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Rumsfeld Bio: All Puffed Up, Covered with Sugar

Reported by Judy - January 26, 2005

Without a doubt, Rumsfeld: A Personal Portrait, by Midge Decter ranks as one of the worst biographies I have ever read. This worshipful treatment of the architect of the war on Iraq has more puff and sugar than a dozen Krispy Kreme doughnuts, and provides less food for thought.

Decter, a conservative who sits on the board of the Heritage Foundation and writes for right-wing media, bases the biography (New York: Regan Books, 2003) on a silly premise – that Donald Rumsfeld is "America's newest television star" (p. 9) , a "media hero" (p. 145), "kind of a pinup for countless American … women" (p. 145), and "one of the world's sexist men" (p. 210).

She rests her claim of Rumsfeld popularity on opinion polls showing high favorability ratings of Rumsfeld in the fall of 2002. He did have a 61 percent approval rating in one poll, but that was the lowest of four members of the Bush administration (Powell's was 88 percent, followed by Bush at 70 and Cheney at 65.) Hardly justification for Decter's claim of studmuffin status for Rumsfeld.

Such over-the-top description means Decter dare not analyze critically any of Rumsfeld's actions as defense secretary. To avoid dealing with the shortcomings of Rumsfeld's Iraq battle plan, Decter shifts the blame for the plan to Tommy Franks, undermines criticism of it as coming from generals who did not like the changes Rumsfeld brought to the Department of Defense, and simply claims that the war plan was spectacularly successful.

Decter dismisses the continuing chaos in Iraq as "the troubles of victory" rather than the product of going to war with too few troops. What was left after the fall of Baghdad "could not be called war," she asserts. Troops are running combat patrols, getting shot at, dying, but it is not war, in this book. Looting and lawlessness? "War planners," not Rumsfeld, left it out of their calculations. Electricity shortages? Only in places where opposition remained or the infrastructure was neglected, which we know is most of the country.

Decter avoids identifying Rumsfeld's critics or letting them have their say. By doing so, she deprives the reader of a chance to judge their credibility and is able to characterize their objections to suit her own purposes, as when she discusses the lead-up to the Iraq invasion. She writes (pp. 163-164): "Some Americans had been expressing the fear that such a war would not defeat the country's enemies but only create more of them. … Others, many fewer but as usual far noisier, were once again suggesting that no war fought by the United States could be legitimate." Nothing about allowing U.N. weapons inspections to work, about the lack of international support, about the distraction from the war on terror, and so on. Just a smear of war opponents as anti-American

Decter is so busy praising Rumsfeld's revamping of the Pentagon in the early days of the Bush administration that she completely forgets to mention that he should have been paying attention to terrorists. Instead, she fills us in on "Rumsfeld snow flakes" (notes he writes on memos asking them to re-done when he finds mistakes); "Rumsfeld's Brilliant Pebbles," (witty comments made at meetings which Rumsfeld likes to collect), and "Rumsfeld's Rules," (like never disagreeing with a president, which conveniently saves him from having to explain whether he disagreed with Ronald Reagan's policy of cozying up to Saddam Hussein in the 1980s).

Decter thinks it's just fine that in the months before Sept. 11, Rumsfeld was spending his time complaining that the monthly intelligence review book was too thick, worrying about the number of congressional committees involved in his department, and trying to reduce the number of reports the department prepared. She also thinks it's swell that on the morning of the attacks, Rumsfeld was carrying stretchers around the Pentagon instead of coordinating the defense of the nation. After all, he is paid to be a secretary of defense, not an EMT. (The 9/11 Commission report says that, although Rumsfeld knew the Twin Towers had been struck, he went to the parking lot of the Pentagon instead of to the National Military Command Center to help coordinate the nation's defense when the next plane hit the Pentagon.)

If you're looking for interesting tidbits that will give insight into Rumsfeld as a human being, you will be disappointed. Two of the few exceptions are a discussion of Rumsfeld's role in getting Gerald Ford chosen as House minority leader (p. 40) and a brief anecdote about the time that Rumsfeld, at the age of 41, ran with the bulls in Pamplona (p. 61).

Otherwise, vagueness rules. Decter says Rumsfeld was a wrestler who won award after award, but she never names a single one. She writes that he majored in government and politics at Princeton, but never says what led him to that choice (p. 25).

Her writing style is wordy, cliché-ridden, and full of fluff. Decter seems to drop in unnecessary phrases such as "as it happened" and "of course" just to stretch out her thin material to book-length. A few of her chapter titles illustrate her addiction to clichés: "A Star Is Born," and "Mr. Rumsfeld Goes to Washington." As for fluff, when Decter discusses how Rumsfeld left breakfast with a friend to go propose marriage to his girlfriend, Joyce, Decter writes: "Then, so legend has it, as soon as she said yes, he returned home … " (p. 26). Legend?

What she doesn't know – and there is plenty of that – she just makes up. Rumsfeld's mother-in-law grew up in western Montana, but nobody knows why the family moved there so Decter says "it does not seem altogether far-fetched to imagine" a hardy pioneer woman trekking west in a wagon train, even though the move came long after the era of wagon trains (p. 23).

Overall, this book represents the right-wing's ideal attitude toward the Bush administration: praise them endlessly, leave out the bad news, mischaracterize critics, ignore faults, and fill in the blanks with stuff you just make up.

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