I have to admit that when I received an invitation to have lunch with former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld while I was in town for CPAC, I wasn’t sure what to expect. As with most public figures I’d seen him from afar through both the lens and filter of the national media. About 10 of us were invited in to meet and eat lunch with Sec. Rumsfeld and talk about his new book.
It included a group of pretty heavy hitters in the conservative sphere, including Conn Carroll of the Heritage Foundation, John Noonan and Mary Katherine Ham of the Weekly Standard, Matt Lewis late of AOL and now with the Daily Caller, Ed Morrissey of Hot Air, John Hinderaker of Powerline, Philip Klein of the American Spectator … and me (and yes, I was asking myself wtf am I doing here? The answer is a friend who managed to get me a seat at the table as a favor).
Sec. Rumsfeld arrived and immediately welcomed us and thanked us for joining him. He was gracious, engaging, humorous and both forthright and informative. The atmosphere was relaxed and convivial. It was an hour or so that seemed to fly by. Frankly I could have stayed there all day talking to the man – it was that enjoyable of a meeting. And hearing the history of events I had observed and written about first hand from one of the decision makers was, well, an incredible opportunity.
He was hit with all the questions one could imagine in that short time, but perhaps the one that I most appreciated was related to his offering to resign twice and President Bush refusing to accept either (as we all know, he did, in fact, tender his resignation a third time and it was accepted).
One of the resignations was offered after Abu Ghraib. You could tell, even now, that Sec. Rumsfeld was still both mad and upset about what had happened there, calling it “perverted”. It had a very negative impact on the image of the military, even if the perception was wrong and he was bothered by that.
He said that after the investigation he looked for someone he could hang it on because he felt someone had to take responsibility for what happened. But looking at the facts in the case there wasn’t really a single person in the chain of command he could validly point too and say “because of him or her, this happened”. He felt it left him no choice but to take responsibility himself. He was in charge, it happened on his watch, the damage was extensive and he thought he should fall on the sword and resign his position. President Bush refused to accept his resignation.
His point was about accountability, something he believes in strongly, but – as many of us have observed - no one seems to take very seriously anymore, especially in DC. He felt then and still does that he should have been the one to be held accountable for the Abu Ghraib fiasco. I thought that was pretty telling about the man and his sense of duty and honor.
Ed Morrissey has a lot more at Hot Air (Ed actually wrote his blog post as we sat there with Rumsfeld – Morrissey is a blogging machine) so be sure to give it a read.
After the meeting began breaking up (and I got my copy of his book signed), he spontaneously offered to take us around the office and show us the memorabilia he’d collected over the years. It was an incredibly impressive tour (picture on the right of yours truly and Ed Morrissey hearing Rumsfeld tell us about each item). This is a guy who has served numerous presidents in various capacities (to include two stints as SecDef) for decades. Additionally, he served as a Navy pilot before getting into public life.
Anyway, one of the pieces of memorabilia that really struck a chord with me was a mangled piece of metal. It was from the airliner that crashed into the Pentagon on 9/11. Rumsfeld had picked that up that day as he toured the damage, had it mounted and hung it on the wall in his office at the Pentagon so he could see it every day and be reminded of the job they had to do (you can see it below on the left– sorry for the photo quality, but you get the idea).
And while the meeting had a purpose, to publicize his new book, “Known and Unknown”, it was an event I’ll certainly not forget anytime soon. Later that day, Sec. Rumsfeld received the “Defender of the Constitution” award at CPAC. I think he’s very deserving of the award.
While there were some things I disagreed with him about during his tenure - and I’m certainly not here to pretend there weren’t problems during that time -I have to say my perception of the man changed significantly with this meeting. While I’ve had the book for a couple of days I’ve not had the opportunity to read it in full – only selected parts I was interested in for this meeting. And to all you folks who contributed questions, I apologize, I was only able to ask one and it concerned the “you go to war with the Army you have” comment and the fall out. When I brought it up, he laughed, pointed at me and said, “you’d better not say that in public, you might get in trouble”.
I’m looking forward to reading the book … I feel in know the era and events pretty intimately from the time I spent studying and writing about them. It’s going to be very interesting to read his version (with almost 100 pages of source notes) that was 4 years in the writing. I’ll be sure to post a review here when I finish.