In tapping Donald Rumsfeld for an encore performance as secretary of defense, President-elect George W. Bush is doing more than pulling a prominent name from Republican administrations past.
Bush is turning the Pentagon over to the man perhaps most responsible for building the case for a multibillion-dollar national missile defense system.
Tough-minded, irreverent, prone to calming a room with a joke but also capable of rattling unwary staffers, Rumsfeld shares Bush's corporate style and position of wealth. And he shares the president-elect's view that the nation's defenses have been neglected to the point where even U.S. territory may be vulnerable.
Two years ago, Rumsfeld took time out from corporate boardrooms to head a special commission chosen by conservative congressional Republicans to examine the threat of missile attack by so-called rogue states. Angered by a CIA intelligence estimate that put the threat at least 15 years away, Republican lawmakers demanded a second opinion and chose Rumsfeld to give it to them.
Adversaries such as North Korea or Iran "would be able to inflict major destruction on the U.S. within about five years" of deciding to build long-range missiles, the Rumsfeld commission wrote. The unanimous view of the bipartisan panel gave weight to Republicans prodding the Clinton administration to go forward with what could become a $60 billion system.
Now the former Illinois congressman and successful corporate executive will be in a post where he can put his own recommendations to work.
Speaking Thursday after Bush introduced his surprise choice, Rumsfeld made clear he intends to move quickly.
"It's a real threat," Rumsfeld said of the danger of missile attack. "It is clearly not a time at the Pentagon for presiding or calibrating modestly. Rather we are in a new national security environment. We do need to be arranged to deal with the new threats, not the old ones."
The 68-year-old Rumsfeld is the latest addition to a national security team "of genuine big-leaguers," as Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) put it. Rumsfeld will be vying for the president's attention with a savvy and experienced Colin Powell, Bush's choice for secretary of state.
But dealing with a powerful secretary of state is nothing new to Rumsfeld. He brings to the job more than 40 years of Washington experience, starting as a congressional aide in 1957 and rising to defense secretary for President Gerald Ford. During his 14 months in that post, from late 1975 to early 1977, Rumsfeld contended with none other than Henry Kissinger, one of the great Washington infighters of all time.
How did Rumsfeld fare in these bureaucratic battles?
"He was too good at it for my taste," Kissinger said Thursday in a telephone interview, only half-kiddingly. "He was very, very effective. We didn't always agree, and there's no sense refighting those particular debates. But the main point is he had very strong views, which he defended with great skill."
Dan Goure of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who contributed to the missile-defense report, recalls Rumsfeld asking tough questions at briefings and showing little tolerance for boring military charts and factoids.
"He really doesn't tolerate bull," Goure said. "I saw him at some of the briefings where he basically threw analysts out of the room. This is not someone who is going to be cowed by colonels and generals with briefing charts."
Born in Chicago in 1932, Rumsfeld was known as "Rummy" to his friends at Princeton and later in the Navy, where he was a flight instructor.
Rumsfeld hails from centrist political roots, beginning as a north suburban congressman in the '60s and extending through increasingly senior posts in the Nixon and Ford administrations. He served the president-elect's father on an economic advisory commission.
He became a multimillionaire as CEO of G.D. Searle & Co. from 1977 to 1985, then ran General Instrument Co., and presided over sharp increases in the stock values of each. Since 1997 he has been chairman of Gilead Sciences Inc., a Foster City, Calif., pharmaceutical company.
He has also sat on a number of corporate boards in recent years, including that of Tribune Co., corporate parent of the Chicago Tribune.
During his Washington years, Rumsfeld displayed loyalty to the presidents who employed him and a willingness to take on unpleasant tasks.
President Richard Nixon recalled in his memoirs that during the darkest days of Watergate, "Don Rumsfeld called ... offering to resign as ambassador to NATO and return to help work against impeachment among his former colleagues in Congress." Instead, he returned to head Ford's transition team after Nixon's resignation.
As defense secretary, Rumsfeld personally test-flew the B-1 bomber and backed the project against congressional opposition.
In 1983, President Ronald Reagan tapped Rumsfeld as his special envoy to the Mideast after the bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon that killed 241. It fell to Rumsfeld to inform the Lebanese government that the Marines would be pulling out. Rumsfeld wore a sidearm to the meeting in the war-torn country and said later, "I felt sick to my stomach" at the task.
If his record as defense secretary for Ford is any guide, Rumsfeld is likely to bring to the Pentagon a philosophy of meeting new threats with new weapons, and of distrusting treaties and arms pacts as unreliable.
Vice President-elect Dick Cheney, another former House member with conservative credentials, had a hand in choosing Rumsfeld. Cheney served under Rumsfeld in the Nixon White House on a domestic policy team and was deputy White House chief of staff under Rumsfeld for Ford.
Now Cheney holds the senior position, but the two appear to hold similar views on a number of national security issues.
For his part, Bush is unconcerned about the possibility that his subordinates may bump egos from time to time. "I've assembled a team of very strong, smart people," Bush said. "I hope there is disagreement, because I know the disagreement will be based upon solid thought."
There already is some disagreement.
Last year, Powell joined other former Joint Chiefs chairmen in signing a letter endorsing Senate ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which would ban all nuclear tests. Rumsfeld joined in a letter by several former Republican defense chiefs opposing the treaty ratification as a threat to the viability of the nation's nuclear weapons stockpile. In a major foreign policy setback for President Clinton, the Senate rejected the treaty.
Whether this peace-through-strength approach is right for the current post-Cold War environment remains to be seen.
John Isaacs of the Council for a Livable World, an arms-control advocacy group, said the Rumsfeld commission's missile-defense study represented "the-skies-are-falling analysis."
Rumsfeld views today's security threats not in terms of Chicken Little but those of Al Capone.
"Those of us from Chicago recall Al Capone's remark that `You get more with a kind word and a gun than you do with a kind word alone,'" Rumsfeld told a conservative group honoring him two years ago for his work on missile defense. "We can substitute `ballistic missile' for `gun' and the names of some modern day Al Capones."
Tribune staff writer Alex Rodriguez contributed to this report.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times