The Right Stuff
God’s grace is . . . as impossible for those to whom He has granted it to lose as it is unattainable for those to whom he has denied it.
Christmas seems to have come early for US Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld. It takes the shape of Rumsfeld: A Personal Portrait by Midge Dector. A conservative commentator and author of such books as The New Chastity and Other Arguments Against Women’s Liberation, Dector makes no pretense of objectivity. She wants all of America to know why she feels “Rummy” is, as she recently told NPR, “the right man for the right time.”
It would be easy enough to toss off this book as piece of ideological hagiography. It reads like the profiles of entrepreneurs that appear regularly in Fast Company and Inc—a little too breathless, a little too baldly showing the all-too-pat unfolding of backstory to explain current success. But scratching below the surface of Rumsfeld reveals some of the talk points of the conservative sales pitch, delivered just as the retail rollout of the 2004 reelection campaign gets under way. It therefore merits attention.
Most important for Dector is that Rumsfeld, like all members of the current administration, is a true mensch. (Bill Clinton, on the other hand, is merely a “clever boy.”) Hard-working, plain-spoken and resolute, Rumsfeld epitomizes the highest ideals of the American Republic; he’s a living, breathing example of the Protestant ethic in action. He’s filled with the stuff from which dreams of manifest destiny are made.
Rumsfeld’s story is ideally suited for the campaign trail. A son of the American heartland, he was born in Chicago, married his high school sweetheart and pulled himself up by his own bootstraps to succeed in business and in life. A champion wrestler at New Trier High in Winnetka, Illinois, at Princeton and in the Navy, he’s always practiced a brand of self-reliance that would do Ralph Waldo Emerson proud.
Besides serving up tropes for weaving personal biography into cultural mythology, the details of Rumsfeld’s Midwestern roots serve a practical political purpose. Conservative commentators like to note that George W. Bush won the geographic election if not the popular one. The red states (those of the 2000 Republican victory) aren’t located on the nation’s coasts, they’re in the central regions, making Rumsfeld a native son. In the polarized environment in which the next national election portends to play out, mustering the traditional base of support will be decisive. In other words, it’s important to convey that Rummy’s a good ol’ boy, dontcha know, not one of them East Coast “high hats” or West Coast “tree-huggers.” He and his pardners’ll do the job that needs to be done inside the Beltway. Like those other Chicagoans, the Blues Brothers, he’s on a mission from God.
Dector takes the opportunity to use Rumsfeld to make other progress on the conservative agenda. One objective is to distance the current Republican regime from the legacy of Watergate. This is done by noting Rumsfeld’s distrust of Richard Nixon’s White House staff (i.e., reinforce the “character” issue), which Dector claims may in part explain his decision to get out of Washington in the 1970s by seeking a NATO ambassadorship overseas. Another is to lay responsibility for the Iraq War battle plan squarely on the shoulders of the military (hedging your bets never hurt) and promote the idea that the most important reason for unseating Saddam Hussein was to help achieve the long-term goal of promulgating the American way around the globe. (Don’t worry about WMDs and yellow cake; be happy about the prospects of drowning our SUVs in a flood of low-cost petroleum thanks to the invisible hand at the spigot of a gas pump hooked up to a democratic free-market Iraq.)
And of course, there’s the requisite jabs at Clinton, who took his eye off the geopolitical ball while attending to the “peccadilloes” of his personal life. (Not that the conservatives had anything to do with that!)
Dector has said that Rumsfeld is her attempt to speak directly to the American people over the heads of the media. But she’s only interested in telling them what she and her fellow neocons want them to hear. Hence she glosses over, for example, Rumsfeld’s bagman days in the early 1980s (documented by the Institute for Policy Studies), shuttling between San Francisco and Baghdad at the behest of Ronald Reagan to negotiate on behalf of Bechtel with Hussein on oil pipelines and such. This occurred even as the evil dictator was using chemical weapons in battle supplied by his then-friends in the West.
One of Dector’s more disingenuous tactics is her recurring motif of Chicago as a place of down-home family values straight out of Middle America, a place where a “can do” attitude is all that’s needed to enjoy the just rewards of one’s industry, regardless of race, creed or color. Anyone who’s walked the wood-paneled corridors of privilege at places like the private Chicago and University Clubs or the corporate executive suites perched atop the Art Deco skyscrapers in the Loop knows better. Dector’s reveries on the City of Big Shoulders are even more ludicrous if one remembers her position securely ensconced at the highest level of the East Coast intellectual and political elite.
Dector repeatedly coos in Rumsfeld at the Secretary’s status as a People magazine “sexiest man” and she peppers the book’s pages with anecdotes of women beaming in chaste admiration and men paying all due respect. But caveat lector! Rumsfeld isn’t a gift to a manly man from a not-so-secret Santa; it’s a Trojan Horse set at the feet of the American electorate by a shrewd and cunning pundit.