The Big Idea

The Decline of Rumsfeld

From hero to zero in just three Woodward books.

State of Denial

An interesting exercise, if you have a few hours to spare and a taste for Washington anthropology, is to track the treatment of any major administration figure through the three volumes of Bob Woodward’s Bush-the-Warrior trilogy. I spent yesterday reading all the parts about Donald Rumsfeld.

In the first installment, Bush at War, published in 2002, the defense secretary is a hero of Sept. 11 and the triumphant commander of our victory in Afghanistan. As portrayed in B1, Rummy is a seer (“In his early days as defense secretary, Rumsfeld had clearly anticipated that the United States was going to be surprised by some attack, perhaps something along the lines of September 11 … “) and a tower of strength (he “left no doubt in Bush’s mind that when the moment came, as it surely would that the United States was threatened, he, as secretary of defense, would be coming to the president to unleash the military”). When the attack he expected finally comes, Rumsfeld has to be pulled off the smoldering wreckage at the Pentagon. He insists on holding an emergency meeting inside the burning building, moving to another office only after Gen. Richard Myers insists, “the smoke is getting pretty bad.”

Though one of Woodward’s hallmarks is never to tell readers what, or if, he thinks about anything, his adjectives give the game away. On first encounter, Rumsfeld is a “small framed, almost boyish, former Navy fighter pilot who did not look his 69 years.” During his first tour as defense secretary under Gerald Ford, Woodward tells us that Rummy was “a JFK from the GOP—handsome, intense, well educated, with an intellectual bent, and an infectious smile.” A couple of pages after that, he describes Rumsfeld, in a rare literary reference and with a degree of reverence Woodward reserves for his most gushing sources, as “a walking example of what the novelist Wallace Stegner calls ‘resilience under disappointment,’ the persistence of drive, hard work and even stubbornness when ambition has not been fully realized.”

The anecdotes and quotes in B1 all support the picture of Rummy as a demanding executive with a core of steel. If he is sometimes brusque with subordinates, it’s because “Rumsfeld didn’t like muddling along. He didn’t like imprecision,” as Woodward writes. According to the book, George H.W. Bush, his rival in Republican politics in the 1970s, was convinced that Rumsfeld was trying to destroy his political career by getting President Ford to put him in charge of the scandalized CIA. But behind the scenes, Woodward informs us, Rumsfeld strongly objected when Ford promised the Senate that he wouldn’t consider his new CIA director, Bush, as a potential running mate in the 1976 election.

In Woodward’s second Bush book, Plan of Attack, published in 2004, Rumsfeld retains the sourcely aura, though it’s dimming slightly with the failure to recover any WMD in occupied Iraq. Rummy remains “small, almost boyishly dashing,” “focused,” and “intense.” He’s still got that infectious smile, though now it can “convey impatience, even condescension” when he is interrogating the sloppy thinking of the bureaucratic midgets who surround him. He can be “tough, unpleasant, unrelenting,” but usually in pursuit of “outside the box thinking” in a hidebound and military establishment. “Rumsfeld not only preferred clarity and order. He insisted on them,” Woodward tells us, adding in another passage, “The president was focused on the Iraq war plan, and when the president was focused, Rumsfeld was focused.” Here is B2’s summation following the seemingly successful invasion of Iraq: “Rumsfeld had been the overall manager, the withering interrogator, the defense technocrat who had given the president the plan of attack.”

Now we have Woodward’s third work in the series, State of Denial. Rumsfeld—embattled and clearly no longer a source for what happens behind the scenes—has misplaced his good looks, his decency, and his brilliance. He still has that “boyish intensity”—Woodward never lets go of an epithet once he’s bothered to work it out—but these days he is “cocky” and arrogant, a man whose “micromanaging was almost comic.” The story begins with him burying everyone at the Pentagon up to their eyeballs in “snowflakes,” unsigned notes that are “an annoyance,” “intrusive,” and “petty.”

B3 Rumsfeld is on a perpetual power-trip, dressing down underlings for the sheer, sadistic pleasure of it. “Shut up,” he is recalled to have shouted at some hapless peon decades ago. “I don’t want any excuses. You are through and you’ll not have time to clean out your desk if this isn’t taken care of.” Subordinates describe him as “a dick,” “that asshole, and “that son of a bitch.” Soon after taking office in 2001, he sabotages Vernon Clark, Bush’s preferred candidate to run the Joint Chiefs of Staff because Rumsfeld wants a flunky and Clark recognizes the job’s statutory obligation to give the president independent advice. Rummy shivs him by telling Bush and Cheney that Clark prefers to stay with the Navy, which isn’t true.

By the end of the book, Woodward himself is confronting Rumsfeld over his unwillingness to admit the Iraqi insurgency is growing and that his decisions have cost many lives. “How could he not see his role and responsibility?” Woodward ponders, winding up his interview with the vampire: “I could think of nothing more to say.”

State of Denial indeed. One thing more Woodward might say, if he wanted to acknowledge reality himself, is that he has changed his mind about Rumsfeld without Rumsfeld changing one iota. Love him or hate him, Rummy is the Rock of Gibraltar. He will experience personal growth when Dick Cheney turns vegan. But somehow the fixed qualities that Woodward cast as positive in B1 and B2, when all Washington saw Rumsfeld as a hero, have curdled in B3.

In fact, much of the material Woodward uses to damn Rumsfeld comes from the reporting for his earlier, flattering accounts. His three Bush books have grown successively longer (376 pages, 467 pages, and now 560 pages) largely because of the author’s habit of recycling his old nuggets, often in the same words, and even in the same place in the narrative. On Page 17 of B3, Woodward microwaves the same flavorless anecdote he served on Page 17 of B2, about Rumsfeld having dinner with Bob in his kitchen in Georgetown. The apparent point—that Rumsfeld has dinner with Bob in his kitchen in Georgetown—remains the same. What’s different is the political context.

Woodward never acknowledges changing his mind because he regards himself as a straightforward reporting machine, with no opinions of his own and no axes to grind. He can’t say he’s revising his judgments because he claims never to have made any. But, of course, Woodward does have a consistent worldview—the conventional wisdom of any given moment. When tout le Beltway viewed Rummy as a commanding hunk, Woodward embodied the adoration. Now that we all know Rummy is a vicious old bastard, Woodward channels the loathing just as fluidly. I’m not holding my breath, but if the war in Iraq takes a turn for the better, Stud Rummy could well return in Woodward’s Buns of Brass: Bush at War IV.

What’s maddening is the way Woodward reverses his point of view without acknowledging he ever had one—then or now. You could charge him with flattering politicians only when they’re up, and piling on when they’re down. But you might as well accuse a weathervane of changing its mind about which way the wind should blow.