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Correction to This Article
Earlier versions of this review of Donald Rumsfeld's memoir "Known and Unknown" misstated the length of time between his being passed over as a 1976 running mate for Gerald Ford and his being forced out as George W. Bush's defense secretary. The events were 30 years, not 20 years, apart. The review also incorrectly described Eric Shinseki as a former Army secretary. Shinseki was the Army's chief of staff. This version has been corrected.

Gwen Ifill reviews Donald Rumsfeld's memoir, "Known and Unknown"

Donald Rumsfeld came to the Pentagon with a plan to transform the Defense Department. Then America went to war with Iraq.

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By Gwen Ifill
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, February 8, 2011; 12:05 AM

By definition, memoirists get to tell their stories the way they remember them. The retellings can be gentle or scorching, illuminating or concealing.

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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 chief of staff 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."


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