By Al Kamen
Thursday, March 10, 2011; 9:59 PM
Former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld has been wrongly accused by critics of arrogantly shooting from the hip and getting us into that mess in Iraq.
But private memos from earlier in his career reveal a cautious man, much more cautious than people give him credit for, maybe even hyper-cautious.
For example, a "memorandum for the file" that he dictated on Sunday, Sept. 29, 1974, seven weeks after Gerald Ford assumed the presidency following Richard Nixon's resignation, recounts a problem that arose as he prepared to replace Alexander Haig as White House chief of staff.
Rumsfeld, temporarily in an office in the Executive Office Building, noted that he had met the day before "at approximately 5 p.m." with his pal Dick Cheney, then a presidential assistant, and others "to assist me in starting the move into Haig's old office" in the West Wing.
Rumsfeld recalled that the group helped him empty cupboards and closets and "look around the place."
He recalled that he wanted "to make sure that Haig had left nothing that he might want . . . and I wanted to make sure that there was nothing in the place that I didn't want there, such as recording equipment, telephone bugs and the like." Good idea.
"At approximately 5:15, I believe," an aide told him there was "a safe in the cupboard" by the fireplace in the office. At "approximately 7 p.m.," he recalled, he asked Cheney and another aide to get the safe combination "so I could start using it in the event I had classified material."
But an aide said that "there is something you ought to know about the safe." Seems the safe had not been opened during Haig's tenure. "Haig had apparently asked to have it opened" but former White House counsel J. Fred Buzhardt told Haig he didn't want it opened, Rumsfeld recalled being told.
So Rumsfeld told Cheney he "wanted the safe moved out of my office, unopened" and would check with counsel about letting Watergate investigators know it was there and, if possible, what might be in it.
He arranged for a guard at the door when he left his office later that night, he recalled, "to protect it from entry," in case there was "evidence related to the work of the Justice Department" or other Watergate investigators.
"I knew that I had not touched it nor had any of the people who had been in my office," he said, listing Cheney and others who'd been in there.
And no one had touched it the next morning when he called the counsel's office to "develop a procedure for transfer of the safe out of this office," he wrote. Before the safe was carefully put on a dolly to take it across West Executive Drive to a vault in the EOB, Rumsfeld made sure he got a receipt (which is attached to the memo) showing it had been transferred out of his custody.
There is an aide's note in the files - unclear whether Cheney wrote it - that on Tuesday, Oct. 1, word was sent to Rumsfeld "that the aforementioned safe was blown open and discovered to be empty. It was then sent to GSA for repair. Above action was supervised by the Secret Service."
And Rumsfeld's got the receipt to prove it.Naked patriotism
At a time when the country's facing peril abroad and economic turmoil at home, it might be good to have a leader with creativity - someone who can think outside the box, who can find novel solutions to very difficult problems.
That's why it was quite troubling to see all the derision, the guffawing, that greeted former House speaker and likely presidential candidate Newt Gingrich's explanation Monday about his affair, while he was married to his second wife, with a woman who became his third wife. Dealing with these matters is extraordinarily difficult for politicians.
Some recently entwined public servants, such as former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford, offer the dreamy "love" excuse when they're caught. Sanford talked about his famous hike down the Appalachian Trail to Argentina in terms of finding his "soul mate and the love of his life."
"A forbidden one, a tragic one, but a love story at the end of the day," he said. Heartfelt, albeit weird, and his political career was toast.
Eliot Spitzer, now in the chattering class, told an interviewer that his hanging with pros while governor of New York was nothing more than "an act of stupid hubris." Huge kudos for straightforward talk. But his days as a politician, even in a liberal place like New York, are almost surely over.
And former president Bill Clinton said that the Monica Lewinsky matter was "not entirely rational" and that he was "pretty wigged out" over his friends being hounded and imprisoned by special prosecutor Ken Starr and "mad at myself for losing the Congress." He also said he was stressed from "titanic struggles," including one for "the future of the country."
Not bad - a good stab at working the good-of-the-country angle in there. But he got impeached anyway.
Gingrich's stance was much better. He told David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network, whose viewers vote in primaries and may look particularly askance at sexual waywardness, that he had "felt compelled to seek God's forgiveness" for his behavior.
Interviewed in Iowa, Gingrich said his extramarital activity was "partially driven by how passionately I felt about this country, that I worked far too hard and things happened in my life that were not appropriate."
This is excellent. His passion for America, not another woman, eventually led him on a path to do things that were "not appropriate." It's not easy to wrap yourself in the flag while you're naked. And it's not particularly comfortable. But it's certainly a lot more creative than the usual lame-o excuses.
Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this column.