I covered Donald Rumsfeld during his second incarnation as defense secretary, from 2001, through 9/11, and the two wars it triggered. President George W. Bush ousted him in 2006 as ever-grimmer news continued to flow out of Iraq. Rumsfeld vanished from the world stage. But he’s back, as of Tuesday. His autobiography, Known and Unknown, hits the streets today, although its contents have oozed out over the past week. He seems to fire defeat-seeking missiles at everyone involved in prosecuting the Iraq war except himself.
The 815-page doorstop reminds me a lot of its author: it’s got an authoritarian edge and don’t-blame-me refrain to it that wears pretty thin, just as Rumsfeld did when he was running the Pentagon. There’s even more at a website featuring his own document dump — kind of a WikiRummy — but it’s tough getting into it this morning as former acolytes and reporters dive in. Well, you publish your book with the website you’ve got, not the one you wish you had.
But at the same time, Rumsfeld offers rare peeks into his more human, less-commanding-and-demanding side, especially when writing about the web of drug addiction that ensnared two of his three children. Reporters saw that side of him only occasionally. I’ll never forget traveling with him in 2002 as he buzzed around central Asia — Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan (we dubbed the trip an endless series of one-night ‘stans). Some of us were invited up to his suite for a nightcap during a final night’s stay in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan. After knocking on the door, it swung open wide to reveal Rumsfeld wearing a colorful, tapestry-like Kazakh ceremonial robe, complete with gaudy cap. “This is totally off the record!” he exclaimed with delight, his face lit up like a kid with a new toy. Sure, it was goofy, but it betrayed a humanity he kept well hidden (at least until now: there’s a photograph of him in the robe, and hat, in the book). He’d have been more kindly remembered by history if he’d trimmed his smarty-pants sails a bit and unfurled a little more humility.