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Bush's Wild Card

By Bob Woodward
Friday, January 12, 2001; Page A25

Donald H. Rumsfeld, the man President-elect George W. Bush wants to be the next secretary of defense, was one of the brightest Republican stars in the 1960s and '70s, serving in Congress, in cabinet-level posts in the Nixon administration, as President Ford's White House chief of staff, and then as Ford's defense secretary for 14 months. Many associates, including Rumsfeld himself at times, thought that the former 157-pound Princeton wrestler was headed for the presidency.

Those ambitions never fully flowered in part because of the rise of the president-elect's father, George Bush senior. In the 1980s and '90s, when Bush served as vice president and then president, Rumsfeld stayed in the Chicago area, his hometown, running companies and playing only on the edge of government. But over four decades a pretty clear picture emerges of this scrappy, independent-minded and demanding executive's core: Rumsfeld admires most those people who don't allow themselves to be pushed around -- even by presidents.

If confirmed, he may be more of a wild card in the new administration than the Ford retread some have made him out to be.

In 1975, after a year as White House chief of staff, Rumsfeld was summoned to see Ford, who said that he planned to fire Defense Secretary James Schlesinger. Rumsfeld would move to Defense. CIA Director William Colby was also leaving and was going to be replaced by George Bush senior, then the representative in China -- an assignment that Rumsfeld has privately called "a crappy, irrelevant job." Ford then elevated Rumsfeld's deputy, Dick Cheney, to be the new White House chief of staff. At the time, the Senate was refusing to confirm Bush senior as CIA director unless Ford pledged not to select Bush as his vice presidential running mate for the coming election. Rumsfeld told Ford and Cheney that the president should not cave in to the Senate and should keep the option open. When Ford and Bush eventually made the pledge to the Senate anyway, Rumsfeld blamed Cheney in part and was very severe with the new chief of staff, telling him in so many words, you've screwed up on the first thing you've done.

During the next year, 1976, a subtle rivalry emerged between Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and CIA Director Bush. In their years in the House, Rumsfeld had found Bush to be a lightweight who was interested in friendships, public relations and public opinion polls more than substantive policy. In Rumsfeld's view, Bush avoided controversy and sweat, except in the House gym. He went so far with others as to declare that Bush had some of what Rumsfeld called the "Rockefeller syndrome": available and wanting to serve but not having clear goals or knowing why he wanted a particular post.

Rumsfeld believed that Bush and his CIA seriously underestimated the Soviet Union's military advances in missile accuracy, the speed with which multiple warheads were being placed on intercontinental missiles, and defense expenditures. In particular, Rumsfeld believed that Bush senior as CIA director stayed mute or agreed with then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger that the Soviet Backfire Bomber was not an intercontinental, strategic bomber. Intelligence photos showed that the bomber had a refueling probe that extended its range, but Bush and Kissinger would not acknowledge what was obvious to Rumsfeld. "Kissinger wanted Bush for the CIA because he felt he could manage him," Rumsfeld has said.

Rumsfeld felt that his most significant achievement during his 14 months as defense secretary was alerting Congress and the public that the Soviet Union had gone from a primitive power in the 1960s to superpower status in the 1970s. "It was a stunningly unattractive position for the president and Kissinger," Rumsfeld has noted. He showed the highest classified material to congressmen and senators, including satellite photos to prove his point. Ford wanted to win election as a president who had maintained superiority over the Soviets, and Kissinger wanted an arms control agreement. Rumsfeld's efforts hurt both.

Having toyed with running for president himself, Rumsfeld has some very specific thoughts -- and high expectations -- for anyone who wins the office. In 1988, he had reservations about Bush senior, and that spring he said privately, "Bush has very few enemies. He's not accumulated them because of the way he's lived. He has not drawn fire. He has not gone to the wall that often, if ever. He's not been around a lot of carnage. This is a good strategy to get the nomination, but can somebody like this be president?"

After a long discussion Rumsfeld and I had about the presidency, he sent me a letter dated Sept. 29, 1988, summarizing six core traits he believed were necessary for a successful president: "1) Having priorities . . . must be willing to make choices or the Administration will lack focus, go off in fifteen directions at once, get nowhere. 2) Knowing the importance of selecting the right people for key posts. 3) A president leads by consent, not by command . . . success will depend more on his ability to 'persuade,' than on his ability to 'order.' 4) A moral compass. . . . 5) The president has to have guts . . . he will need a little steel up his spine at the important moments. 6) There should be as small a gap as possible between what a president is and what people think he is, because the gap will close."

Rumsfeld was thinking of the president-elect's father, who was on the verge of winning the presidency, but it's not a bad list for the son. In fairness, Rumsfeld has since said that he thought Bush senior was a strong president in foreign policy and during the Gulf War, when President Bush clearly went to the wall. Rumsfeld had government appointments in the Reagan administration as Middle East envoy and the Clinton administration as head of the missile defense commission, but none in the administration of Bush senior.

The novelist Wallace Stegner wrote of what he called "resilience under disappointment," the persistence of drive, hard work and even stubbornness after ambition has not been fully realized. Rumsfeld once thought he was on track to run for or even become president. Instead, 25 years after his Pentagon service he is slated to return in the administration of his rival's son. It will surely be one of the most interesting relationships to watch.

The writer is an assistant managing editor of The Post.

© 2001 The Washington Post Company