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Donald Rumsfeld, Nixon Republican Turned Iraq War Salesman, Dead at 88

In a lifetime, he went from Republican royalty to a far more haunted figure.
The Honorable Donald H. Rumsfeld, left U.S. Secretary of Defense, talks to U.S. President George W. Bush, center, and U.S. Vice President Richard B. Cheney, during his farewell parade at the Pentagon, Washington, D.C., on Dec. 15, 2006. (DoD photo by Cherie A. Thurlby) (Released)

Donald Rumsfeld, the two-time secretary of Defense and Gerald Ford White House chief of staff, defined by his role in the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, has died in New Mexico, his family has confirmed. 

The news was announced on Twitter, the first post from his account in over three years. Calling Rumsfeld “a great American statesman” and a “great grandfather,” his office noted “he was surrounded by family in his beloved Taos.” 

“History may remember him for his extraordinary accomplishments over six decades of public service,” the statement reads. “But for those who knew him best, and whose lives were forever changed as a result, we will remember his unwavering love for his wife Joyce, his family and friends.”  

It’s a fair enough synopsis from family. A former aide, Keith Urbahn, the founding partner of influential Washington communications agency Javelin, said: “You don’t have to be a Rumsfeld fan to recognize that we don’t make political leaders like him anymore: strategic, well-rounded, civic-minded, no BS.”

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Born middle class and of German heritage in Chicago, educated at Princeton, and commissioned in the Navy, the young Rumsfeld was occasionally teased for his stern, but handsome, central European features at a time in American life of lingering, commonplace anti-German sentiments following the world wars. Those who knew him recalled that Rumsfeld would call himself “a child of the Depression” into later life and blanch at more decadent spending. 

Rumsfeld tried his hand at law school, attending both Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and Georgetown, but never graduating from either. He was a staff assistant to a coterie of Midwestern, Republican congressmen in his late twenties, before becoming one himself, elected in Illinois at the age of 30. 

Rumsfeld built an early alliance with Gerald Ford, Michigan congressman and future president, in the mid 1960’s, after the whalloping of Barry Goldwater and the Republican humiliation in the 1964 elections. Rumsfeld voted in favor of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.     

When Richard Nixon ascended to the White House, Rumsfeld never looked back, though there were usually questions about the young man in a hurry. Rumsfeld had originally wanted to be party chairman, but Nixon chose elsewhere. As reported by the Chicago Tribune in 1986 about the run-up to a possible run for president in 1988: “In Congress Rumsfeld sought a party leadership post…. but lost to Ohio Congressman Robert A. Taft Jr. by a single vote. Although Rumsfeld was much more energetic and resourceful than Taft, he was also much more disliked by senior colleagues.”

But Nixon recognized a fellow traveller. 

Rumsfeld was made director of the Office of Economic Opportunity, then counselor to the president, then the one-and-only director of the Cost of Living Council, then promoted to the arena where he would make his legacy: national security. He was ambassador to NATO as Nixon met his downfall. Nixon would muse on future Republican stars, once called future Hollywood star and Senator Fred Dalton Thompson “dumb as hell”: Rumsfeld was “a ruthless little bastard.”

Rumsfeld was then seemingly a moderate on the cardinal issue of the day: America’s lingering, doomed war in Vietnam.  

As Nixon grappled with exodus, which the 37th president would ruinously equivocate over for years, Rumsfeld urged a peace of sorts, couching it in partisan terms. “Four times in this century,” Nixon says on one of his famous tapes. “[The Democrats] got us into World War I, they got us into World War II . . . They got us into Korea, Eisenhower got us out. They got us into Vietnam, Nixon got us out.” Rumsfeld replied: “The Democratic mentality… is to smother, to intervene, to try to manage things . . . The Nixon doctrine, and its domestic program, have a different philosophical base.” 

If only Rumsfeld would later have trusted his instincts as a younger man. 

When Nixon was ejected from politics, Rumsfeld served his successor, Ford. He became White House chief of staff and secretary of Defense. During this period, he also elevated a protege, an anonymous young staff assistant from Wyoming named Dick Cheney. Rumsfeld and Cheney were pointed to as the gunmen behind the “Halloween Massacre,” a November 1975 reshuffle of Ford’s cabinet—high-level personnel turnover not seen again until the Donald Trump era. 

Out: the legendary Henry Kissinger as national security advisor (he stayed on State), replaced by Brent Scowcroft. Out: William Colby, replaced by a former failed Senate candidate named George H.W. Bush. Out: Vice President Nelson Rockfeller, from the 1976 ticket, replaced with Bob Dole. 

It was a lurch to “the right,” as Ford feared a rising Ronald Reagan. And it marked a more explicit identification by Rumsfeld and Cheney with Buckleyite, “movement conservatism.” Rumsfeld and Bush would come later to despise each other, and Scowcroft likewise distrusted him, possibly judging Rumsfeld for his naked will to power, though he had been a beneficiary of it. 

When Bush got the nod to be Reagan’s running mate in 1980, it meant years in the political wilderness, if not his shot at the presidency itself. In his memoirs, the titan of supply-side economics Milton Friedman argued “I believe that Reagan made a mistake when he chose Bush as his vice-presidential candidate — indeed, I regard it as the worst decision not only of his campaign but of his presidency. My favorite candidate was Donald Rumsfeld. Had he been chosen, I believe he would have succeeded Reagan as president and the sorry Bush-Clinton period would never have occurred.”       

In his biopic, The Unknown Known (2013), director Errol Morris asked Rumsfeld, “It seems to me if that decision had gone a slightly different way, you would have been future president of the United States?” Rumsfeld replied: “That’s possible.” Morris also asked Rumsfeld: “When Shakespeare wrote history, the motivating force was character defects, jealousies… Maybe Shakespeare got it wrong?”

Rumsfeld replied: “Maybe he got it right.”

* * *

As George W. Bush settled into status as president-elect in early 2001 following a contested election, the Texas governor balanced the selection of Colin Powell as secretary of State with an encore tour for Rumsfeld at Defense, the urging of soon-to-be Vice President Dick Cheney. The Cheney and Rumsfeld selections were, in themselves, selections of distinction between the younger Bush and his father, the 41st president. George H.W. Bush would unload on Rumsfeld and Cheney in later years, and the duo saw his hand in undermining Republican support for the Iraq disaster, with Scowcroft and James Baker sometimes breaking with the Bush 43 administration in public. 

Years later, Rumsfeld would be interviewed by Stephen Colbert on the Tonight Show. Colbert had made his bones pillorying George W. Bush’s administration following the September 11, 2001, attacks when that was not exactly popular. In some ways, to see to the two men together was to see a stunning reversal of fortune for Rumsfeld: He was once the bespectacled, whip-smart performer beloved by the media. In the early days of the George W. Bush administration, Rumsfeld’s lively press conferences at the Pentagon are what passed for entertainment in a tense time. 

In many ways, Rumsfeld’s career arc was the opposite of that of Patrick J. Buchanan, the co-founder of this magazine. Buchanan was also a Nixon man, but built a relationship with Reagan, as well. Rumsfeld considered a run of his own for president in 1988, dithering over a financial matter, but perhaps also a fundamental disinterest in challenging power. Buchanan would run in 1992 (scaring Bush), 1996 (nearly winning), and 2000. He would break early not only on the Iraq War, but also “free” trade and unending, unassimilated immigration, in depressingly prescient advocacy. 

In contrast to Cheney, whose daughter Liz had ambitions of her own, Rumsfeld broke from his salesman role on the Iraq escapade in later years. While the Cheneys were authoring a certainly unbowed book called Exceptional: Why the World Needs a Powerful America, Rumsfeld was denying he had ever said democracy was a realistic goal in Iraq (he had). 

Perhaps what initially led the younger Bush to Rumsfeld was a mutual style: an insistence on disciplined decision-making, and a never-look-back attitude that was emphasized in the Republican 2000s, in not-so-subtle distinction with the loosy-goosy (and much less lethal) 1990s under Bill Clinton. 

Bush would call his memoir Decision Points and Rumsfeld would tell a Pentagon press room in April 2003 on Iraq: “Stuff happens… Freedom’s untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things. … They’re also free to live their lives and do wonderful things. And that’s what’s going to happen here.”