Dissecting Don Rumsfeld

Tomgram: Roger Morris, Donald Rumsfeld’s Long March

At a press conference at NATO Headquarters in Brussels in June 2002, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously said: “Now what is the message there? The message is that there are no ‘knowns.’ There are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know. So when we do the best we can and we pull all this information together, and we then say well that’s basically what we see as the situation, that is really only the known knowns and the known unknowns. And each year, we discover a few more of those unknown unknowns.”

Strangely enough, Rumsfeld’s own career, which catches so much of the political history that has led us into our present catastrophe, qualifies — or at least did until today — as either a “known unknown” or even one of those mystifying “unknown unknowns.”

Every now and then, we need a little history to make sense of our world. But perhaps, in this case, “little” isn’t the most appropriate word. Roger Morris, a member of the National Security Council under Presidents Johnson and Nixon (he resigned in protest over the invasion of Cambodia) and bestselling author of biographies of Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, and the Clintons, explores both the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns of Donald Rumsfeld’s emblematic history and legacy, of his long march to power, and what he did with that power once it was in his hands. Morris’ two-parter on Rumsfeld’s legacy will be posted this week at Tomdispatch.com and, long as it is, it is actually a miracle of historical compression, packing into a relatively modest space an epic history none of us should avoid. Call it a necessary reckoning with disaster.

Donald Rumsfeld himself may be front and center, but the supporting cast of rogues — Dick Cheney, George Bush, Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, Robert Gates, and so many others — makes this a summary meditation on some of the most costly lessons of our times. As a prophet, Rumsfeld may not have been exactly Delphic. “I can’t tell you if the use of force in Iraq today would last five days, or five weeks, or five months,” he said in an interview on November 14, 2002, “but it certainly isn’t going to last any longer than that.” Nonetheless, he remains an emblematic figure of our age. If you don’t understand him, you can’t fully grasp the unprecedented ruin which is American foreign policy today. It’s not something I often say, but this is simply a must-read. Tom

The Undertaker’s Tally (Part 1): Sharp Elbows
By Roger Morris

“…the finest Secretary of Defense this nation has ever had.” — Vice President Dick Cheney

“The past was not predictable when it started.” — Donald Rumsfeld

On a farewell flight to Baghdad in early December 2006, the departing Secretary of Defense reminisced about his start in politics more than forty years before. Aides leaned in to listen intently, but came away with no memorable revelations. It hardly mattered. As usual with this man who dominated government as no cabinet officer before him — including the power-ravenous Henry Kissinger he so despised and outdid in effect, if not celebrity — authentic history and Don Rumsfeld’s version of it bore little resemblance.

There was portent in those beginnings. He came out of an affluent Chicago suburb in the 1950s with brusque confidence and usable contacts at Princeton, among them Frank Carlucci, a future Defense Secretary of mediocre mind, yet the iron conceit and shrewd fealty far more effectual in government than intellect or sensibility. After college and two years as a Navy pilot, Rumsfeld did politic stints as a Capitol Hill intern and Republican campaign aide, and by twenty-nine, back in Chicago in investment banking, was running for Congress.

As with much to come, a darker thread lay beneath the surface from the start. In a Republican primary tantamount to election, he was outwardly the boyish, speak-no-evil, underfunded, underdog challenger of an old party stalwart set to inherit the open seat. In fact, he was generously financed by wealthy friends, while his operatives — including Jeb Stuart Magruder of later Watergate infamy — furtively harried and smeared his opponent, using tactics never traced to Rumsfeld.

He went to Washington in December 1962 a handsome, square-jawed, safe-seat tribune from the North Shore’s lakeside preserves, epitomized by the leafy estates of Winnetka and high-end Evanston. The old Thirteenth District of Illinois was one of the wealthiest in the nation and had been smoothly in Republican grip for most of a century. In the House, Rumsfeld was soon seen by some as he always saw himself — a prodigy in the dull ranks of his Party.

Then, as afterward, he had no authentic qualifications or independent achievements. But that was always masked by the same muscular, aggressive style he took onto the mat as an Ivy League wrestler — “sharp elbows,” a meeker, envious colleague called it — as well as by the flaccid banality of most of the GOP in the 1960s. The Republican Party Rumsfeld strode into was already caught between the wasting death of Eisenhower worldliness and moderation (with Richard Nixon’s haunted succession in the wings) and a fitful right-wing urge to seize control that, in little more than a decade, would deliver the Reagan Reaction.

Rumsfeld’s own rightist mentality, his New Deal-phobic corporatist cant and Cold War chauvinism, came dressed more in modish vigor than telltale substance — and he was already attracted by a tough-minded layman’s zeal for the era’s pre-micro-processing but grandly prospering military technology. Like most of his generation born in the early 1930s, the scrap-drive, victory-bond children of World War II who came to govern the postwar world and would be the decisive elders of the post-9/11 era, he had no doubt about the natural nobility of America’s sway or the invincibility of its arms; all this made ever sleeker, ever more irresistible by the demonstrable twin deities of American capitalism — technology and “modern” management.

That, after all, was the unquestioned, unquestioning faith of North Shore fathers and other successes like them across the nation. That was the world, according to postwar Princeton, as well as Harvard Business School. That was the supposed genius of future Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s duly quantified Ford Motor Company as well as his Vietnam-era “systems analysis” Pentagon, and so much more.

Read the rest here.

Here’s Part 2:

Tomgram: Roger Morris, The Rumsfeld Legacy

Here’s a classic Rumsfeldism: “We do have a saying in America: if you’re in a hole, stop digging … erm, I’m not sure I should have said that.” In Part 2 of his historical excavation of the life and world of Donald Rumsfeld (not to speak of the worlds of both President Bushes, the neocons, the U.S. military, the GOP, and an indolent media), Roger Morris, already deep in that hole, just keeps digging away. In doing so, he offers us the rest of Rumsfeld’s long march to power, his lasting legacies, and the costly lessons of this comeback kid. So much that went unheeded in the years in which Rumsfeld once again scaled the heights of power is now, thanks to Morris, compactly on the record.

“The absence of evidence is not necessarily the evidence of absence” is another infamous Rumsfeldism. How true. And in Rumsfeld’s absence, the evidence of how he changed our world for the worse will be with us to consider for years to come. So, if you missed it, check out “Sharp Elbows,” the first part of “The Undertaker’s Tally,” and then settle in for the sequel, the one you thought you knew until you read “The Power and the Glory.” Read it and remember, the bell tolls for thee. Tom

The Power and the Glory: The Undertaker’s Tally (Part 2)
By Roger Morris

In 1976, when Jimmy Carter took the Presidency from Gerald Ford, outgoing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld went off to seek corporate wealth as head of G.D. Searle, a Skokie pharmaceutical company. His period running the business, inherited by the family of his North Shore friend and early backer Dan Searle, would become part of Rumsfeld’s legend of success as a master manager, negligently accepted as fact by the media and Congressional representatives at his 2001 confirmation hearings.

The legend went this way: Political prodigy slashes payroll 60%, turns decrepit loser into mega-profit-maker, earns industry kudos and multiple millions. In looking at men of prominence like Rumsfeld who revolve in and out of the private sector, the Washington media almost invariably adopts the press-release or booster business-page version of events from what inside-the-Beltway types call “the real world.” In Rumsfeld’s case, behind the image of corporate savior lay a far more relevant and ominous history.

In the documented version of reality, derived from litigation and relatively obscure investigations in the U.S. and abroad, Searle turned out to enjoy its notable rise less thanks to Rumsfeldian innovative managerial genius than to old-fashioned reckless marketing of pharmaceuticals already on the shelf and the calling in of lobbying “markers” via its well-connected Republican CEO. And over it all wafted the distinctive odor of corrupt practices. A case in point was Searle’s anti-diarrhea medicine Lomotil, sold ever more widely and profitably internationally (in industry terms “dumped”) — especially in Africa in the late 1970s — despite the company’s failure to warn of its potentially dire effects on younger children.

“A blindly harmful stopcock,” one medical journal called the remedy, which could be poisonous to infants only slightly above Searle’s recommended dosage. Even taken according to directions, Lomotil was known to mask dangerous dehydration and cause a lethal build-up of fluids internally. Having advertised the medicine as “ideal for every situation,” Searle did not undertake a cautionary labeling change until the end of 1981, nearly five years into Rumsfeld’s tenure, and then only when threatened with damaging publicity by children’s advocacy groups. Part of the vast outrage of multinational “pharmas” exploiting the Third World, the company under Rumsfeld would, like the more publicized Upjohn with its Depo-Provera, be implicated in widespread bribery of officials (and others) in poorer countries to promote the sale of oral contraceptives which had been found unsafe for American or European women.

But Searle’s magic potion, concocted well before Rumsfeld’s arrival, was to be the controversial artificial sweetener aspertame, marketed under the trade name NutraSweet. By 1977, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had staunchly refused to approve aspertame for some 16 years, finding test data dubious or inconclusive and fearing that potential long-term dangers might prove prohibitive. As Rumsfeld took over in Skokie, the FDA was taking the rare step of recommending to Justice Department prosecutors that a grand jury investigate the company’s applications for FDA approval for “willful and knowing failure to make reports… concealing material facts and making false statements” in connection with the statutory application process required by law and FDA standards.

Over the next four years, federal regulators held firm against Searle’s heavily financed campaigns. Only with Reagan’s election in 1980 did fix and favor supplant science and the public interest. Having campaigned for the new president and been named to his transition team, Rumsfeld told his Searle sales force, according to later testimony, that “he would call in all his markers and that no matter what, he would see to it that aspartame would be approved…”

Read the rest here.

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