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Rumsfeld in Repose

By Brad Graham, Time - June 22, 2009

For a few months after his departure as Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld occupied a suite of government-provided transition offices in a high-rise building in Rosslyn, Virginia, up the Potomac River a short way from the Pentagon. There he began sorting his papers for a memoir and charting his next course.

Rumsfeld's roots were in Chicago, where he and his wife Joyce still enjoyed an extensive network of friendships and where he had returned after his first stint as secretary. But this time he chose to remain in Washington, eventually renting space in a downtown office building, hiring a staff of several people, and setting up a new headquarters not far from his house in the city. On the walls of the office, Rumsfeld hung photos of Teddy Roosevelt and Harry Truman, framed certificates marking his own years of service under several presidents, and other mementos. In a corner stood a parting gift from the Joint Chiefs of Staff: a bronze bust of Winston Churchill with a cigar in his mouth. The inscription, quoting Churchill, read, "Victory is never final. Defeat is never fatal. It is courage that counts."

Rumsfeld explained his decision to stay in Washington as a matter of convenience that allowed him ready access to his Pentagon files and facilitated work with the Library of Congress to archive his personal papers. It also kept him near friends and former associates and afforded a close sidelines view of the capital's political scene, although as the Bush administration ran out its term, he purposefully maintained a low profile, giving few public speeches or media interviews and spending large chunks of his time at two other homes outside Washington — the old manor in St. Michaels, Maryland, and the farm in Taos, New Mexico.

Several longtime friends who visited Rumsfeld in the weeks after he left office described him as somewhat subdued initially, but it wasn't long before the former secretary was exhibiting his customary exuberance in private gatherings. "He's extraordinarily resilient," said Frank Carlucci. "You could bash him all you want and he'll bounce back right away. It rolls off him."

Another longtime friend reported that Rumsfeld was not happy with how abruptly his removal had come about. A former subordinate who spent several days with Rumsfeld in Taos heard him fume about disagreements with other top administration officials, particularly Rice. But whatever grumbling he did, Rumsfeld remained very careful not to be heard sounding critical of Bush. "I have a friend who is totally convinced that Don was the scapegoat and that he must be bitter towards the president," said Margaret Robson, whose late husband was one of Rumsfeld's best friends. "I told him, 'You don't understand Don. He's never going to say anything critical about the president of the United States.'"

Rumsfeld wanted to be sure I saw the many letters of praise and kind words he had received following the announcement of his resignation. He had sorted the letters according to source — members of Congress, foreign dignitaries, U.S. military personnel, former associates, friends — and filed them in large, three-ring binders. The correspondence noted Rumsfeld's contributions to the war on terrorism, commended him for his drive to transform the U.S. military, and expressed thanks for his public service.

Such letters seemed to give Rumsfeld some solace amid media commentary that tended to focus on all that had gone wrong — the mistakes made in the Iraq War, the difficult relations with the military chiefs, the tensions with Congress, the quarrels with other NSC members. As low as his popularity was when he left office — Gallup/Harris polls showed him at 34% — Rumsfeld still found that when he dined out at a restaurant or walked along a street, people approached him eager to shake his hand.

Although public opinion of him now was as negative as it had ever been, he seemed largely unrattled. Instead, he held fast to an abiding belief that he had done what he thought best. "Don Rumsfeld is a throwback to a breed of public man who judge themselves not relative to their peers but relative to the standard they have set for themselves, a standard closely equated to the public good," Steve Cambone remarked.

Rumsfeld has tended, even in retrospect, to write off much of the criticism of his style as a function of the mission he was asked to do. "Change is hard" has remained a frequent refrain of his. Chosen to lead the Defense Department as the agent of change, Rumsfeld said he expected that he would come under attack. "People in uniform resisted, and people in civilian clothes resisted; the Congress resisted," he recounted in an interview. "They don't call it the Iron Triangle for nothing, between the permanent bureaucracy and the defense contractors and the Congress. They're permanent, and the people coming in are temporary. And if you try to change that interaction in the Iron Triangle, you're going to catch some shrapnel."

In fact, Rumsfeld has continued to relish his image as a no-nonsense reformer. Coming across a description of himself as someone who dragged the Defense Department into the twenty-first century "with no bedside manner," Rumsfeld said he liked the phrase, joking that it would make a good title for a book.

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