One in an occasional series

Was there ever a better Washington briefer than Donald Rumsfeld? Square-jawed, square-shouldered, utterly calm, utterly commanding, his rimless spectacles a reminder of the last defense secretary of his type, the all-knowing Robert S. McNamara -- Rumsfeld is to a Pentagon briefing as Jimmy Stewart was to a Frank Capra movie, a case of perfect casting.

The briefing is as close as Washington has come to creating an art form. At the Pentagon yesterday, it was thoroughly theatrical, right down to the Defense Department official who played the role of stage manager, shouting "One minute!" just before Rumsfeld and Gen. Richard B. Myers arrived in the venerable briefing room on the second floor, E Ring, of the Pentagon. It's a small room with a low ceiling, jammed with television cameras, photographers and reporters sitting in eight rows of 10. Klieg lights illuminate the faces in the crowd, as well as the speakers; the room is warm.

The briefing is disguised as a forum for reporters to ask questions of officials, so they can write and broadcast knowledgeable stories about the events of the day. The real purpose is to give the official a chance to manage the news. In an administration that has taken news management to new heights, this is a critical mission.

Before even finishing his opening statement, Rumsfeld had spoken simultaneously to numerous distinct audiences, from senior leaders and military officers in Iraq to U.S. troops in the field to foreign governments, public opinion here and abroad and, last and probably least, to the 80-odd reporters in the briefing room.

The opening words told you what was on the Bush administration's mind early in the morning, when decisions were made about the message of the day. Evidently, the administration was anxious to express condolences to the families of the war's first casualties. It was concerned about suggestions that the United States has imperial ambitions in Iraq, or plans to take over Iraq's oil; that senior Iraqi officials have not yet turned on the regime as the United States had hoped; and that Iraqi military units are not giving up as quickly as expected. Rumsfeld's statement further suggested the importance that the administration attaches to the idea that invading Iraq is part of the war on terrorism and that the American goal is to help the Iraqis become free and prosperous.

It's hard now to remember that gossips had Rumsfeld on the skids in early September 2001 -- a frustrated Cabinet officer who couldn't find the rhythm, and didn't like the music. Many speculated he was already a short-timer, likely to be Bush's first Cabinet member to quit. Then came the Afghan war, Rumsfeld's first opportunity to bowl over a huge audience with his self-confidence and square jaw. The whole experience transformed the man. He thrived on war, and on face time in front of the television cameras. Who's heard rumors about Rumsfeld's departure in the last 18 months? No one.

Rumsfeld and Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, briefed at 1:30 p.m. To avoid conflicting messages, Ari Fleischer, the president's spokesman, met reporters about 2:15. He, too, began with condolences to the families of the first casualties.

Fleischer repeatedly made it clear that his boss is the CEO of this war but is not deeply involved in details of its prosecution. He refused to answer questions about "operational detail," referring them to the Pentagon. As if to emphasize the point, he announced that Bush was leaving in early afternoon for a weekend at Camp David.

Fleischer doesn't have Rumsfeld's gravitas, and the reporters at the White House show him less respect than Rumsfeld engenders in his briefing room. But he is rarely fazed by them, and he concentrates on the television audience, which is a lot bigger than the crowd in the White House press room.

The other daily briefing is given at the State Department, by Assistant Secretary Richard A. Boucher. Boucher is a career diplomat, and this is his second tour of duty as spokesman. He did it first for James A. Baker III and Warren Christopher.

The briefing at State is the least theatrical. Boucher knows substance; so do a lot of the reporters who attend his briefings. Yesterday's session went on for more than an hour, with much of it devoted to U.S. relations with Turkey, badly damaged in the run-up to war. On Thursday, Boucher spent long minutes discussing the interstices of international law. Almost none of what he said got into the papers.

There are countless ways that reporters and officials interact in Washington, ranging from the presidential news conference to Bob Woodward's secretive encounters with Deep Throat in Washington parking garages. Public briefings rarely provide a juicy story.

Rumsfeld's command of the briefing art form is enhanced by the fact that he is rarely challenged with a rude question. His questioners missed a good opportunity yesterday. A story in yesterday's Washington Post noted Rumsfeld's statement at the previous day's briefing that the coalition fighting this war "is larger than the coalition that existed during the Gulf War in 1991." That was part of the message-of-the-day on Thursday.

But it's a dubious assertion. Thirty-four countries contributed military forces in 1991, compared with a handful this time. The Post's story quoted Ivo H. Daalder of the Brookings Institution, who was an official of the Carter administration, calling the assertion "a baldfaced lie." You wonder if Rumsfeld's splendid calm would have been ruffled if someone had quoted Daalder back to him, but it didn't happen.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, perfectly cast for the briefer's role.Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld commands the room as he briefs the news media with the aid of Gen. Richard B. Myers, to his left at the lectern.Myers usually finds himself in a supporting role during the briefings.