- The Washington Times - Monday, October 13, 2003


by Midge Decter

Regan Books, $24.95, 220 pages.

There are three types of biographies of living people: hatchet jobs by enemies, autobiographies and adoring biographies by friends. “Rumsfeld” falls into the third category, but that should not discourage the casual reader. The secretary of defense has led an interesting and colorful life. He has been a high school and college wrestler, a Navy fighter pilot, a congressman, White House chief of staff, a captain of industry and secretary of defense (twice). His friends love him, his enemies despise him and he fascinates the American public.

This is a good time for a Rumsfeld biography. It is a defining moment for this administration and its leaders. Steel is not tempered in lukewarm heat. The heat is definitely up and much of it is focused on Mr. Rumsfeld.

Mr. Rumsfeld comes from a solid middle-class family on the outskirts of Chicago. His dad left a reasonably good job in World War II to join the Navy and serve in time of war. The family followed him and lived a hard life as non-sponsored military dependents. An enterprising young Don Rumsfeld helped an old black man with questionable marketing skills sell his watermelons in one desolate camp town. He collected a commission of a single watermelon for a certain amount sold and, in turn, sold it for a profit. Upon its return to the Chicago area in 1946, the Rumsfeld family resumed a suburban existence.

Young Don’s high school, New Trier, has bred some other famous Americans, including Rock Hudson, Bruce Dern and Charlton Heston. As this is being written, Mr. Rumsfeld is rooting for Chicago’s beloved Cubs in the baseball playoffs.

Mrs. Decter credits much of Mr. Rumsfeld’s subsequent character to his career as a student wrestler. She believes that it nurtured his native combativeness, self-reliance and ability to take the credit or blame for what he learned on the mats. He was also pretty darned good at it.

Like most of his generation, Mr. Rumsfeld was subject to the draft. There is no indication that he ever gave the remotest thought to shirking the civic duty of military service. By all accounts he was an excellent pilot. After active service, he remained in the Naval Reserve until, in his own words, he threw himself out of the Navy in his first term as defense secretary. He remains a father and grandfather and has been married to the same woman for nearly five decades. He proved himself a cool operator in corporate combat. As a congressman, he was viewed as an insurgent against the moderate old guard.

He helped chart the course of the post-Vietnam military in his first stint as defense secretary, and may chart the course for the post-20th century military in his second, if Iraq doesn’t overly distract him. He is a formidable presence in any incarnation.

Mr. Rumsfeld’s general biography is known to most who follow national security affairs, but the formative forces in his life are not. This short book fills in much of the white space. Mrs. Decter is a friend of Mr. Rumsfeld. She has an impressive literary career, including an editorship at Harpers and the Saturday Review, and she has been published in the Atlantic, National Review, the New Republic and the Weekly Standard. Her husband is the formidable Norman Podhoretz. She makes no secret of being a Rumsfeld friend and admirer.

Mr. Rumsfeld’s friends don’t need to read this book. They have a measure of the man. Casual readers will get to know him. His opponents will be well-advised to read it, if only under the “know-your-enemy theory.” In recent months the defense secretary has come under fire, as the campaign in Iraq settles into a turbulent nation-rebuilding phase. If this book is to be believed, and I think it should be, this is when the former wrestler is at his competitive best; the true measure of a good wrestler — and I was a mediocre one in high school and college — is how well he overcomes a positional disadvantage.

Speaking of measures, my dad has always said that the real measure of the man is the quality of the enemies he makes. We know he has some good enemies, including al Qaeda, the Taliban and what is left of the Ba’athists in Iraq; it’s a good bet that he is cordially detested by Old Europe as well. Judging from this book, he also has some good friends; Midge Decter among them.

Gary Anderson lectures on military affairs at George Washington University.

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