Donald Rumsfeld's Imposing Pentagon Legacy Donald Rumsfeld has probably set more records than any defense secretary in American history. He was the youngest secretary of defense under President Ford. Now, at 74, he is the oldest. And he's the only Pentagon chief to oversee two wars simultaneously.
NPR logo

Donald Rumsfeld's Imposing Pentagon Legacy

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/6460605/6460606" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Donald Rumsfeld's Imposing Pentagon Legacy

Donald Rumsfeld's Imposing Pentagon Legacy

Donald Rumsfeld's Imposing Pentagon Legacy

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/6460605/6460606" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Donald Rumsfeld has probably set more records than any defense secretary in American history. He was the youngest secretary of defense under President Ford. Now, at 74, he is the oldest. And he's the only Pentagon chief to oversee two wars simultaneously.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

Donald Rumsfeld has probably set more records than any defense secretary in American history. He was the youngest secretary of defense under President Ford. Now, at age 74, he is the oldest. He is the only Pentagon chief to oversee two wars simultaneously, and by the time he leaves next month he will surpass Robert McNamara as the longest-serving defense secretary in history. And Rumsfeld will be leaving in the first big move by his boss, President Bush, since his party lost an election on Tuesday.

NPR Pentagon Correspondent John Hendren reports.

JOHN HENDREN: At Pentagon briefings early on in the Bush administration's wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the former Princeton wrestler was both combative and commanding, sometimes charming his way out of answering questions like this one about Osama bin Laden.

Mr. DONALD RUMSFELD (Secretary of Defense): The answer to the question is he alive or dead, the answer is yes, he is alive or dead.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HENDREN: He had his own lexicon of pithy phrases about the Iraqi insurgency. For example...

Mr. RUMSFELD: Pockets of dead-enders are trying to reconstitute...

HENDREN: His speech was precise, and yet it was often confusing.

Mr. RUMSFELD: 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.

HENDREN: And if he didn't like the questions the press asked, he would ask his own.

Mr. RUMSFELD: What in the world took you so long to get out, to get out of the quagmire?

(Soundbite of laughter)

HENDREN: Eric Ruff is the Pentagon press secretary.

Mr. ERIC RUFF (Pentagon Press Secretary): I don't think there's been a secretary of defense in history that's been in front of the media as many times as he has. He understands the value of communication, and he understands the value of making sure that the American people understand what we are all trying to do.

HENDREN: The Afghan war morphed into an invasion of Iraq over weapons of mass destruction that it turned out Iraq did not possess. Rumsfeld's silver tongue occasionally failed him, as it did here, when an American soldier in Kuwait asked about what the G.I. said was insufficient armor to protect the troops in Iraq.

Mr. RUMSFELD: You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.

HENDREN: Then came even more American casualties, and the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. Rumsfeld remained defiant as he was increasingly asked if he would resign.

Mr. RUMSFELD: Those reports have been flying around since about four months after I assumed my post in 2001. I have no plans to retire.

HENDREN: Rumsfeld had limited support to fall back on in Congress, where many saw him as unresponsive and resentful of Congressional oversight. His critics included senior Republicans like Arizona Senator John McCain.

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): I lack confidence in him because of the mistakes that were made and the failure to correct them. We needed more troops there. We needed to not have that looting take place, and we needed to do a far better job ensuring the security of the people of Iraq. It's a long list of misjudgments and errors that were made that has cost us enormously in blood and treasure.

HENDREN: Perhaps the biggest factor in turning public opinion against Rumsfeld was a parade of veterans, including senior retired generals, who criticized the Iraq war plan. Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of Iraq and Afghan Veterans of America, compared Rumsfeld to Robert McNamara, the Pentagon chief who will forever be remembered for directing the war in Vietnam.

Mr. PAUL RIECKHOFF (Iraq and Afghan Veterans of America): I think Iraq will be the bulk of his legacy. He may suffer the same fate of Robert McNamara. I don't think that Rumsfeld will have a McNamara moment, where he comes out and has this cathartic experience about what went wrong. He seems very steadfast and stubborn. But I don't think history is going to be kind to Rumsfeld, and I don't think it should be.

HENDREN: Rumsfeld was backed by the president as recently as last week. But yesterday, President Bush said the United States needed a fresh approach in Iraq, though he left his departing defense secretary with a pat on the back and effusive praise.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: America is safer and the world is more secure because of the service and the leadership of Donald Rumsfeld.

HENDREN: Loren Thompson is a defense analyst with the Lexington Institute. He says Rumsfeld's exit makes it easier for the Bush administration to change course in Iraq.

Mr. LOREN THOMPSON (Defense Analyst, The Lexington Institute): The departure of Mr. Rumsfeld will have a huge impact on U.S. military policy. They're going to have to increase the commitment of forces, which is unlikely, or much more likely they're going to have to draw down our presence.

HENDREN: Pentagon insiders say Rumsfeld had been looking for at least a year for a chance to leave on a high note, but the rising tide of public resentment over the war simply made that impossible.

John Hendren, NPR News, Washington

INSKEEP: Looking at a picture here of a crew-cut Donald Rumsfeld in 1963. It's part of a timeline in pictures of Donald Rumsfeld's career, and it's at npr.org.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.