Rummy's Other Role

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By Sally Quinn
Thursday, October 19, 2006

Don Rumsfeld is the shrewdest person in Washington. He understands better than anyone that somebody has to be in line to take the blame when things go wrong. So far he has been willing to do so. But not much longer.

The drumbeat to get him out of the Pentagon has reached deafening proportions. Republicans and Democrats, the generals, the media, Colin Powell, Condi Rice, Andy Card, the first President Bush, and even Laura Bush all want him gone. Until now George W. Bush has resisted all of the pressure to get rid of his defense secretary. But those in the know say that the president may have reached the point where he realizes that Rumsfeld has outlived his usefulness.

Still, the president must be aware on some level that once the pugnacious, outspoken and flak-attracting Rumsfeld leaves the stage, the focus will be on the president. Whether Bush realizes it or not, this is about a scapegoat.

In the Bible, the high priest would transfer the sins of the people onto a goat, and, as it was written, "the goat shall carry all the sins of the people into a land where no one lives, and the man shall let it loose in the wilderness."

(The word for scapegoat in Hebrew means, literally, "into hell.")

Rumsfeld has seen others take on the role of scapegoat. Look what happened to Nancy Reagan. When she was first lady, she rightly realized that Donald Regan, the chief of staff, was causing her husband enormous damage. What she hadn't realized was that Regan was filling the role of scapegoat for the president. When Don Regan was finally fired, Nancy herself was made the scapegoat. She then took the brunt of criticism for the errors of her husband's administration.

It is hard for the American people to turn completely against the president. It seems tantamount to patricide. We're much more comfortable being able to blame someone else for the president's mistakes. Laura Bush will never be the scapegoat. For now, it's Rumsfeld.

Vice President Cheney is not eager to replace him. And he would never fire Rumsfeld, who was his mentor and who hired him for three government jobs during the Ford administration, including as his deputy when Rumsfeld was chief of staff. (In fact, Cheney's Secret Service code name was "Back Seat.") In any event, Cheney is low-profile, secretive, nonconfrontational -- and presumably too experienced to allow himself to be easily made the scapegoat. But if Rumsfeld goes, the attention and criticism can be directed only to Cheney, or to Bush.

And it's improbable that Rumsfeld can last. He may not have an exit strategy for Iraq, but, old Washington hand that he is, he undoubtedly has one for himself.

I suspect that he has already told the president and Cheney that he will leave after the midterm elections, saying that the country needs new leadership to wind down the war. And he will resign to take a job in some sort of humanitarian venture, thereby creating the perception that he is a caring person who left of his own accord to devote the rest of his life to good works.

Bush and Cheney, who don't want him gone, will then have to contend with the reality of the new situation: One goat must be sent off into the wilderness. Who will it be?


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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