Politics & Policy

Deception in journalism, &c.

Couple of days ago, a friend of mine e-mailed me and said, “Did you see The New Republic? They call you a ‘Rumsfeld hagiographer.’” So I went to that magazine, and there it was: a piece called “Rummyache” by Jonathan Chait. You may find it here, although a subscription is required.

#ad#The point of the piece is that Rumsfeld’s admirers now look like buffoons, as his name has turned to mud. Chait mentions recent books, such as Bob Woodward’s, then says, “Rumsfeld emerges as a figure of diabolical incompetence, a bungler of world-historic proportions.” He also labels the Iraq War “Rumsfeld’s Folly,” and says that “future generations will use his name as a synonym for ‘Maginot,’ or perhaps ‘Hindenberg’ or ‘Titanic.’”

You get the idea.

The main target of the piece is Midge Decter, who in 2003 wrote an admiring book called Rumsfeld: A Personal Portrait. I have not read Midge’s book, but, since she wrote it, I’m sure it is good. And why wouldn’t it be admiring? Rumsfeld is an admirable man, though not one to win the admiration of The New Republic. A lot of fine men haven’t. They’ve tended to belong to the Republican party.

Chait also devotes a few paragraphs to me, or rather, to my piece in the December 31, 2001, issue of National Review, called “Rumsfeld Rules.” You may find it here.

Have a taste of Chait’s piece:

Nordlinger’s cover story also featured a series of more specific descriptions of Rumsfeld that do not seem terribly prescient in light of subsequent events. For example, Nordlinger gushed that Rumsfeld “must be the most uneuphemistic person alive. He is totally immune, and allergic, to ‘spin.’” This, of the man who would go on to describe the disintegration of order in postwar Iraq as “untidy” and portray hunger strikers in Guantánamo Bay as being on a “diet.”

 Okay, let’s examine that. Shortly after the toppling of Saddam Hussein, when things were chaotic in the streets, Rumsfeld said, “Freedom’s untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things. They’re also free to live their lives and do wonderful things. And that’s what’s going to happen here.”

I agree with every word of that, and I think it has been borne out in Iraq, as it is the world over — wherever human beings live. There are terrorists and beheaders in Iraq; there are also incredibly brave and humane people. Who will win out?

As for Chait’s second example, Rumsfeld said the following, when asked about hunger strikes by Guantanamo Bay detainees: “Well, I suppose that what they’re trying to do is to capture press attention, obviously, and they’ve succeeded. There are a number of people who go on a diet where they don’t eat for a period and then go off of it at some point. And then they rotate and other people do that.”

Plainly, the “diet” crack was just that: a crack, sarcastic, and perfectly appropriate, I think. Students of Guantanamo know how the detainees play things. Is there an iota of falsity in what Rumsfeld said? Does Jonathan Chait, or any of his colleagues at The New Republic, know better? I doubt it.

As for my saying that Rumsfeld is uneuphemistic, and despising of spin: Funny thing is, most everybody acknowledges this, admirers and detractors alike. People who work for him certainly say so. I quote an “old Rumsfeld hand” in that 2001 piece: “He doesn’t like to be spun. He sees it in a second, and you’re dead if you try to do it. And he doesn’t spin other people.”

A further bit from my piece:

Ask most serious reporters and other keen types what they like about Rumsfeld — or even think of him — and they’re liable to answer, “He tells the truth.” Simple as that. Says one veteran newsman, “I’ve spent the better part of my life covering public officials, and on matters of policy — irrespective of party — most of them, when they’re giving a briefing, cover their a**. That’s why briefings are opaque, why they have all the spontaneity of a kabuki dance. But Rummy never dodges, never shucks. He doesn’t say, ‘I’ll have to take that under advisement.’ He just comes at you straight.”

Again, you don’t have to like Rumsfeld, or agree with his policies, to know this is so.

In that article, I provide plenty of examples of Rumsfeld’s uneuphemistic nature. He continually describes war as a “dirty job,” or a “tough, long, grinding, dirty business.” He warns of “certain casualties.” He says the word “kill” all the time, when others would try to avoid it. During the Afghan War, one reporter asked why the U.S. was using such heavy bombs. Rumsfeld answered, “They are being used on frontline al-Qaeda and Taliban troops to try to kill them.”

On television, Tim Russert asked him, “You think we have a few months of long, bloody battle?” Rumsfeld answered, “Oh, I wouldn’t limit it to that.” Also on television, Larry King asked him, “Is it very important that the coalition hold?” Rumsfeld said, “No.” He went on to explain that coalitions come and go, depending on circumstances, and “the worst thing you can do is allow a coalition to determine what your mission is.”

Etc., etc. As I said, I don’t believe it’s in dispute that Rumsfeld is blunt and uneuphemistic. In fact, that’s one thing a lot of people don’t like about him. If Jonathan Chait can find a blunter and more uneuphemistic high official than Rumsfeld, I’d be glad to know who that is.

Further in his piece, Chait writes,

Nordlinger’s article also graciously noted that, despite their man being proven absolutely correct on absolutely everything, “Rumsfeld staffers take pains not to say ‘I told you so.’” (Today, presumably, Rumsfeld’s allies find it easier not to gloat.)

Missing from this is the context of my words. Before “Rumsfeld staffers take pains . . .,” I say that Rumsfeld had been warning about terrorism, and the vulnerability of the American homeland, for many years before 9/11. And people, of course, hadn’t wanted to hear it. 

In front of the Armed Services Committee, in June [2001], Rumsfeld said, “We cannot know precisely who will threaten us in the decades ahead. But while it is difficult to know precisely who will threaten us, or where, or when, it is less difficult to anticipate how we will be threatened. We know, for example, that our open borders and open societies make it easy and inviting for terrorists to strike at our people where they live and work.” On the morning of the 11th itself, before the planes hit, Rumsfeld was in his office, admonishing congressmen about the dangers of terrorism. For months (and years), he had cautioned against complacency, against sitting around “fat, dumb, and happy.” He would talk of the need for “homeland defense”: and the very words would cause eyes to roll.

And then I write, “Today, Rumsfeld staffers take pains not to say ‘I told you so’ — their boss would be all over them ‘like ugly on ape,’ as the first Bush used to say — but sometimes it slips out. These staffers are proud to work for Rumsfeld . . .”

It looks a little different in context, doesn’t it? And I will let you, the reader, decide whether Chait has been fair — whether this is honest journalism. New Republic readers, of course, will have no chance.

Let me continue in high-dudgeon mode: What about Rumsfeld’s warnings about terrorism, and our vulnerability to it? The old man was ringing this bell when everybody else was bored, or blasé. Was Jonathan Chait as prescient? Was his magazine? Was I? Who are we to spit on a Donald Rumsfeld?

Yes, I admire him, certainly more than I do The New Republic. He has done a lot of good in his career: as a Navy pilot, as a congressman, as a White House chief of staff, as defense secretary (twice), as ambassador to NATO. And he has been right on the key issues: the Soviet Union, the Cold War, socialism, capitalism, “the Sixties,” Reagan, SDI, and so on. I used to read The New Republic back in the 1980s, and I remember how they mercilessly mocked Reagan, and how they reviled SDI.

I have no doubt that Rumsfeld has made mistakes in Iraq; I have no doubt that anybody would, in that daunting situation. And it may even be appropriate for him to go at some point — he has offered to resign, more than once; the president has said no-thanks.

But Rumsfeld is a serious man, with much experience of the world, and wise things to say about it. (If you’d like Rumsfeld at length and typically candid, see my September interview with him, here.) And I’ll take his record over The New Republic’s any day. Yeah, that magazine is understanding about Israel. But Rumsfeld is equally understanding, maybe more so. And he is bigger than the pygmies who bang on his shins.

‐End on some music? Have two CD roundups, published in the New York Sun: here and here. The first covers Leon Fleisher and Renée Fleming; the second covers Steve Reich, Thomas Quasthoff, and a set memorializing Karl Richter.


Have a good one, y’all, and thank you.

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