Martin On Rumsfeld: "Irresistibly Charming And Stunningly Rude"

Veteran CBS News Correspondent David Martin has been covering the Pentagon for decades. He's seen a lot of Defense Secretaries come and go -- and today shares some of thoughts on the current one, Donald Rumsfeld, before he goes, too. -- Ed.
In the past six years, I've listened to Donald Rumsfeld deliver a withering off-the-record tirade against the inefficiencies of the U.S. military and I've seen him burst into tears when talking about his father's affliction with Alzheimer's. This is an extraordinarily complex man with almost inhuman physical and mental energy. One of his close aides once jokingly referred to him as "a freak of nature." He can be irresistibly charming and stunningly rude. Once when the former Director of Homeland Security Tom Ridge was ushered into the Defense Secretary's office, Rumsfeld left him to stand in silence while he finished reading whatever document he had before him. After one particularly bruising encounter with Rumsfeld, Gen. Pete Pace, then the vice chairman, now the chairman, of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, showed up for his next meeting with the Secretary wearing a helmet and flak jacket.

I once told Rumsfeld he had put the thrill back in the press conference. Particularly in Washington, press conferences are nothing more than a recitation of administration talking points -- no matter what questions are asked. But Rumsfeld was refreshingly unscripted. He was liable to say anything -- launch into an historical analogy (his aides called him "the History Channel"), deliver a soliloquy on "known unknowns" (what you know you don't know) and "unknown unknowns (what you don't know you don't know), get off a clever one liner (Q. Is Osama bin Laden alive or dead? A. Yes.) or simply attack the premise of the question. But he rarely gave anything away.

He drove everybody crazy with his "snowflakes" -- brief memos on subjects as petty as whether a particular reporter had arrived late for a briefing and as monumental as "are we winning the war on terror." He was into everything. If ever there was civilian control of the Pentagon it has been during the past six years. But there is a fine line between civilian control and meddling, just as there is between self-confidence and arrogance. Many senior officers felt Rumsfeld was telling them how to do their jobs and that they had to expend inordinate amounts of time responding to his "snowflakes." One of them said just yesterday that with Rumsfeld gone "all the energy that's put into satisfying his thirst of details can be put into doing work."

Rumsfeld came into office determined to "transform" the military by which he meant changing it from the old Cold War behemoth equipped and trained to fight the Soviet Union into a smaller, more agile force able to respond to unexpected threats. That unexpected threat materialized with a vengeance on 9-11, long before the military had been transformed. Transforming the military and fighting a war at the same time is a double whammy -- like trying to overhaul a car going 60 miles an hour, according to the chief of staff of the Army. Rumsfeld didn't just want to win in Iraq, he also wanted to figure out why, with more than two million men and women on active duty and in the reserves, it is so hard to keep 140,000 troops in Iraq. Why is it, he wanted to know, that the Army is stretched so thin when a full 40 per cent of the soldiers in uniform have never been to Iraq?

It will take years to judge Rumsfeld's tenure as Defense Secretary, and I'm not about to start while he's still in office. White House spokeseman Tony Snow yesterday called him "extraordinary" and that is certainly safe to say.

  • David Martin

    David Martin is CBS News' National Security Correspondent.