During the book tour to celebrate his recently published memoir, the worldview of Donald Rumsfeld collided, not for the first time, with the worldview of contemporary journalism, and as I write, it is still too early to judge who emerged from the wreckage in better shape. For what it’s worth, I’m no big fan of Rumsfeld myself—he’s one of those guys who is much scarier when he wants to look friendly than when he tries to look severe. Yet there was at least one moment in the many TV interviews he gave when I felt a surge of affection and admiration for him. I wanted to reach through the screen and hug him, and the hell with the scary smile.
He was talking with America’s master interviewer, Brian Lamb of C-SPAN. Lamb was reading quotes from various journalists. “Maureen Dowd,” Lamb said, teeing up a passage from the veteran New York Times columnist. For nearly a decade, in a prolonged case of journalistic autism, Dowd has referred in print to Rumsfeld exclusively as “Rummy” and subjected him, in absentia, to extended sessions of dorm-room-level psychoanalysis. At the mention of her name, the look on Rumsfeld’s face swept from neutrality to incredulity to amusement.
“Naw,” he said to Lamb (the transcription is mine). “Maureen Dowd? My goodness gracious. You’ve got to be kidding.” And with a cock of his head and a gleam in his eye, Rumsfeld managed to convey an attitude that didn’t even rise to the level of disdain: it simply suggested a categorical refusal to treat Dowd as a personage worthy of serious consideration. More than that, it seemed a dismissal of an entire journalistic culture that could elevate someone of her uneven temperament and sharply circumscribed talent to a position of reverence.
As it happened, the publicity blitz Rumsfeld undertook served only to provide evidence for his assessment of American journalism in its present Dowdified state, according to which everything, even public affairs, even wars, can be reduced to a matter of psychology and private feeling. The print reviews in the mainstream press of Rumsfeld’s memoir were predictably petulant. The former defense secretary “frequently assumes a smug, know-it-all tone,” complained Special Forces Operative Michiko Kakutani from her bivouac in the Times arts section. The interviews Rumsfeld granted to TV reporters, though, were far more interesting, if even less appetizing.
ABC arranged to get the first whack at Rumsfeld on the eve of his book’s publication date. Maybe whack isn’t the right word. Diane Sawyer took the lead interviews, and she’s not a whacker. She’s a smotherer. Her perpetual expression of compassionate worry and sympathetic concern—through the camera she looks at the viewer as though he’s suffering from a terminal illness—could serve as a coat of arms for American journalism.
I am disappointed to report that she brought this expression to bear on Rumsfeld with some success. “The former secretary of defense opens up as never before,” said the announcer on Nightline. And he did, though never on matters of state. Luckily for Sawyer, in the early stages of the Iraq war, Rumsfeld’s wife went to the hospital and nearly died; even better, his son spent several years addicted to drugs. Lingering over these moments in memory, on camera, the otherwise stiff-backed Rumsfeld was coaxed by Sawyer into shedding tears—not in the copious, Laura Petrie–like downspout that she might have hoped for, but sufficient for the camera to capture in the customary pore-penetrating close-up.
“Diane,” said George Stephanopoulos, promoting the interview on Good Morning America, “this is the real Rumsfeld.”
“He has many moods in this interview, George,” Diane responded, proudly. “He’s in tears many times. Four times he is in tears in this interview.” Count ’em. She herself looked like she was holding up rather well.
They made for a short-lived victory for journalism, however, these weepy moments. Having gotten him to “open up as never before,” Sawyer moved on in a subsequent interview to her version of a substantive question. In war, she told Rumsfeld, “there are lessons to be learned.”
“Well, sure,” Rumsfeld said.
“But everybody,” Sawyer continued, “is so eager to know what is the lesson you learned about you.”
Rumsfeld looked incredulous, as if someone had just said the words “Maureen Dowd.”
“Oh my goodness,” he said. “I don’t really think that way.”
But successful journalists do! Interviewers never stopped probing Rumsfeld’s feelings, as if he should have thought of his public service in the age of Islamic terror as just one more journey of self-discovery. “The big question,” as the Nightline announcer put it, was: “What did he get wrong?” This is a variant of Sawyer’s question about what he learned about himself while sending troops off to battle; it is meant to result in the same kind of deliciously tortured self-exposure. On CNN, Candy Crowley had a specific regret she wanted to make Rumsfeld admit to, about going to war with Iraq in the first place. During her interview, within a single 60-second period, she managed to demand an inventory of his inner thoughts five separate times.
She asked: “Did you ever think we shouldn’t have gone?” And: “Was there just one moment in there you thought, oh, we shouldn’t have gone?” And: “Was there a moment when you doubted whether we should have gone?” And: “Was there ever a moment in that span of time . . . ” And so on.
Rumsfeld politely answered that, during the span of time in question, he and his colleagues were fighting a war. Yet he probably wouldn’t have dwelled on the question even in calmer moments. Like many men of his generation, Rumsfeld is not easily given to self-reflection or comfortable with self-exposure, and like many leaders who shoulder large responsibilities for other human beings in the military, government, or private business, he has little use for second-guessing, especially while those responsibilities are being carried out.
For many Baby Boom journalists, this stolid nature shows a deep character flaw, and it goes a long way toward explaining why the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq proved so difficult: they were executed by leaders, Dick Cheney and President Bush and Rumsfeld, who refused to probe deep inside themselves. Maureen Dowd (if you’ll forgive the expression) put it this way in her review of Rumsfeld’s memoir, describing “the man himself: very thorough, highly analytic, and totally absent any self-criticism.” (Dowd doesn’t think “analytic” is a compliment.) The Iraq war was thus a failure of sensitivity.
To complain about a lack of self-criticism is to misunderstand Rumsfeld completely and to miss the point of the type of leadership he exemplifies. In his book and in interviews, Rumsfeld does indeed acknowledge many mistakes and regrets. He did, after all, offer to resign his Cabinet post twice, including in the aftermath of the horrifying revelations from Abu Ghraib. This does not suggest a man unwilling to take responsibility when things go wrong. But it was the manner in which he would take responsibility that seems so odd to contemporary journalists. He would do so not through a televised confession but by leaving public life and returning to private life. The two, for him, are separate, and the second-guessing, if there is to be any, belongs to the latter realm, not the former.
Compare this with the practitioners of prestige journalism. Intent on providing “context” and “analysis,” journalism of this kind is all about second-guessing. And if the second-guessing can be put vividly in psychological or emotional terms, so much the better. As a matter of course, journalists bear few responsibilities, and none involving matters of life and death or the fate of nations, so it’s not surprising that they have no understanding of a man who did. It is surprising that the meanest thing he can say about them is, “My goodness gracious.”