes, it is our mission to kill the enemy in Afghanistan.
A man who, a couple of months ago, seemed to have been born without a sense of humor now routinely has the press corps doubled over in fits of laughter. His news conferences became the subject of parody on Saturday Night Live, high cultural praise indeed. When told about the skit on the 26-year-old Saturday Night Live, Rumsfeld is said to have responded: "What's that?"
That's just one of the ways the 69-year-old Rumsfeld might have been seen as out of touch. But in the war's strangest twist, the new rage is hip-to-be-square, Rummy chic. With his rimless glasses and graying hair, he's easily typecast as a CEO accustomed to giving orders and getting his way. But that would sell short his considerable political skills, honed from the time he was elected to Congress at age 30 and nurtured to the point that he held real hopes of being elected president.
Before the terrorist attacks, Rumsfeld had been waging war of a different sort, one within the Pentagon, to rid the military of some hidebound, wasteful ways. Many had fought such battles beforeand lost. Washington's political oddsmakers were betting the same thing would happen to Rumsfeld.
But since he became a secretary of war instead of a secretary of defense, even his critics have come to salute instead of sneer. A secretary of defense must navigate the minefields of Congress and the entrenched, competing branches of the military. A secretary of war can be far more direct. Rumsfeld "seemed to be having a difficult time," says defense expert Andrew Krepinevich of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, "and now he has emerged as the right guy at the right time in the right role after September 11."
He will be judged on prosecuting the war instead of on transforming the Pentagon's bureaucracy. So far, he is faring much better than another wonder boy turned executive turned defense secretary, Robert McNamara, who could not translate his executive acumen into success in Vietnam.
On a mission. Rumsfeld has managed to bring around many of his inside-the-beltway cognoscenti, from the media to Democrats in Congress. "His talents and decisiveness are suited to being a wartime secretary of defense," says Sen. Jack Reed, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. "He has been freed of a lot of the ideological and political aspects prior to September 11. The simplicity of mission has allowed him to use all of his talents to focus on it."
Not that Rumsfeld spends much time caring about how others think of him. "His self-confidence is such that he doesn't need to feel vindicated," says Martin Hoffman, a Princeton classmate in the 1950s and close friend.
Throughout his career, Rumsfeld has proved he could play Washington's power games to his distinct advantageand to the disadvantage of those who cross him. He once rolled Henry Kissinger, whose own intramural skills are legend. "Rumsfeld afforded me a close-up look at a special Washington phenomenon: the skilled full-time politician bureaucrat in whom ambition, ability, and substance fuse seamlessly," Kissinger wrote in his memoirs. Rumsfeld hasn't written his own story yet, but he has accumulated a collection of aphorisms known as "Rumsfeld's Rules." Sprinkled with quotes from Twain and Churchill, and even race-car driver Mario Andretti, it dispenses advice on how to survive and advance in politics and business. The rules offer a window onto how Rumsfeld has managed to ascend in government and the corporate world. As one of the rules advises: "If in doubt, don't." Beware the man possessed of little self-doubt.
Reared in Winnetka, Ill., an old-money suburb on Chicago's North Shore, Rumsfeld parlayed life's advantages into even greater success. Smart and athletic, he was a champion wrestler in the 145-pound class at New Trier High School. His skills on the mat serve as a ready metaphor for his later success. His high school sweetheart, Joyce Pierson, became his wife and the mother of their three children. (The Rumsfelds have five grandchildren.)
He graduated from Princeton, and after a stint in the Navy as a fighter jock, he eventually returned to Illinois to work as an investment banker, but his sights were trained on politics. In 1962, at the age of 30, he won a seat in Congress.
Rumsfeld rose to become President Gerald Ford's chief of staff, and, in 1975, the youngest secretary of defense ever. Now, in a rare second act, he is running, and winning, a high-tech war being fought 8,000 miles away.
Throughout the conflict, he has tempered his aggressive instincts to avoid micromanaging. Early on, he did upbraid Gen. Tommy Franks of Central Command when U.S. warplanes were blowing up all the targets satellites could spot but producing no visible progress toward rolling back the Taliban. "Rumsfeld was not overly pleased with General Franks's early efforts," says one Army official.
Rumsfeld pressed Franks to put more ground troops on the battlefieldand fasterso they could better target the tanks, bunkers, and weapons supplies near and dear to the Taliban. "He did hour-by-hour surveillance" of the war's progress, says a close associate. "He wanted to avoid the impression that the war was going to be a bunch of antiseptic strikes." Since then, he has largely left the planning to the generals. As one retired four-star general puts it, "Rumsfeld is smart enough to know that the way to run a war is to let the senior military know what the rules are, and let the senior military run the war."
One of those rules has been to carefully manage expectations, even as the enemy falls. "He wants to underpromise and overproduce," says an aide. After Lt. Gen. Greg Newbold, director of operations for the joint staff, said at a briefing on October 15 that Taliban military forces had been "eviscerated," Rumsfeld complained to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, about the exuberance. The chairman in turn rebuked Newbold, whose stint at the lectern ended after one briefing.
Rumsfeld's views on expectations were drawn in large part from H. R. McMaster's 1997 book, Dereliction of Duty. It chronicles the silent acquiescence of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the 1960s with the war plans of Lyndon Johnson and McNamara, even though the chiefs had grave doubts. "He was really amazed by it," insists one friend, "the duplicity of McNamara's chiefs and manipulating the explanations of how the conflict would come out." Consequently, Rumsfeld has avoided inflated statistics about the war.
More than anything, it is Rumsfeld's blunt war rhetoric that has won him praise. "The American people don't want a credibility gap during wartime," says Krepinevich. While generals at the lectern spew militaryspeak, Rumsfeld counters with plain English. Asked during a press conference about the rationale for dropping menacing cluster bombs on Afghan- istan, he said, "They're being used on front-line al Qaeda and Taliban troops to try to kill them . . . to be perfectly blunt."
The military, too, has embraced Rumsfeld's public candor. "When he says stuff like, 'This is about killing people,' or, 'There's no room for negotiation,' that's music to our ears," says one flag officer.
All business. Such praise for Rumsfeld was rare before September 11. He had angered the defense caucus on Capitol Hill and many of the senior military leaders who now laud him. He brought a CEO's zeal for organizational change to a culture comfortable with the status quo. Though he burnished his political skills at the highest levels of the White House, his CEO pedigree began with pharmaceutical giant G. D. Searle and General Instrument. At Searle, he ordered divestment of subsidiaries and a dramatic reduction in the workforce, and eventually made the company's profits soar. He increased sales of staid products such as Metamucil by introducing orange and lemon flavors. His biggest success was bringing NutraSweet to the world, after a regulation-averse Reagan-era Food and Drug Administration approved it. Instead of incremental change at Searle, he chose dramatic overhaul. Rumsfeld subscribes to the "don't cut off the tail of the dog 1 inch at a time" school of business, says Jim Denny, a Princeton classmate whom Rumsfeld brought in as Searle's chief financial officer.
When President Bush tapped Rumsfeld for the Pentagon job, the new defense secretary faced a fiercer dogwith a much longer tail. His job was to modernize the military and overhaul the Department of Defense, a bureaucratic leviathan with annual budgets of over $300 billion. He portrayed himself as a crusader bent on keeping taxpayer dollars from being spent on the pet projects of politicians and the military services. "He thought that he was brought in to 'save the company from fiscal disaster,' and therefore he viewed the old team as part of the problem," says one military official. He drew his inner circle of close aides and service secretaries largely from the corporate world, and "reducing cost structure" and "increasing business efficiencies" became the popular buzzwords.
Immediately, the group worked to impose its civilian authority over the Defense Department, convening more than a dozen panels of outside experts to bring fresh ideas to the stale debate over military reform. But the panels came up short, and the military, shut out of the process, began taking shots at Rumsfeld in the press.
He was peeved by the lack of progress. "Things were getting to him because he wasn't succeeding," says a close associate. Rumsfeld switched tactics, bringing the military brass in for meetings at night and on weekends to hammer out the military's future. Even so, the "Rumsfeld Revolution" has thus far produced little concrete change.
Rumsfeld's relationship with Congress remains touchy, though public criticism of him has been spare. "People have to shut up because you're either a patriot or a traitor," says one Capitol Hill staffer.
If he has been less than popular on Capitol Hill, Rumsfeld has juice where it counts. He is old friends with Vice President Cheney, dating from when Rumsfeld was Cheney's boss in the Ford White House. President Bush himself tells U.S. News: "Donald Rumsfeld is exactly the right man to lead the Defense Department in the first war of the 21st century."
Hold the ceremonies. In the office by 6:30 a.m., Rumsfeld begins generating work for his staff usually in the form of his patented "snowflakes"questions, comments, and orders he writes on scraps of paper that float down the chain of command.
President Ford noted in 1975 that while Rumsfeld's staff did not have stand-up desks like the boss's, "they do very little sitting down." Over a quarter century later, Rumsfeld still works standing up. A taskmaster, Rumsfeld will often dress down subordinates who don't know their material sufficiently. And he delegates many of the ceremonial duties. "He doesn't cut ribbons and christen ships," says a senior Pentagon official.
Rumsfeld seems to revel in the role of curmudgeon. During a recent interview, he said he couldn't remember seeing a movie since One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest in 1975. (For the record, a friend says he and Rumsfeld watched Saving Private Ryan three years ago.) Rumsfeld still speaks into a dictating machine and has spent little time over the years keeping up with even simple office technology. Daniel C. Searle, his old boss, recalls Rumsfeld once asking for a photocopy of his contract. Searle and Rumsfeld walked up to the Xerox machine, yet neither man knew how to operate it. They called for a secretary.
Rumsfeld left Searle in 1985, taking with him about $12 million from the increase in the value of his stock when Monsanto bought the company. After deciding against a serious run for the White House, he rarely played a high-profile role in Republican politics. In fact, in addition to donating to President Bush's campaign, Rumsfeld and his wife contributed to the primary campaign of Democrat and Princeton alum Bill Bradley.
When he was tapped to be defense secretary, Rumsfeld had been spending considerable time at his ranch in Taos, N.M., where he skis and even ropes cattle. Like his protégé-cum-boss Dick Cheney, he savors the times he can escape Washington and head west. He bought a new horse before he took the Pentagon job, and now he complains to friends that when he goes back to Taos, his horse doesn't know him and his dog bites him. For now anyway, that's not the treatment he's getting in Washington, where people have to worry about Don Rumsfeld's bite.
With Kenneth T. Walsh, Kevin Whitelaw, and Jeff Glasser in Chicago