Rumsfeld versus Rumsfeld
By James Mann, JAMES MANN is the author of "Rise of
the Vulcans: The History of Bush's War Cabinet." He is
author in residence at Johns Hopkins' Paul H. Nitze
School of Advanced International Studies.
May 3, 2006
SUPPOSE YOU ARE a new White House chief of staff. One
of the difficulties you face is an extraordinarily
powerful, well-entrenched Cabinet secretary who enjoys
the strong support of the president. What do you do?
Not to be vague about it: How should Joshua B. Bolten,
who is driving to reshape the Bush administration,
deal with Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, who
is fast becoming a political liability and may resist
any serious change of direction?
There's already a model for this. It was set by none
other than the young Rumsfeld himself, when he became
White House chief of staff in the Ford administration
and was confronted with the overwhelming authority of
Henry A. Kissinger, then secretary of State and
national security advisor.
When Ford became president after Richard Nixon's
resignation in 1974, he summoned Rumsfeld, his old
friend from the days when the two were congressmen.
Rumsfeld, who had been serving as Nixon's ambassador
to NATO, quickly recruited Dick Cheney his top aide
in two earlier jobs to serve as deputy chief of
staff. At the time, the two had no mandate to
challenge Kissinger. On the contrary, as Cheney later
recalled, Ford's instructions to his new White House
aides were to take control of domestic policy and to
"stay out of the national security area." That was to
be left entirely in Kissinger's hands.
Nevertheless, over the next 15 months, Rumsfeld
whittled down Kissinger's role in national security
and took on more and more power. How did he do it? And
how might the young Rumsfeld have taken on the
formidable Rumsfeld of today? Here are lessons for
Bolten from Rumsfeld's early career:
1) Bide your time. In the early months, Rumsfeld left
Kissinger alone and went after lesser rivals. You need
time to redefine the issues.
2) Don't target him directly. Instead, go after his
The early Rumsfeld cut down Kissinger by arguing,
rightly, that the same individual should not serve as
both secretary of State and national security advisor.
Someone challenging Rumsfeld today could fault his
Pentagon for battling to maintain its control over
agencies such as the National Reconnaissance Office
and the National Security Agency. Focusing on the
secretary of Defense's turf battles with other
agencies is one way of pointing out that Rumsfeld's
disputes extend beyond his struggles with the career
3) Invoke the issue of openness. In the final, chaotic
hours of the Vietnam War, Kissinger erred by allowing
the media to be told that all Americans were out of
Vietnam, at a time when some U.S. Marines were still
struggling to get out of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon.
Rumsfeld ordered the press secretary to make it
public. "This war has been marked by so many lies and
evasions that it is not right to have the war end with
one last lie," Rumsfeld said.
Noble sentiments. Bolten could similarly make clear
that he favors greater access for the media to
information about the war disclosures that might not
reflect well on Rumsfeld.
4. Let the Republican rank and file go after the
Cabinet secretary's top political patron. Kissinger
was dominant inside Washington but not within the
Republican Party. Politics was the job of Kissinger's
longtime friend and patron Nelson Rockefeller, who at
the time was vice president of the United States.
By the fall of 1975, Republican leaders grew
increasingly disenchanted with Rockefeller, and
President Ford decided to distance himself from his
own second in command. Once Rockefeller was
neutralized within the Republican Party, Kissinger's
authority eroded too. Rumsfeld, who had clashed with
Rockefeller inside the White House, did little to
shield him. Bolten should keep in mind that Rumsfeld's
standing today is linked to Cheney's, and if Cheney's
position weakens, Rumsfeld's will too.
5. Let Capitol Hill do the heavy lifting. Ford
nominated Rumsfeld as secretary of Defense in the fall
of 1975, at the same time elevating Cheney to White
House chief of staff. At Rumsfeld's confirmation
hearing, he was grilled by Sen. Henry (Scoop) Jackson,
who demanded to know why Kissinger, as secretary of
State, possessed so much more authority, and so much
greater access to the president, than did the
secretary of Defense. Rumsfeld gave bland answers in
his testimony and then went back and secretly sent a
transcript of the hearings to the president, showing
him Jackson's queries.
6. Inside the administration, question policies
secretly but vigorously. During the Nixon years,
Rumsfeld became the center of a group of
domestic-policy aides who questioned Kissinger's
policies by asking why the Vietnam War was dragging
on. In the Ford years, Cheney wrote a biting internal
memo dissenting from the Ford-Kissinger decision to
deny a White House meeting to Soviet dissident
Alexander Solzhenitsyn. None of this leaked, but it
had a considerable impact inside the administration.
In a similar vein, Bolten could begin quietly asking
why the Iraq war is dragging on, or otherwise
challenge the drift of the administration.
7. Study "Rumsfeld's Rules," the series of
observations about public life that he wrote in the
1970s. They may prove useful in the coming months.
Three decades ago, Rumsfeld wrote: "Don't think of
yourself as indispensable or infallible. As Charles
DeGaulle said, the cemeteries of the world are full of
. Have a deputy and develop a
successor." The Rumsfeld rules also contain this gem:
"It is easier to get into something than to get out of
it." But then, that was a long time ago.