Rumsfeld, A Newsmaker Who's Certainly Hard to Follow

Ousted defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld could turn his press briefings into stern, didactic lectures.
Ousted defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld could turn his press briefings into stern, didactic lectures. (By Mark Wilson -- Getty Images)

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By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 9, 2006

Is he stepping down? You bet. Does he admit defeat? Not by a long shot. Is the country going to miss the way he acted smarter than everyone else and often preempted media questions by interrogating himself as a rhetorical device? Sort of -- the way you might miss your father's spankings.

Goodness gracious! Donald Rumsfeld, who resigned yesterday, not only has been secretary of defense for six years, he's been secretary of offense. During his tenure, briefings by the head of the armed forces became tours de force. He would clap his hands, lick his lips, narrow his eyes into a squinty gaze and extemporize, patronize, chastise, sermonize and crack wise all at the same time.

He had his admirers. "Reporters often told me that he raised the levels of their performances," says former Pentagon spokeswoman Torie Clarke. "He forced them to be more precise in the way they asked questions." She says he obviously respected the role of the media in society.

"He tries very hard not to talk before he's thought through his answer," she says. "He thinks before he speaks."

And he had his detractors. Calvin Trillin, a writer for the New Yorker and author of "A Heckuva Job: More of the Bush Administration in Rhyme," says he has been amazed at Rumsfeld's ability to be at once brashly know-it-all and disarmingly homespun. "It was a wonderful mixture of arrogance and 'Aunt Harriet' language" like goodness gracious, Trillin says. "I don't think anybody can match that."

In the introduction to his book, Trillin writes that Rumsfeld conducted his press briefings "as if trying patiently to explain the obvious to a class of slow third-graders. (Might you prefer to be briefed by someone less arrogant and condescending? Yes. Do we always get what we want? Of course not.)"

Late-night comedians will miss him. He was an easy mark.

And for a while, back in the early days of the fighting in Afghanistan, he was considered a rock star, a sex symbol to some. But the country's fascination with him flagged as more and more people began to question the war in Iraq.

Rumsfeld always had an answer. He will be remembered as a master at holding up a word or a phrase as if it were Silly Putty, then twisting it, bouncing it, stretching it to his own liking. For instance, the time he decided that people should eschew the word "insurgents" and call them "enemies of the legitimate Iraqi government" instead.

Or the time he spoke of the precariousness of the contemporary world. "Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me," Rumsfeld said, "because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns -- the ones we don't know we don't know."

He said, "The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence."

If you missed his briefings, you can still find some fragments on the Internet. God bless YouTube. It's a rip-roaring repository of Rummified irascibility.

In one video snippet he uses a high-in-the-throat, marmish tone to tell a Pentagon reporter that he is "wrong!" The reporter tries to speak and Rumsfeld wags his finger. "Just a minute, just a minute!"

There's a clip in which he mimics a dropping guillotine with his hand and says, "This is complicated stuff."

For six years, Rumsfeld was the civilian rooster in the military henhouse -- the alpha male. Yesterday, he was the omega male, giving his last briefing as the unequivocal secretary of defense. Bush spoke first. Then Robert Gates, the newly nominated secretary of defense. Then Rumsfeld. He had the last word.

He stood at a funereal black lectern in the Oval Office and explained things one last time. He clapped his hands to get things started. He licked his lips. He narrowed his eyes into a squinty gaze and recalled the words of Winston Churchill, who said, "I have benefited greatly from criticism, and at no time have I suffered a lack thereof."

And Rumsfeld reminded the nation one more time about "this little understood, unfamiliar war, the first war of the 21st century -- it is not well known, it was not well understood."

It is, he said in the briefest of briefings, "complex for people to comprehend."


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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