Rumsfeld said little about his impending departure when speaking to a friendly audience of students, teachers and military personnel at Kansas State University. Instead, he offered a retrospective of sorts on his two tours as defense chief while echoing President Bush's appraisal that the conflict has been going poorly in recent months.
"I will say this — it is very clear that the major combat operations were an enormous success," he said, of the March 2003 invasion in which Baghdad fell within weeks. "It's clear that in Phase 2 of this, it has not been going well enough or fast enough."
Since the U.S. overthrow of Saddam Hussein, a violent insurgency and — in recent months — bloody warfare between Muslim sects have erupted.
Democrats demanded Rumsfeld's resignation in the first blush of victory in Tuesday's midterm elections, as they had done throughout the campaign. Unhappiness with the course of the Iraq war was a driving force for voters who brought down the GOP majority in the House and Senate.
Rumsfeld declined to offer advice to former CIA chief Robert Gates, nominated by Bush on Tuesday to replace him, and ducked when asked to grade his performance as defense secretary, a job he has had since the start of the Bush administration. "I'd let history worry about that," he said crisply.
Rumsfeld was warmly welcomed by students, faculty and personnel from Forts Riley and Leavenworth in the college audience at Manhattan, Kan., and fielded mostly supportive questions.
In a reference to Bush's announcement Wednesday that Rumsfeld would be replaced, the defense chief joked that the development was set up to put a lecture series at the school "on the map, so I did my best. Glad I could help out."
Richard Myers, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a supporter of Rumsfeld in a time of withering criticism from ex-generals, said in introducing the defense chief that he is a leader who shows loyalty down the chain of command.
"He has had many opportunities to deflect the arrows coming his way, to the military," Myers said. "It would have been easy for the secretary of defense to deflect it. He sucked up all those arrows and continued to lead the department in the way that he knew was right."
In the crowd, Master Sgt. Jeff Curd, 50, an Army reservist from Paducah, Ky., who spent a year in Iraq, expressed surprise that Rumsfeld was stepping down.
"I thought that Rumsfeld was a wonderful man," Curd said. "He stuck to his guns. When he made a mistake, he wasn't afraid to stand up and admit it."
Joining small groups of protesters outside, Kristina Kramer, a senior majoring in sociology at Kansas State, said students opposed to the war aren't afraid to speak out despite having Fort Riley, home to 12,000 soldiers, nearby. "We do get a lot of anger, because people think we don't support the troops," she said. "We do. We just don't want them to die."