A Bad Omen in Rumsfeld's Firing

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and President Bush leave the Oval Office on Nov. 8.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and President Bush leave the Oval Office on Nov. 8. (By Gerald Herbert -- Associated Press)
By Robert D. Novak
Thursday, November 23, 2006

Donald Rumsfeld, one week after his sacking as secretary of defense, was treated as a conquering hero, accorded one standing ovation after another at the conservative American Spectator magazine's annual dinner in Washington. The enthusiasm may have indicated less total support for Rumsfeld's six-year record at the Pentagon than resentment over the way President Bush fired him.

Rumsfeld had recovered his usual aplomb as he basked in the Spectator's glow. But the day after the election he had seemed devastated -- the familiar confident grin gone and his voice breaking. According to administration officials, only three or four people knew he would be fired -- and Rumsfeld was not one of them. His fellow presidential appointees, including some who did not applaud Rumsfeld's performance in office, were taken aback by his treatment.

In the two weeks since the election, I have asked a wide assortment of Republican notables their opinion of the Rumsfeld sacking. Only one went on the record: Rep. Duncan Hunter, the House Armed Services Committee chairman. A rare undeviating supporter of Rumsfeld, Hunter told me that "it was a mistake for him to resign." The others, less supportive of Rumsfeld, said they were "appalled" -- the most common descriptive word -- by the president's performance.

The treatment of his war minister connotes something deeply wrong with George W. Bush's presidency in its sixth year. Apart from Rumsfeld's failures in personal relations, he never has been anything short of loyal in executing the president's wishes. But loyalty appears to be a one-way street for Bush. His shrouded decision to sack Rumsfeld after declaring that he would serve out the second term fits the pattern of a president who is secretive and impersonal.

Lawrence Lindsey had been assured that he would be retained as the president's national economic adviser, but he received word around 5 p.m. on Dec. 5, 2002, that he would be fired the next day. Before Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill embarked on a dangerous mission to Afghanistan, he requested and received assurances that he would still have a job when he returned. Instead, he was dismissed in tandem with Lindsey.

Bush is no malevolent tyrant who concocts unpleasant surprises for his Cabinet members. Rather, letting the terminated official be one of the last to know of his imminent removal derives from congenital phobia over White House leaks that I have seen exhibited by Republicans dating to President Dwight Eisenhower (and leading to President Richard Nixon's fateful use of "plumbers" to plug leaks). The Bush team took pride in keeping secret Harriet Miers's nomination to the Supreme Court before keeping mum on the fate of Rumsfeld.

Former House speaker Newt Gingrich claimed that the replacement of Rumsfeld two weeks before the election would have saved Republican control of the Senate as well as at least 10 GOP House seats. Many Republicans have bought into that dubious speculation, especially those who lost their seats Nov. 7. Presidential adviser Karl Rove told Rep. Clay Shaw of Florida, one of the defeated Republican veterans of Congress, that a preelection exit by Rumsfeld would have been too political.

Shaw appeared to accept this explanation, but many other Republicans do not. They see the White House dedicated to the "24-hour-cycle theory of politics." They believe the removal of Rumsfeld, falling into the 24-hour news cycle, was intended to crowd out continued rehashing of disastrous election returns.

It is hard to find anyone in the Bush administration who endorses the way Rumsfeld was handled. His friend and comrade, Vice President Cheney, is reported to be profoundly disturbed. But even before the election, Cheney appeared melancholy. A high-ranking administration official who visited the vice president then reported him to be nothing like the upbeat Cheney of earlier years in this administration.

The last two years of eight-year presidencies are historically difficult, particularly after a loss in the final midterm elections. Eisenhower in 1959-60 assumed a more aggressive conservative posture by firing off multiple vetoes of excessive spending legislation. During the Iran-contra scandal, Ronald Reagan in 1987-88 was steadfast in pursuing Cold War victory. But the way George W. Bush handled Rumsfeld was not a good sign for his concluding years as president.

© 2006 Creators Syndicate Inc.

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