By definition, memoirists get to tell their stories the way they remember them. The retellings can be gentle or scorching, illuminating or concealing.
Donald Rumsfeld has chosen all of the above in “Known and Unknown,” a hefty and heavily annotated accounting and defense of his life in public service.
“Never much of a handwringer, I don’t spend a lot of time in recriminations, looking back or second-guessing decisions made in real time with imperfect information by myself or others,” he writes.
But hand-wring he does, in repeated blasts of Rumsfeldian score-settling that come off as a cross between setting the record straight and doggedly knocking enemies off pedestals.
There is, indeed a lot about Rumsfeld himself that is known and unknown. Who recalls now that he was considered (and passed over) for vice president three times in three years? Who knew that he was inspired to public service by a liberal Democrat, Adlai Stevenson, and wrote a campaign check to New Jersey Democrat Bill Bradley when he ran for president in 2000? That he, Dick Cheney and Frank Carlucci — all future secretaries of defense — ran Richard Nixon’s anti-poverty agency in 1969?
The book is full of little nuggets like that, but at its heart, it is a revenge memoir.
Most readers who came to know of Rumsfeld during the last stage of his remarkable career as secretary of defense for George W. Bush will not be surprised at the tone that runs through much of the book. Rumsfeld, according to Rumsfeld, was prescient, clear-headed, loyal and almost always right.
But he is also acerbic, dismissive and reluctant to admit that he occasionally missed the policy mark. As a member of Congress in 1964, for example, he concedes he should have thought twice before voting for the Gulf of Tonkin resolution. Later in the volume, he skates over one of the reasons he was essentially fired as defense secretary in 2006: He did not agree that more troops were needed in Iraq.
Mostly, Rumsfeld is certain — never more so than when he is chronicling the deficiencies of others. His list of disdain runs long — from former secretaries of state Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell, to Coalition Provisional Authority chief Paul Bremer (“It remained difficult to get him to accept the idea that Iraq belonged to the Iraqis”), to former Army secretary Eric Shinseki, to former Joint Chiefs chairman Hugh Shelton, Powell aide Richard Armitage, Sen. John McCain and, of course, the news media.
The most consistent censure is reserved for Powell, Rice and anyone who operated in their diplomatic orbit. Powell and his supporters, he writes, were skeptical of the administration’s initiatives to the point of disloyalty. Apparently, it did not help that Democrats like then-Delaware Sen. Joe Biden described Powell to a newspaper reporter as a “good guy,” but Rumsfeld as a “unilateralist.”
Rumsfeld is especially piqued about what he saw as Powell’s behavior after the case he made to the United Nations about the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq later proved untrue.
“Powell was not duped or misled by anybody,” Rumsfeld asserts sternly. “Nor did he lie about Saddam’s suspected WMD stockpiles. The President did not lie. The Vice President did not lie. Tenet did not lie. Rice did not lie. I did not lie. The Congress did not lie. The far less dramatic truth is that we were wrong.”
Rice, by contrast, was exceedingly loyal in Rumsfeld’s estimation; she just wasn’t competent — as either national security adviser or secretary of state. Meetings, he said, were disorganized, and she refused to force a decision from the president. “The core problems the NSC faced resulted from the effort to paper over differences of views,” he writes.
Rumsfeld recounts more than one tense confrontation with Rice and traces much of his discontent to her. “I don’t want four hands on the steering wheel,” he advised Bremer, who he discovered was talking daily to Rice.
“Human rights trump security,” he quotes her as saying during a separate disagreement about U.S. relations with Uzbekistan. Rumsfeld begged to differ, but lost the argument.
There are other digs along the way. Rumsfeld apparently does not think as highly of President George H.W. Bush as he does of his son. (“It has always amazed me that [George H.W.] Bush’s version of what took place has consistently been contrary to the facts,” he writes of one Ford administration-era dispute.)
Rumsfeld has careful and consistent praise for only a few — chief among them George W. Bush, Gerald Ford and Richard B. Cheney.
The long friendship with Cheney — which began when both were very young men — has endured even though it was often the former vice president who delivered bad news. It was Cheney on the line when Rumsfeld learned he was being passed over for the 1976 vice presidential nomination, and it was Cheney calling again 20 years later, when Rumsfeld was forced out as secretary of defense.
Rumsfeld’s major regret appears to be the handling of the Abu Ghraib scandal, when photographs surfaced showing U.S. soldiers abusing Iraqis held at the notorious Baghdad prison. Twice, he offered to resign. Twice, Bush said no. Rumsfeld writes that not leaving then was his biggest “misjudgment.”
Throughout the book, which is organized a bit like a hopscotch game, Rumsfeld is intent on proving the Bush administration’s pure intent. In his worldview, the news media and authors who recounted Bush’s term in office have distorted almost everything — including the timing of the decision to go to war in Iraq after the 9/11 attacks; the responsibility for holding, interrogating and prosecuting detainees in Guantanamo Bay; and even the handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
History is determined by who gets to define it. So Rumsfeld patiently explains that the Bush administration did not practice “preemption,” only “anticipatory self-defense.” He provides hundreds of his own memos — archived on the Web — to back up his case. They may be exhaustive, but they are still Rumsfeld’s interpretation of the world as he saw it. By the time every Bush administration veteran finishes defining and redefining history, surely someone is going to have to come up with a brand new dictionary.
Ifill is moderator of “Washington Week” and senior correspondent for “PBS NewsHour.”
KNOWN AND UNKNOWN
: A Memoir,
by Donald Rumsfeld.
Sentinel. 815 pp. $36