Many decades ago Richard H. Rovere, then the New Yorker’s Washington columnist, ran into John Kenneth Galbraith. The Harvard professor confessed that he had been “surreptitiously” studying the American establishment and had recently “found out who was running the thing.” Galbraith challenged Rovere to guess the man’s name. “I thought hard for a while,” Rovere later reported, “and was on the point of naming Arthur Hays Sulzberger, of the New York Times, when suddenly the right name sprang to my lips. ‘John J. McCloy,’ I exclaimed. Chairman of the Board of Chase Manahattan Bank . . . former United States High Commissioner to Occupied Germany, former president of the World Bank, liberal Republican; chairman of the Ford Foundation and chairman — my God, how could I have hesitated — of the Council on Foreign Relations.”

“That’s the one,” Galbraith said.

This delightful anecdote inspired me to spend a full decade writing a biography of Jack McCloy (1895-1989), who, alas, remains largely unknown, just like my 800-page book. But I retain an interest in the foreign policy establishment, and, like Rovere, I occasionally wonder who runs the thing these days.

Now comes Donald Rumsfeld, with his new book, “Rumsfeld’s Rules,” basically a how-to guide to running Washington, big business, war — and well, life. Like McCloy, Rumsfeld at age 80 has had an extraordinary public career in business and government: Princeton University B.A., 1954; investment banker; U.S. congressman at the age of 30; anti-poverty czar in the Nixon administration; U.S. ambassador to NATO; chief of staff to President Gerald Ford; secretary of defense under Ford; chief executive of a major pharmaceutical company; Middle East envoy; trustee to numerous foundations and think-tanks; and of course, President George W. Bush’s secretary of defense from 2001 to 2006. His resume is endless. Like McCloy, he seems to have been everywhere and done everything.

Over the years, Rumsfeld made a habit of collecting hundreds of aphorisms that he found useful in guiding him through the corridors of power. Initially he jotted these down on index cards and stored them in a shoebox within handy reach of his standing desk. His ability to bring forth a pithy anecdote or maxim for every occasion so impressed Ford that the president asked Rumsfeld to type them up and pass them around to his White House staff. Ford dubbed them “Rumsfeld’s Rules.”

’Rumsfeld's Rules: Leadership Lessons in Business, Politics, War, and Life’ by Donald Rumsfeld. (Broadside)

And now we common citizens can read them in a book annotated at length by the author. “They have been read by presidents, government officials, business leaders, diplomats, members of Congress, and a great many others,” Rumsfeld writes in his introduction. Dick Cheney, George P. Shultz and Henry A. Kissinger — all very bright men with long establishment resumes — endorse the book on the back cover. Cheney reveals that he was “an early practitioner of Rumsfeld’s Rules. . . . I came to regret it on the few occasions I violated them.”

I think I know a couple of the rules the former vice president violated. Rumsfeld has a long list of rules on dealing with the news media. The first one is: “Learn to say, ‘I don’t know.’ ” I don’t think I’ve ever heard Cheney utter those words. Another Rumsfeld rule: “Avoid both infatuation with or resentment of the press.”

Evidently, it is hard to abide by Rumsfeld’s Rules. Maybe this is only human nature.

Then again, even when rigidly adhered to, Rumsfeld’s Rules go far to explain some unfortunate events in his own public service. Remember when we invaded Baghdad without enough boots on the ground to prevent looters from ransacking the city’s archaeological museum? At the time, he famously quipped, “Stuff happens.” But as secretary of defense prior to the 2003 invasion, he was trying very hard to apply yet another rule: “The trick is to try to keep the number of support staff as low as possible.” Somehow, if he was going to invade Iraq, I wish he had forgotten that rule. Instead, he explained to reporters, “You go to war with the army you have — not the army you might wish to have.”

Here is a Rumsfeld Rule he completely forgot: When serving in the White House, one should remind the president, “It is easier to get into something than it is to get out of it.”

Still, Rumsfeld conveys a lot of common sense, and he does so with humor, some of it self-deprecating. He writes that his father once observed of his young son, “Don’s basic operating principle: ‘If it doesn’t go easy, force it.’ ” He cites the late congressman Mo Udall saying, “May the words I utter today be tender and sweet, for tomorrow I may have to eat them.” And Lynne Cheney: “Dogs don’t bark at parked cars.” My favorite is still the Rumsfeld Rule on intelligence: “There are also unknown unknowns: the things you don’t know you don’t know.”

I don’t know if Rumsfeld ever succeeded McCloy as chairman of the establishment. They generally keep the position classified. He could have. But the establishment has changed since McCloy’s times. McCloy was said to have “gravitas.” His own favorite maxim was “Run with the swift!”

But like Rumsfeld, Chairman McCloy was a party to some seriously questionable judgments. Some may recall him being famously associated with the decision to intern Japanese Americans during World War II, and even in the twilight of his career he was the fellow who persuaded a reluctant President Jimmy Carter to give the shah of Iran political asylum after the Iranian revolution — which set off the 444-day hostage crisis.

So here’s the conundrum that has always fueled my fascination with the idea of an establishment: How can the best and the brightest in our democratic polity — the Princeton- or Harvard- or Yale-educated men and women who claw their way into the establishment — sometimes lead us into incredibly senseless disasters? Rumsfeld has a rule that provides a small hint: “The only stupidities that are not easily solved are those created by very intelligent men.”

Kai Bird won a Pulitzer Prize with Martin J. Sherwin for their biography “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer.” He is also the author of the forthcoming “The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames.”


By Donald Rumsfeld

Broadside. 334 pp. $27.99