Remembering Donald Rumsfeld: A Fierce and Dedicated Public Servant

Then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld speaks during a news conference at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., in 2005. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

Donald Rumsfeld has died, at 88. Best remembered as George W. Bush’s secretary of Defense, he had a very long public career characterized by his tremendous drive, energy, work ethic, unswerving patriotism, and cold-eyed understanding of how Washington and the world work.

Born in Chicago in 1932 and raised in Winnetka, Ill., during the Depression and the Second World War, Rumsfeld was old enough to remember Pearl Harbor and his father’s volunteering for the Navy. He came to Washington in the Eisenhower years after his own service as a Navy pilot and was elected to Congress in 1962. Rumsfeld was part of an insurgency that installed Gerald Ford in House Republican leadership in 1966. It speaks volumes of how the Republican caucus has changed that Ford and Bob Dole were then seen as the right wing of the party. As a congressman, Rumsfeld supported the Civil Rights Act of 1964, was one of the moving forces behind passage of the Freedom of Information Act, and was an early supporter of ending the draft and establishing an all-volunteer military.

After leaving Congress for the Nixon administration, Rumsfeld would hold many posts and be at the center of many storms. Among other jobs, he was a two-time secretary of Defense (the youngest and second-oldest man to hold the job), White House chief of staff, ambassador to NATO, and head of Nixon’s ill-conceived Cost of Living Council. Ronald Reagan entrusted him with a role as a special envoy to the Middle East, with the unenviable task of extricating the United States from Lebanon; Ford leaned on him during the Mayaguez crisis in Vietnam in 1975. He was Dick Cheney’s mentor in the Ford years. He went on to be a pharmaceutical CEO during his time between Republican administrations.

On September 11, 2001, Rumsfeld was in his office in the Pentagon when it was hit, and found himself on the front lines of a new war. His wit, wisdom, and panache as Defense secretary won him many plaudits and more than a few enemies over the next few years, as well as bequeathing to the language his famous formulation:

Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tends to be the difficult ones.

His legacy is inextricably tied to the long-running debates over the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq between 2001 and 2006. Here, unfortunately, he was too late to acknowledge the seriousness of the insurgency in Iraq, and the deep divisions between his Pentagon and Colin Powell’s State Department contributed to a damaging dysfunction at the heart of the Bush administration. The Iraq war didn’t turn around until Rumsfeld stepped down and the administration embraced a new strategy that defeated Al-Qaeda in Iraq and brought relative stability to the country (if only temporarily).

History will have much to say about Donald Rumsfeld. The most important thing to say on this day, though, is that the country has lost a fierce, utterly dedicated public servant. R.I.P.

The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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