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An interesting exercise, if you have a taste for Washington anthropology, is to track the treatment of any significant figure through the three volumes of Bob Woodward’s Bush-the-Warrior trilogy. I spent Wednesday reading all the passages about Donald Rumsfeld, US secretary of defence.
In Mr Woodward’s first instalment, Bush at War, published in 2002, Mr Rumsfeld is a hero of September 11 and the triumphant commander of the US victory in Afghanistan. Here Mr Rumsfeld is a seer (“In his early days as defence secretary, Rumsfeld had clearly anticipated that the United States was going to be surprised by some attack, perhaps something along the lines of September 11 . . . ”) and a tower of strength (he “left no doubt in Bush’s mind that when the moment came, as it surely would, that the United States was threatened, he, as secretary of defence, would be coming to the president to unleash the military”).
When the attack comes, Mr Rumsfeld insists on holding an emergency meeting inside the burning Pentagon, moving to another office only when a general insists that “the smoke is getting pretty bad”.
Though one of Mr Woodward’s hallmarks is never to tell readers what, or if, he thinks about anything, his adjectives give the game away.
On first encounter, Mr Rumsfeld is a “small framed, almost boyish, former Navy fighter pilot who did not look his 69 years”. During his first tour as defence secretary under President Gerald Ford, Mr Woodward tells us that Mr Rumsfeld was “a JFK from the GOP (Republican party) – handsome, intense, well educated, with an intellectual bent and an infectious smile”.
A few pages later he describes Mr Rumsfeld, with a degree of reverence reserved for his most gushing sources, as “a walking example of what the novelist Wallace Stegner calls ‘resilience under disappointment’, the persistence of drive, hard work and even stubbornness when ambition has not been fully realised”. He is a demanding executive with a core of iron.
In Mr Woodward’s second Bush book, Plan of Attack, published in 2004, Mr Rumsfeld retains his aura, though it is dimming slightly with the failure to find any weapons of mass destruction in occupied Iraq.
His subject remains “small, almost boyishly dashing”, “focused” and “intense”. He still has the infectious smile, though it can now “convey impatience, even condescension” when he is interrogating the sloppy thinking of the bureaucratic midgets around him. Mr Rumsfeld can be “tough, unpleasant, unrelenting”, but usually in pursuit of “outside the box thinking” in a hidebound military establishment.
Now we have Mr Woodward’s third work in the series, State of Denial. Mr Rumsfeld – embattled and clearly no longer a source for what happens behind the scenes – has misplaced his good looks, his decency and his brilliance.
He still has that “boyish intensity” – Mr Woodward never lets go of an epithet once he has bothered to work one out – but these days he is “cocky” and unreasonably confident, a man whose “micro-managing was almost comic”. The story begins with him burying everyone at the Pentagon in “snowflakes”, unsigned notes that are “an annoyance”, “intrusive” and “petty”.
This Rumsfeld is on a perpetual power-trip, dressing down underlings for the sheer, sadistic pleasure of it. “Shut up,” he is recalled to have shouted at some hapless peon decades ago. “I don’t want any excuses. You are through and you’ll not have time to clean out your desk if this isn’t taken care of.” Subordinates describe him in unprintable terms.
By the end of the book, Mr Woodward himself is confronting Mr Rumsfeld over his unwillingness to admit the Iraqi insurgency is growing and that his decisions have cost many lives. “How could he not see his role and responsibility?” Mr Woodward ponders, winding up his interview. “I could think of nothing more to say.”
Something Mr Woodward might say, if he wanted to admit reality himself, is that he has changed his mind about Mr Rumsfeld without Mr Rumsfeld changing an iota. Love him or hate him, the defence secretary is the Rock of Gibraltar. He will experience personal growth when Dick Cheney turns vegan. But somehow, the fixed qualities that Mr Woodward cast as positive in books one and two have curdled in book three.
Mr Woodward never acknowledges changing his mind because he regards himself as a reporting machine, with no opinions of his own. He cannot say he is revising his judgments because he claims never to have made any.
But of course, Mr Woodward does have a consistent world view – Washington’s conventional wisdom. When everyone viewed Mr Rumsfeld as a commanding hunk, Mr Woodward embodied the adoration. Now that we all know Mr Rumsfeld is a vicious old bastard, Mr Woodward channels the loathing just as fluidly. If the war in Iraq takes a turn for the better, Rumsfeld the Stud might well come roaring back in Mr Woodward’s Bush at War IV: Big Brass Ones.
It is slightly maddening to see Mr Woodward reverse his point of view without acknowledging that he ever had one – then or now. You could charge him with flattering politicians only when they are on top. But you might as well accuse a weather vane of changing its mind about which way the wind should blow.
The writer is editor of Slate.com