- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 21, 2004

The rule in Washington is that once there’s blood in the water, mark it up for the sharks. Fortunately for Donald Rumsfeld and maybe for the rest of us, George W. Bush is not afraid of hungry beasts.

The defense chief, just about the last man standing from the president’s first Cabinet, has become this week’s prey in spite of his stamina, or probably because of it. The endorsement he got yesterday from the president is probably the real goods and not the usual “I’m for him a thousand percent,” followed by a swift kick in the seat of the pants, and the door.

George W. put the latest gravest sin, that Mr. Rumsfeld signed condolence letters with an auto-pen rather than with a weary right hand, in proper perspective. Despite the defense chief’s penmanship malfunction, the president proclaimed him a decent man beneath a “rough-and-gruff” exterior. Rough and gruff are serious faults in an era when goo-goo lies thick and sticky across the land, but George W. is a man who appreciates the grime, not the goo.

“I know Secretary Rumsfeld’s heart,” the president said. “I know how much he cares for the troops. I have heard the anguish in his voice, and seen his eyes when we talk about the danger in Iraq and the fact that youngsters are over there in harm’s way. He’s a good, decent man. He’s a caring fellow.”

Most of the Rumsfeld critics couldn’t find a bottle of permanent blue-black ink if it fell into their laps. Ink and paper, 24-pound watermarked bond if you want to be as persnickety as the social pretenders are, are the only correct tools for this task. (You could ask Miss Manners). Just signing a proper condolence letter is not enough. If you’re really serious about joining the hunt and polo club, you have to write out the whole letter by hand. All letters must be original; no fair copying a particularly eloquent phrase into a second or third letter.

Writing personal letters of condolence was something only company commanders were expected to do in previous wars. Families of soldiers slain at Gettysburg or Chancellorsville got the news in the newspapers; even in World War II, widows got only a telegram beginning ” … the president of the United States regrets to inform you … .”

But sometimes any old stick will do, and the secretary sometimes asks for it. Tact is never found in abundance in the executive suites, where aides and flunkies stand at the ready to do the deed when the boss has to cough or burp, and Mr. Rumsfeld is blunter, plainer-spoken, “rougher and gruffer” than most. His reply to the Tennessee National Guardsman citing equipment shortages in Iraq — “you fight with the army you have” — sounds as if the secretary consults Marie Antoinette, not Miss Manners, for tips in the social graces.

The families of the soldiers slain in Iraq “would like to think that at least for a moment the secretary thought individually about this young man or this young woman,” says Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, a Democrat. Agrees the easily astounded Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, a Republican who dreams of being John McCain when he grows up: “This issue of the secretary of defense not personally signing the letters is just astounding to me.”

Senators are frequently easily astounded, and can occasionally even be surprised. Frequent correspondents of these worthies might usefully compare the squiggles and squirts in their signatures; auto-pens are not unknown on Capitol Hill. Senators, like CEOs, have others to do their really fatiguing tasks, such as signing letters.

Shortcomings in Mr. Rumsfeld’s schooling in social deportment are not actually the point of the sniping, which has become the gala sport of the festive season. The snipers include John McCain, of course, and even Trent Lott, of whom we had not heard since last Confederate Memorial Day. The critics are after George W., as usual, and the president understands that the Gaffe Patrol is itching for action after Bernie Kerik went down in flames (or at least in flagrante delicto) before anyone could fire a shot. But Donald Rumsfeld, an old fighter pilot, has turned out to be a canny and elusive target.

Ordinarily, thoughtless gaffes can take down Washington figures when real mistakes can’t. But so far not this time. Saxby Chambliss, the Republican senator from Georgia, rightly calls the defense secretary “insensitive,” but a good leader nonetheless. Sen. Richard Lugar thinks the secretary deserves to be kept after school to practice his penmanship, but “he should stay in office.”

All the man needs, obviously, is a little polish and a bottle of ink.

Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Times.



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