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The Donald Rumsfeld Show, Coming to You Live

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Twice weekly, sometimes more, he stands at the Pentagon podium, eyes squinted and nose crinkled against the Klieg lights, facing a firing squad of some 80 reporters. Except in this verbal standoff, he’s usually the one holding the guns.

Donald H. Rumsfeld, who pre-Sept. 11 was on the road to obscurity as the nation’s 21st secretary of defense, is the voice of the war in Afghanistan, his press briefings a midday staple for people around the country who call his office asking what time the Rummy Show comes on. It’s reality TV, Washington-style--unscripted but not exactly candid.

Asked recently if he could define the parameters of the search for Taliban leaders, Rumsfeld replied: “I could, but I’m not inclined to.”

Prodded for one too many details about gear falling off a helicopter, the secretary snickered: “I get the feeling we’ve got an instinct for the capillaries.”

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Asked how he knew if Taliban forces were dead or simply running out of Afghanistan to neighboring countries, he shrugged: “Life isn’t perfect.”

Wars have a way of making heroes of ordinary men, but this one has made a media star of a 69-year-old master bureaucrat with rimless spectacles, brown hiking shoes and an acid wit that he appears to find quite amusing. But then, so do most of a growing number of cable TV junkies who tune in to watch him.

He is the controller of the message, casting the war’s every turn in the best light while verbally abusing the fourth estate. He is the latest lampoon on “Saturday Night Live.” His stripped-down, war-ain’t-pretty accounts of what we are doing over there might be the most unvarnished in Washington, where hardly anybody ever says what they actually mean. Particularly at the euphemistic-minded Pentagon, where dead civilians are “collateral damage” and volatile Iraq is “a state of concern.”

Except when Rumsfeld is at the mike. He refers to the accused terrorist mastermind as “Osama bin Laden, comma, mass-murderer.” Iraq is “a bad regime.” And he has consistently refused to indulge the notion that American troops are there to do anything less than kill the enemy.

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When U.S. war planes started dropping cluster bombs to the dismay of humanitarian groups, Rumsfeld and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Richard B. Myers were asked to give the rationale for employing such a vicious weapon.

Myers launched a paragraph-long explanation of how the nation is prosecuting a war on terrorism and trying to be careful about hitting civilians. Rumsfeld said this: “They are being used on front-line Al Qaeda and Taliban troops to try to kill them ... to be perfectly blunt.”

Asked to confirm reports that some Taliban troops in Kunduz were killed to prevent them from surrendering, Rumsfeld complied, vividly: “I have seen reports that people have been found with bullets in their heads, and not in the fronts.”

Throughout his government career, Rumsfeld’s self-assurance has been known to border on arrogance, but that was in peacetime. In war, he is the embodiment of American confidence, beginning countless sentences “There’s no question but ...”

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It took a triumvirate to explain the Persian Gulf War: Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, then-Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair Colin Powell and then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney. Now it is largely Rumsfeld, one of the most visible defense secretaries in history, stepping in for generals far less skilled in front of the cameras.

A chief executive with a government pedigree--he once ran the pharmaceutical giant G.D. Searle & Co. and served as defense secretary under President Ford--Rumsfeld is the picture of success and sensibility. He wears his worn-out hiking shoes to work “when I mentally feel I would prefer to be in Taos, New Mexico,” his retreat. His suits, usually gray, are expensive but old. “He is very thrifty,” one underling confided. With words, it seems, as much as with money.

Reporters have been skewered for long-winded queries and stupid questions (among the most memorable: What are you going to bomb next?) so many times that they now choose their words precisely. Some go so far as to write the questions down.

“He reminds me of a stern headmaster at a boys’ school,” said Tom Bowman, Pentagon reporter for the Baltimore Sun. “You have to really be on your toes with him. You have to watch the questions you ask. They have to be pointed, good, serious questions because, man, he’ll jump on you like an alligator.”

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Born in a Chicago suburb and educated at Princeton, Rumsfeld toggles between folksy and searing, peppering his speech with Midwestern “oh, goshes” and “by gollies,” then striking as unpredictably as a Washington thunderstorm.

On the controversial proposal to set up a military commission to try suspected terrorists, Reuters reporter Charles Aldinger--the dean of the Pentagon press corps--asked why it would be a military court rather than a civilian one, adding to his lasting detriment, “Is this the idea of summary courts-martial and executions?”

Rumsfeld pounced: “What is this ‘summary courts-martial and executions?”’ An hour later, returning to the briefing room with a foreign dignitary, he still hadn’t forgotten, pondering whether to give Aldinger the customary first question.

“This morning he used such inflammatory language ... I am just debating what to do,” Rumsfeld needled. “Charlie, are you going to be on your best behavior now?”

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“One minute!” an aide bellows before a chipper Rumsfeld, ever punctual, strides into the Pentagon’s packed briefing room to recap reports of Taliban on the run. Matinee performances like these recently crossed the bridge from politics to pop culture with a “Saturday Night Live” parody of the secretary--artfully captured by Darrell Hammond--tongue-lashing reporters into cowering submission.

As he studied tapes of Rumsfeld in action, Hammond said the image of Tom Joad from John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” came to mind--frank, up against it and to the point. He seized on those qualities in a news conference spoof that hardly required exaggeration:

Reporter : We are being told that Northern Alliance forces are firing back at Taliban troops who have fired on them, even though the Taliban troops missed. Does the U.S. condone that?

Rumsfeld : Now what kind of question is that?

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Reporter : Thought-provoking?

Rumsfeld : Nooooo.

Reporter : Incisive?

Rumsfeld : No. Remember what I said about your question the other day?

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Reporter : That it was idiotic?

Rumsfeld : And?

Reporter : And that I am an embarrassment to both myself and my newspaper?

Rumsfeld : You got it.

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To the next reporter: You had a question?

Reporter : No, no.

Rumsfeld : You had your hand up.

Reporter : I did, but I don’t want to ask my question anymore.

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Rumsfeld : Why not?

Reporter : Too scared.

The press--not the secretary--was the butt of the satire, written by SNL staff writer Jim Downey. “You can’t make fun of a guy who appears to be trying hard, doing well and sticking to his guns,” Hammond said. “In American culture, that is unimpeachable.”

Indeed, Rumsfeld as war minister seems to have captivated CNN addicts who tune into him for battle news. What they get is his tightly controlled version of it, eked out in globules for reporters prevented from covering U.S. ground troops.

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“On the one hand, he is very entertaining. On the other hand, I am troubled by his press policy, not giving access to troops overseas. He really is controlling the message,” Bowman said.

His words are sometimes oddly stilted--he wants to “incentivize” foreign troops to scour Afghan caves. His response to the simple question of what countries he planned to visit was a twisted wreckage of words: “I’ve got no reason not to announce them, except if I do and they haven’t for whatever reason, the people I’m to see aren’t there and we don’t go, someone will say, ‘What happened?”’ (Translation: He didn’t want to tell.)

Still, Rumsfeld has proved a master at making news; the message is almost always the same--American troops successfully press on--skillfully wrapped in fresh details of cave-hunting and special forces on horseback that consistently land on Page 1.

While his counterparts in the administration often stick cautiously to their talking points and are boring as a result, few can ever be sure what Rumsfeld is going to say when he lets fly. The results are usually amusing, even when he doesn’t say anything at all.

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“It’s the most entertaining press conference in Washington these days. I’ve been told he actually enjoys it,” one Pentagon reporter said. “When he makes news, he means to.”


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