Don Rumsfeld, Pragmatist
Jude Wanniski
January 3, 2001


Memo To: General Colin Powell
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Rummy at the Pentagon

The NYT reported yesterday that when you first heard that Donald Rumsfeld was being considered by President-elect Bush as Secretary of Defense, you “expressed reservations.” We all knew you had recommended Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge for the job. One reason, besides his political skills, is that he “lights up a room when he enters it,” according to “one person who knows [your] views,” and that “people in the Pentagon need a bucketful of charisma.” Well, you can’t have everything. Of all Rummy’s qualities, charisma ain’t one of them. I’ve known him since he was the most interesting member of the Illinois congressional delegation, in 1967, and never have caught him in a charismatic act. Which is not to say he lacks a sense of humor. He smiles easily and has a hearty laugh. Of all the men I’ve known in public life over the years, he has had the best marriage. Whenever I see him and Joyce together, it strikes me that after more than 40 years they are still in love. I throw that in, General, because the picture you probably have of Rummy is the one that comes across in his press notices, “a bureaucratic infighter who hates to lose,” a no-nonsense “power player” with a “laser-like stare.”

Well, yes, but over and above his demeanor in high-pressure settings is his determination to make things work. In that sense, there is not an ideological bone in his body -- so you never have to worry that in policy confrontations he will doggedly resist arguments better than his own. In the years he has devoted to national security issues, the one phrase I’ve always associated with him is that “Weakness can be provocative,” which sometimes becomes “Weakness is provocative.” But that does not mean that he is eager to use force. Another Rumsfeld facet is his insistence on strategic thinking. He expresses scorn for officials who “manage their in-box,” a phrase I heard him coin more than 20 years ago. You will find policy debates between State and Defense will be far enough down the chessboard so you don’t have to worry that his opening moves -- as with his commitment to build a national missile defense shield ASAP -- will be determinative. I think he would listen to arguments that strength can also be provocative, when displayed in a bullying manner; potential adversaries can be turned into adversaries.

It may help you to know that his entry point into the GOP political realm was at its post-WWII low -- in 1964, when Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater led the party over a cliff in a kind of mindless conservatism that took dead aim at anything that looked like “moderation.” The young Rumsfeld became one of the Young Turks of 1965, determined to reform the party. The group included Jerry Ford, Melvin Laird and other “moderates” who practiced what we have come to know in the Dick Morris era as “triangulation.” They only would be a little more conservative than the liberal Democrats of the LBJ era, who were committed to Big Government to solve all economic and social ills. They were the equivalent of today’s “compassionate conservatives,” who would reach out of minorities and non-ideological, patriotic Americans. Their 1968 candidate for the presidency, Richard M. Nixon, appealed to the Silent Majority in the center of the spectrum. They would give the people what the people seemed to want, i.e., a well-managed Big Government. Melvin Laird, who went on to become Nixon’s Defense Secretary, at one point promoted the idea of giving the President the power in advance to raise taxes by five percent if he deemed it in the national interest. This would make for management efficiency!

Rumsfeld, who had the reputation for being the most moderate of the moderates without actually being a dreaded “Rockefeller Republican,” became director of the Office of Economic Opportunity in 1969. It was assumed you would need some feeling for poor folks in this job, which is why Rumsfeld was ticketed for it. His chief assistant was a young fellow with a bushy head of hair named Dick Cheney. As the Washington columnist for the old National Observer, I remember inviting Rumsfeld to dinner in a private room at the old Willard Hotel with the senior editors of the Observer, to which he brought Cheney. It was from this meeting that a friendly relationship developed over the years. I promoted Rumsfeld at the 1980 Detroit convention as Ronald Reagan’s running mate, but alas, Rummy could never give much of a speech and he left the convention cold with his.

When I left the WSJournal and began Polyconomics in 1978, Rumsfeld was then CEO of G.D. Searle & Co., the pharmaceutical company that later folded into Monsanto. He signed on as one of my first paying clients. In his first year, he fired so many executives that he made Fortune’s list of the most-feared managers, but Searle, which was headed for extinction, began to work again and even thrive.

I could cover a lot more ground on the topic of Rumsfeld, General, but the point of this missive merely is to give you a rough sense of the fellow as you head into an important relationship with him yourself. Maybe this gives you a better idea than what you know of him to date. We have had some relatively minor ups and downs and, to tell you the truth, I’m rooting for you in the shoot-out you will have over the national missile defense shield. On the other hand, I was genuinely thrilled to hear Rummy was picked for the Pentagon. If there is an exactly right mixture of diplomacy and force, you and he are exactly the right fellows to find it.