At his last Town Hall meeting with people in and out of uniform at the Pentagon, Donald Rumsfeld was asked the inevitable question: "How do you want history to remember you?" To which he replied, "Better than the local press."
Rumsfeld obviously has forgotten the early days of the war in Afghanistan and the invasion of Iraq when he was the rock star of the Bush administration. In a phenomenon that is not unique to Rumsfeld, the press lionized him when things were going well on the battlefield and demonized him when they weren't.
So now he is the lightning rod for all the criticisms of the war.
I've never talked to him about it, but I can almost guarantee you that Rumsfeld has given considerable thought to how history will gauge his nearly six years as Secretary of Defense. He's a thoughtful man and a voracious reader of history. One of his aides used to call him "The History Channel."
Rumsfeld was asked today what books he had read while in office; he rattled off a litany that would do a graduate student proud.
"A number about the Revolutionary War and about George Washington and John Adams and others, Jefferson . . . a number of books about the Civil War," Rumsfeld said, enumerating his book list, "and one particularly good one was a book on Ulysses S. Grant . . . and . . . a great deal about World War II."
He would not be human if he were not comparing himself to these other wartime leaders and wondering how he stacks up.
I think his place in history will depend on the outcome of the war in Iraq, much as Robert McNamara's tenure was defined by Vietnam. Even if the United States ultimately "succeeds" in Iraq, however, I don't think he will ever regain his rock star status. Too many mistakes were made early on. (Today, when Rumsfeld was asked what the worst day was during his time in office, he didn't say 9/11; he said the day he saw the pictures from Abu Ghraib.)
The mistakes weren't all Rumsfeld's fault, but I have no doubt that had he paid as much attention to the post-invasion plan as he did to the invasion plan, things would have gone a lot better.
I have covered eight Secretaries of Defense, starting with Harold Brown during the Carter administration, and I have never seen anyone impose his will on the Pentagon the way Rumsfeld has. People will be arguing for decades whether it was for better or for worse, and he indicated today "there's a chance" he might join the argument by writing a book of his own. He said his wife is already after him to do it.
He's never written one — but at age 74, he's running out of excuses.
"I always thought I was too young to write a book," Rumsfeld said. "I can't use that any more."