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The Undertaker’s Tally

Roger Morris writes in the Green Institute:

On a farewell flight to Baghdad in early December 2006, the departing Secretary of Defense reminisced about his start in politics more than forty years before. Aides leaned in to listen intently but came away with no memorable revelations. It hardly matters. As usual with this man who dominated government as no cabinet officer before him—including the power-ravenous Henry Kissinger he so despised and outdid in effect if not celebrity—authentic history and Don Rumsfeld’s version bear little resemblance.

There was portent in those beginnings, much of the past predictable when it started, after all. He came out of an affluent Chicago suburb with brusque confidence and usable contacts at 1950s Princeton, among them Frank Carlucci, another future Defense Secretary of mediocre mind yet the iron conceit and shrewd fealty far more effectual in government than intellect or sensibility. After college and two years of ROTC duty as a Navy pilot, Rumsfeld did politic stints as a Capitol Hill intern and Republican campaign aide, and by twenty-nine, back in Chicago in investment banking, was running for Congress. As with much to come, a darker thread lay beneath the surface from the start. In a Republican primary tantamount to election, he was outwardly the boyish, speak-no-evil under-funded underdog challenger of the old party stalwart set to inherit the open seat. Inside, he was generously financed by wealthy friends, while his operatives—including Jeb Stuart Magruder of later Watergate infamy—furtively harried and smeared the opponent with tactics never traced to Rumsfeld.

He went to Washington in December 1962 a handsome square-jawed, safe-seat tribune from the North Shore’s lakeside preserves, epitomized by the leafy estates of Winnetka and high-end Evanston, the old Thirteenth District of Illinois one of the wealthiest in the nation and smoothly in Republican grip for most of a century. In the House Rumsfeld was soon seen by some as he always saw himself—a prodigy amid his party’s duller ranks. Then as afterward he had no authentic distinction of qualification or independent achievement. But that was always masked by the same muscular aggressive style he took onto the mat as an Ivy League wrestler—“sharp elbows,” a meeker, envious colleague called it—and not least by the flaccid banality of most of the 1960s GOP, thrashing between the wasting death of Eisenhower worldliness and moderation, Richard Nixon’s haunted succession, and the fitful but enveloping right-wing seizure that in little more than a decade would deliver the Reagan Reaction.

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