‘By His Own Rules’ by Bradley Graham

No presidency in history has generated anything like the volume of memoirs, instant histories and tell-all exposés describing life in the government over which George W. Bush presided. Generations of scholars will pore over the volumes, attempting to separate the historical fodder from the self-serving chaff.

Bradley Graham’s “By His Own Rules: The Ambitions, Successes, and Ultimate Failures of Donald Rumsfeld” is among the handful of books likely to stand above mere topicality. The author, a veteran Washington Post reporter, covered Rumsfeld’s tenure as secretary of Defense as the paper’s Pentagon correspondent. He’s supplemented that experience with a wealth of on-the-record interviews with Rumsfeld, his friends, family members and colleagues going back to his earliest days in Congress. What emerges from all this is a kind of diptych portrait -- one side illuminating a complex, often contradictory man undone by his own tragic flaws; the other showing a relentlessly, remorselessly ambitious political archetype that increasingly has dominated our national public life in recent decades.

What’s particularly remarkable about the qualities Graham brings to this project is the extraordinary fair-mindedness with which he approaches his subject. He does not stint on analysis, but Rumsfeld’s considerable virtues -- flawless integrity and an unshakable lifelong commitment to civil rights, for example -- are treated right alongside his overweening flaws: arrogance, a bullying intellect, tireless self-promotion. The result is an engrossing biography; its thorough, capacious reporting leaves those value judgments not absolutely required by the weight of evidence to the reader. There’s a sturdy, old-fashioned quality to Graham’s approach to his subject and this material, and the match works brilliantly.

This is, in other words, a major -- and highly important -- American political biography. Readers, moreover, ought not to be put off by its rather intimidating length. Graham is a fluent stylist with an eye for the telling anecdote and a gifted reporter’s ability to get authoritative witnesses on the record.

When Rumsfeld left the Pentagon late in Bush’s second term, he’d been both the youngest and oldest secretary of Defense and had served 2,585 days under two presidents. Only Robert S. McNamara -- like Rumsfeld, a reformer with an impressive record of corporate success on his résumé -- served longer: 2,595 days. Both departed as essentially tragic figures, though there the comparison stops. The modern budgeting practices and systems analysis that McNamara brought with him from the then-robust auto industry remain pillars of the Pentagon’s daily life; most of Rumsfeld’s highly publicized “transformations” already have been consigned to the organizational ash bin, though Graham credits him with instilling in the military bureaucracy a more resilient capacity to deal with surprise and abrupt change.

More important, when McNamara left office, he understood his tenure had been a personal as well as national tragedy. Rumsfeld gives no evidence -- not even to a reporter as probing as Graham -- of any such self-awareness. In fact, what emerges from this book is the odd specter of a gifted and relentlessly intelligent politician who willfully substituted the bromides of self-help and dime-store paperback self-improvement for genuine introspection -- banality with a high IQ. In his final interview with Graham, he “ascribed much of the negative perception of him and the Bush Administration to distorted media coverage.” He told the author that “the intellectual dishonesty on the part of the press is serious.” Journalists, Rumsfeld said, have a “strong incentive to be negative and dramatic. . . . It’s a formula that works. It gets Pulitzers; it gets promotions; it gets name identification on the front page above the fold.”

Actually, Rumsfeld’s great failure as a Cabinet secretary was to fundamentally misunderstand the dual nature of the Defense Department’s role. We rely on our secretary of Defense to order the country’s military affairs in such a way that potential enemies are deterred from aggression. Rumsfeld first engaged the issues involved in national defense during the long Cold War with the Soviets, where actual conflict was held at bay by an elaborate strategic and technological competition that amounted to a kind of sinister -- indeed, potentially catastrophic -- form of shadowboxing. It was all a matter of maneuver, positioning and potential. Victories and losses had to be bloodless because the alternative -- thermonuclear war -- was unthinkable. It was a perfect environment for Rumsfeld, the bureaucratic infighter, the tireless questioner, the transforming executive -- it was, in other words, the sublimation of combat by administrative means, which suited his personal inclinations and played to his strengths.

Sometimes, though, no matter how firm your deterrence, real combat is unavoidable. At that point, the secretary of Defense reverts to his pre-1947 role and becomes “secretary of war.” As Graham’s reportage documents in a convincing way, Rumsfeld’s performance in that capacity -- both in Afghanistan and Iraq -- was abysmal. “I think his fundamental flaw in being secretary of defense in time of war was that he appeared to equate efficiency with effectiveness,” Col. Bill Hix, a strategic advisor to the Pentagon, told Graham. “War is an inherently inefficient exercise, particularly on the scale of Iraq; it wastes everything.”

Former White House Chief of Staff Andy Card -- who played a key role in prying strategic direction of the Iraq war out of Rumsfeld’s hands -- offered Graham a candid, on-the-record appraisal of the secretary: “It’s my belief that he had an expectation of what his job would be as secretary of defense, and it probably centered around transformation -- building a foundation that a Defense Department could stand on for the next 40 years, and then a war got in the way. Transformation had been a labor of love for him. The war became a labor of responsibility. It was the beautiful siren of transformation that had attracted him to the job, but the shoals ended up being the shoals of war.”

What’s ultimately most rewarding about Bradley Graham’s outstanding work of contemporary history is that the author never falters in the kind of balanced, fair-minded reconstruction of events and personalities that leaves readers free to form their own, similarly nuanced appraisal of a complex and confounding public figure.