Donald Rumsfeld, a DC legend in war and peace, dead at 88

Two-time Defense secretary, former lawmaker known for prickly demeanor and incisive mind

Donald Rumsfeld, then the Defense secretary, testifies in July 2003 at a hearing on Iraq and Afghanistan, the two wars that would come to shape his second stint at the helm of the Pentagon. (CQ Roll Call)
Donald Rumsfeld, then the Defense secretary, testifies in July 2003 at a hearing on Iraq and Afghanistan, the two wars that would come to shape his second stint at the helm of the Pentagon. (CQ Roll Call)
Posted June 30, 2021 at 6:26pm

Donald Rumsfeld, whose successes, failures and personality were all epic fixtures in Washington for decades, died Tuesday at the age of 88.

The cause of death was multiple myeloma, a cancer that afflicts white blood cells, a family spokesman told reporters Wednesday.

Rumsfeld was the only man to serve twice as Defense secretary. From 1975 to 1977, under President Gerald R. Ford, Rumsfeld was the youngest to hold the job. Decades later, from 2001 to 2006, under President George W. Bush, Rumsfeld was the oldest to have held the position.

A native Chicagoan, Rumsfeld was known as a sharp-elbowed practitioner of bureaucratic politics.

His record as secretary — especially during his more eventful second stint — was mixed. He played a leading role in ushering America out of the ashes of 9/11 and shepherded U.S. military personnel into the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Yet his decisions later were widely seen as jeopardizing the success of both military campaigns.

Rumsfeld was a capable debater at hearings and press conferences. His incisive mind would easily cut to the heart of any matter, and his wit would help in the delivery.

He also rubbed some people the wrong way, including members of Congress — of whom he once was one. But upon the announcement of his death, Republican lawmakers praised Rumsfeld's service and his national security acumen.

“At every step of the way, Donald Rumsfeld led with conviction and a cutting intellect,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said in a Wednesday statement.

Grappler

Rumsfeld was a star athlete at Princeton in football and wrestling in the early 1950s and an avid squash player for most of his life.

He was equally agile in other fields.

After serving as a naval aviator after college, Rumsfeld ran for Congress at the age of 30 in 1962 and won a seat in a suburban Chicago House district.

He served in the House until 1969, when he joined the Nixon White House as a domestic policy adviser. He later became U.S. ambassador to NATO and served as Ford's White House chief of staff.

Rumsfeld, then an Illinois congressman, rides a unicycle in 1966. (CQ Roll Call file photo)

When he was confirmed as Ford’s Defense secretary in 1975, the United States was enmeshed in the Cold War against the Soviet Union. He oversaw the transition to an all-volunteer military and led the development of the B-1 bomber and other weapons.

America’s foes would later become more shadowy and harder to find.

Once Jimmy Carter became president, Rumsfeld left the Pentagon and reinvented himself as a corporate executive between 1977 and 1985. He ran major pharmaceutical and broadcast-technology companies, among others.

When he returned to the Pentagon in 2001, things had changed considerably.

His first months in office were consumed with trying to achieve what he called “transformation” of Pentagon purchasing — an effort to make the acquisition process more adroit and America’s weapons more technologically advanced.

Despite some successes, his emphasis on leap-ahead technologies that were not sufficiently mature ended up leading to delays and cost overruns that still plague programs such as the one to build a new type of aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford class.

‘Unknown unknowns’

Then al-Qaida struck on U.S. soil, and Rumsfeld’s transformation campaign was left literally in the dust.

On the day of the attack, Rumsfeld was in the Pentagon and was seen scrambling through the smoky rubble there, trying to help people.

In the aftermath of the attacks, Rumsfeld’s assertive and commanding presence reassured Americans in the early months of the wars in Afghanistan and later Iraq. In December 2002, People magazine named Rumsfeld “the sexiest Cabinet member.”

But as the wars continued — in what the secretary himself would call “a long, hard slog” — his management of the conflicts came under fire.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., in September 2003 with, from left, OMB Director Joshua Bolton, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Rumsfeld, and Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Richard Myers. (CQ Roll Call file photo)

The decision to invade Iraq would siphon vital resources away from the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan, which would continue for another two decades.

In Iraq, Rumsfeld was criticized for helping advocate for the war on the grounds that Iraq possessed so-called weapons of mass destruction. There was no evidence before, during or after the war of such weapons, though the prospect that then Iraqi President Saddam Hussein might possess them was especially frightening to many Americans after 9/11.

One of Rumsfeld’s most famous quotes came in a 2002 Pentagon press conference, when he was asked about the WMD claims.

In his delphic response, he talked about the “known knowns,” which are “things we know we know;” and the “known unknowns,” which are “things we do not know;” and, lastly, he said, the “unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

Rough stretch

Rumsfeld also was assailed for cashiering the Iraqi army and thus creating an armed and disgruntled group that would later become insurgents.

He drew flak in Washington, too, for underestimating the opposition among the Iraqi people to America’s presence in their country.

One of his most widely criticized comments came in 2004, during a visit to Iraq, when a U.S. soldier asked Rumsfeld about the lack of armor for military vehicles, amid deadly roadside bomb threats.

The secretary’s response to many in Washington appeared dismissive and designed to avoid responsibility.

“You go to war with the Army you have, not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time,” Rumsfeld told the soldier.

That same year, he would come under fire when news broke that U.S. personnel had tortured detainees in Iraq and elsewhere, abandoning Geneva Convention protections in interrogations.

Some of Rumsfeld’s harshest critics on his stewardship of the wars were fellow Republicans, including Senate Armed Services Committee leaders such as John W. Warner of Virginia and John McCain of Arizona. Another of Rumsfeld’s antagonists was Rep. John P. Murtha, a Pennsylvania Democrat who was a leader of the House’s defense spending panel for years. Warner, McCain and Murtha have all also died.

Rumsfeld greets President George W. Bush before the State of the Union address in 2004. (CQ Roll Call file photo)

What’s more, as the wars slogged on, the defense secretary who had charmed reporters in the early months of the conflicts verbally jousted with the press more and more often.

Rumsfeld left office just after the 2006 elections, when voters, who were angry largely about Iraq, gave Democrats control of both chambers.

Always prickly

Despite these setbacks, throughout his many years in Washington Rumsfeld had an outsize influence on national security debates.

Whenever Rumsfeld held a position of importance in Washington — and he held more in one lifetime than most others do in several — he always mattered and never bored.

Rumsfeld, left, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Peter Pace, make their way from the Capitol to Cannon Building in June 2006 in between meeting with members of Congress about Iraq. (CQ Roll Call file photo)

In 1997 and 1998, for example, he led a commission on the ballistic missile threat to the United States. Some said it inflated the threats, but it was influential in helping to create a bipartisan consensus in favor of building a strategic anti-missile shield, an issue that had devolved previously into partisan bickering.

Even in retirement, the old college wrestler loved to spar. On Tax Day in 2014, Rumsfeld posted on Twitter a sharply worded letter to the IRS complaining that he could not verify the accuracy of his returns because the tax code is so complex it was hard for him or, he said, most Americans, to figure out what they are being asked.

He called it “a sad commentary on governance in our nation’s capital.”

Rumsfeld is survived by his wife, Joyce, three children and seven grandchildren.