BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, as one demonized politician awaits image rehabilitation, another high-voltage character leaves the stage. Quote: "Regardless of which party wins November 7th, the time has come, Mr. President, to face the hard, bruising truth – Donald Rumsfeld must go" – that from an editorial one week ago in The Army Times.
It was only the latest of many such calls, and finally, on Wednesday, Donald Rumsfeld relinquished the post of Secretary of Defense. DONALD RUMSFELD: Mr. President, thank you for your kind words and the wholly unexpected opportunity you provided me to serve in the Department of Defense again these past years – six years. It's been quite a time. BROOKE GLADSTONE: For much of those years, Donald Rumsfeld was master of the Pentagon briefing room and a media darling. As he departs, we thought we'd review the reasons why. CNN's senior Pentagon correspondent Jamie McIntyre says that Rumsfeld's style was distinguished by a set of signature rhetorical flourishes that tripped up the press corps. JAMIE McINTYRE: Reporters learned pretty quickly that they needed to have a certain level of preparation if they were going to go into the briefing and tangle with Defense Secretary Rumsfeld. If you asked a question, he would immediately attack the premise of the question, spending all of his time talking about that, and then never answering your original question. DONALD RUMSFELD: Just a minute. That is false. REPORTER: That is not false. DONALD RUMSFELD: Every time a security benchmark has been laid down, the Iraqis have failed to meet it. Wrong. Just isn't true. Now, why do I say it's wrong? Well, first of all, it has the benefit of being true – that it's wrong. JAMIE McINTYRE: Sometimes it's best to either have a rock-solid premise or just have no premise at all. [BROOKE LAUGHS] I asked him one time, I just said, what about Saddam? And he said, what about Saddam? And I said, well, you know - anything new? And then he went on and actually gave us an answer.
The other thing he would do is he clearly liked asking and answering his own questions [BROOKE LAUGHS]- more than he did answering our questions. Are things perfect? No, they're not. Could they be better? You bet. Are we going to keep trying? Yes, we are. DONALD RUMSFELD: Are there setbacks? Yes. Are there things that people can't anticipate? Yes. Does the enemy have a brain and continue to make adjustments on the ground, requiring our forces to continue to make adjustments? You bet.
JAMIE McINTYRE: The other thing, of course, is that he could opine, to use one of his words, at great length upon something, and so if you weren't careful, you would ask a question about a new subject and you would get an old answer that you've heard a hundred times before, and you wouldn't have the chance to cut him off, and pretty soon your time would be up. BROOKE GLADSTONE: One thing that used to really set him apart from the rest of the gray Washington bureaucracy was his tendency to use these gee-whiz kind of expressions – among them, gee whiz. JAMIE McINTYRE: [LAUGHS] Yeah. Oh, my goodness. Heavens to Betsy. Henny-Penny. DONALD RUMSFELD: Darn good. DONALD RUMSFELD: You bet!
DONALD RUMSFELD: Gee! DONALD RUMSFELD: My goodness. JAMIE McINTYRE: He almost sounds very folksy. You wouldn't know he's tough as nails. [BOTH LAUGH] He's also very cautious in what he said. He said a few things that came back to haunt him, but he was pretty careful. People were constantly looking for examples where Rumsfeld made predictions that didn't come true, and one of the frustrating things about it was you couldn't get him to predict anything. He wouldn't predict how long the war would last or how many lives it would take or how much it would cost. His favorite expression there was, it's unknowable. DONALD RUMSFELD: There are known knowns. There are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we now know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we do not know we don't know. JAMIE McINTYRE: It was maddening sometimes that you couldn't get him to say anything except, we'll just have to see. Time will tell. We don't know. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So as the conduct of the war looked worse and worse, so did Rumsfeld's image to a certain extent, and his performance at the podium seemed to become a little more personal. The sparring was less good-natured, and he resorted more and more to just blaming the media. JAMIE McINTYRE: He did blame the media. And I remember having this discussion with members of his staff about why they weren't getting better coverage of the war. And, of course, the real bottom line is if the war is going better, then you get better coverage.
It's not really an effective strategy to blame the media too much when things aren't going well. DONALD RUMSFELD: I picked up a newspaper today, and I couldn't believe it. I read eight headlines that talked about Chaos! Violence! Unrest! And it just was, Henny-Penny, the sky is falling. I've never seen anything like it.
And here is a country that's being liberated. Here are people who are going from - JAMIE McINTYRE: There's an element of theater that goes on in those briefings as well. And one of the things that Rumsfeld changed is he became the chief Pentagon spokesman. He felt, I think, he was his own best P.R. agent. He felt nobody could articulate things as well as he could. And I think there's a little bit of resentment that he seemed to have total control over the briefings and sometimes made us look like we were reacting to everything that he said. BROOKE GLADSTONE: What do you think the popular image of Rumsfeld is now? JAMIE McINTYRE: Well, you know, people either really like him or they tend to demonize him, tend to think that he's malevolent or has, you know, nefarious motives and things. And, you know, from my close-up dealings with him over the last five years, I just don't believe that to be the case. BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, to me, anyway, as time went on, he began to increasingly resemble Robert McNamara. JAMIE McINTYRE: Boy, I think that's exactly right. I was on his plane one time, and we were flying back from a story. And the air crew puts on movies occasionally, and they put the movie on, Fog of War, which, you may know, is a documentary about Robert McNamara. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Right. JAMIE McINTYRE: And I'm watching it on Rumsfeld's plane, and I'm thinking, wow, the parallels here are uncanny. I mean, he almost even looks like McNamara a little bit. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And, of course, in the Errol Morris film, what you see about McNamara is moving between contrition and yet an iron-clad inability to see his own role in what he did.
JAMIE McINTYRE: McNamara, later in his life, obviously had some real doubts. He wrote a book, In Retrospect, in which he talked about the mistakes he made. In making that documentary, he wanted to talk about how even very smart people who are very interested in advancing the best of American values can make the wrong decisions.
And the one difference I would have to say is I don't see Rumsfeld, based on my interaction with him, ever writing such a book or coming to such a conclusion. I think Rumsfeld still believes that in the great sweep of history, his decisions will be vindicated. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jamie, thank you very much. JAMIE McINTYRE: Well, thanks for having me. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jamie McIntyre is the senior Pentagon correspondent for CNN. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, the Arabic media react, and conservative commentators regroup. This is On the Media from NPR. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] END SEGMENT A STATION BREAK ONE (MUSIC)