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Donald Rumsfeld has pretty much kept out of the public eye since resigning as secretary of state in 2006. A new biography examines his life and career in great detail. The book is called "By His Own Rules: The Ambitions, Successes and Ultimate Failures of Donald Rumsfeld." My guest is the author, Bradley Graham. He's a former Pentagon correspondent for the Washington Post and covered Rumsfeld during his tenure as secretary of state. Graham says the story of Donald Rumsfeld is an exceptional personal drama that has had profound consequences for the U.S. and the world. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Donald Rumsfeld was secretary of defense, not state.]

Bradley Graham, welcome to FRESH AIR. If you were summarizing your book with one headline, what would the headline be?

Mr. BRADLEY GRAHAM (Author): I think it would have to play off this notion of Rumsfeld as a tragic figure. You know, somebody with a lot of potential who undid himself. And so I'd probably come up with a headline something like "Brilliance, undone by arrogance." He had so much talent going into this job. He was so well prepared for it. He's the only one who ever had been given a second chance at being secretary of defense. You know he was secretary under Gerald Ford too, and at that point he was the youngest secretary of defense. Under Bush, he became the oldest secretary, and for all his skill and knowledge, he ended up six years later very unpopular and ultimately compelled to step down from office.

GROSS: It's hard to remember the days when a lot of people thought of him as like a stud, you know, a stud or an uncle, when he was really popular among some people during the early days of the war.

Mr. GRAHAM: Oh, I know. The Afghan War and the 9-11 attacks really transformed Rumsfeld. It's hard to remember, but he, just before then, was really in political trouble. He had, in his first months as secretary, had alienated a lot of military brass, members of Congress, others in the Bush administration. There was a lot of speculation that Rumsfeld would become the first Bush cabinet casualty. But the Afghan War transformed him into a secretary of war and put Rumsfeld into the position of playing a leading role. He was - he became the public face and voice of the U.S. military at war. And these press conferences that he gave allowed him to put on display his skills as a spokesman. You know, he was very quick-witted and blunt and knowledgeable, also amusing and entertaining.

He came across as anything but the conventional bureaucrat in the sense that you know he avoided euphemisms like collateral damage, but spoke about actually killing the enemy. He became so popular that, with millions tuning in to watch his news conferences, that Bush nicknamed him Rumstud(ph) and U.S. News & World Report dubbed his style Rum punch. But there was more than just theatrics involved in his performances because this surge in popularity that he enjoyed helped strengthen his own primacy within the Pentagon, in that he would often appear at the Pentagon podium with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Dick Myers, and he overshadowed Myers considerably in these news conferences, seemingly relegating the role of chairman to one of more sort of a military assistant to the secretary.

GROSS: Now you write in your book that unlike some people in the Bush administration, Donald Rumsfeld didn't really believe in the principle of invading Iraq to spread democracy through the Middle East. He said at the time that he believed Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and we had to go in and take care of that. But knowing what we know now, about how flimsy that evidence was, that there was actually weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, it's hard for me to believe that he really believed it at the time. I mean again, considering how flimsy the evidence was, how much of it came from sources who were completely unreliable, who the CIA knew was unreliable - do you feel like you have any further understanding, any deeper understanding of what Rumsfeld really believed at the time about WMD in Iraq?

Mr. GRAHAM: I think he really did believe it. And it's one of the great paradoxes about him, particularly even more than any of the other senior administration officials, because for years he had warned others about the need to avoid what he called the sort of poverty of expectations and sort of try to gauge into the future and anticipate things that might happen. He was very fond of passing around an essay from a book on the Pearl Harbor attack that made just this point, that one should be very careful about falling into the traps of believing the conventional wisdom, the conventional intelligence, and always challenge and press for more. And Rumsfeld was known for asking lots of questions and for doubting and challenging. But strangely, he did not press on this point or certainly didn't press enough on this issue of weapons of mass destruction, maybe because it just seemed so unrealistic that Saddam Hussein would not have them, given the way he was acting, and given how all the major intelligence groups in the world were asserting that he most likely did.

GROSS: There were complaints within the Pentagon about Donald Rumsfeld's leadership. What were some of the things he did that upset the Pentagon leadership most? What were their biggest complaints?

Mr. GRAHAM: Well, one was his seeming dismissiveness of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which is comprised of the heads of the military services, the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps. Rumsfeld came into office very determined to assert civilian control. He had the view that the military under the previous Clinton administration had gotten too much of what it wanted and that civilians had not been able to exert the kind of decisive leadership that they should. And in subsequent months and years the sense that the chiefs had of being marginalized only increased. They felt left out of a lot of the war planning and not really consulted in the way that they felt they should have been. But, in addition to Rumsfeld's short-circuiting the joint chiefs, it was, there was a lot of concern about his style in dealing with senior military. He often came across as abrasive, as impatient, as arrogant.

He defends his manners saying that the big leagues, as they were in, these senior officers with stars on their shoulders should have been able to take his questioning and his challenging. But, they felt that it bordered really on the discourteous and they really resented his manner in many of their contacts with him.

GROSS: My guest is Bradley Graham, he's written a new biography of Donald Rumsfeld. It's called "By His Own Rules: The Ambitions, Successes, and Ultimate Failures of Donald Rumsfeld." Graham is a former Pentagon correspondent for the Washington Post and he covered Rumsfeld when Rumsfeld was Secretary of Defense. When Rumsfeld was arguing on behalf of invading Iraq and talking about how they had weapons of mass destruction and, you know, they couldn't get away with that, a photo started circulating all over of Rumsfeld shaking Saddam Hussein's hand. And this was during the Reagan administration when Rumsfeld was the special envoy to the Middle East. And he had paid a visit to Saddam Hussein, who - and Saddam Hussein had already gassed the Kurds. So, we knew that he not only had WMD, but that he had used it. So, there's a picture of him shaking hands. What kind of deal was he trying to make then with Saddam Hussein?

Mr. GRAHAM: There was interest at that point, in 1983, in restoring ties with Iraq and Saddam Hussein on his part was interested as well. I mean, relations had been put on ice by Saddam Hussein in the Iraq-Iran war. It's not clear how much Rumsfeld knew about Iraq's use of chemical weapons at that point. But, he was under instruction certainly to facilitate resumption of ties with Saddam Hussein and very happy to do so.

GROSS: And this had to with oil?

Mr. GRAHAM: Well, oil was a consideration and they did discuss, during Rumsfeld's meetings in Iraq, the opening of the flow of oil and even construction of another pipeline. But, basically the Reagan administration was interested in the resumption of ties as a sort of counterbalance to Iran's influence in the region.

GROSS: Did - in your interviews with Rumsfeld - did you get any inkling into whether he felt at all hypocritical about working with Saddam Hussein as an ally, during the Iran-Iraq war? You know, going to Iraq, shaking his hand, trying to make a deal about a pipeline after Saddam Hussein had already used gas against the Kurds - and, you know, flash forward to after 2001 and he's making the argument that, no, we have to invade Iraq because Saddam Hussein has WMD. Did you get a sense of whether he felt that there was any contradiction there?

Mr. GRAHAM: Certainly the existence of the photos of that meeting were an embarrassment to Rumsfeld 20 years later when the U.S. was planning to go to war, but I never got the impression that he regretted it. It was a case in his mind of U.S. policy having changed over those two decades.

GROSS: President Bush officially accepted Donald Rumsfeld's resignation right after Election Day in 2006. Bush had, shortly before that, asked for the resignation. Was Donald Rumsfeld surprised when he was asked for his resignation and was he ready to resign?

Mr. GRAHAM: From what I was able to learn in conversations with Rumsfeld himself, with his wife Joyce, and with others in the administration, he expected that he would have to leave particularly if the elections resulted in a change of power in Congress. What he didn't anticipate was how swift the end would come. Bush seems to have made his decision several weeks before the election, or at least set up a very small group within the White House to plan the replacement for Rumsfeld. And they decided to have it take place on the day after the election. Rumsfeld was not a part of that planning and so the end came very suddenly for him. He has not expressed any resentment about that but his friends and family thought he deserved better. But in any case he knew pretty much that he'd be leaving.

GROSS: From your conversations with Donald Rumsfeld, did you get the impression that he had any doubts about how he handled the war in Iraq, or the war in Afghanistan for that matter?

Mr. GRAHAM: He was very dismissive. He said, oh, that's, you know, that's a favorite press question and he didn't really want to get into it. I think part of that really is because he himself isn't sure. He hasn't worked through in his own mind what he thinks about some of these questions. He's writing his own memoir, which is due out in the fall of 2010. And he's struggling. He's really struggling. He's trying to remember a lot of things. And I don't think he's resolved in his own mind really what to think.

GROSS: Bradley Graham is the author of a new biography of Donald Rumsfeld called "By His Own Rules." Coming up music from Mali. This is FRESH AIR.

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