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How the News Media Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Rumsfeld


The nation’s top dog of war is frisky again. Donald Rumsfeld has returned to high visibility — after a couple of months in the media doghouse following revelations about torture at the Abu Ghraib prison — now openly romancing the journalistic pack with his inimitable style of tough love as he growls and romps across TV screens.

For three years, the elan of Rumsfeld’s media stardom has been welded to fear and killing. The civilian boss at the Pentagon made little impression on the nation until 9/11 — but soon afterwards, CNN was hailing him as “a virtual rock star.” While he briefed reporters about the bombing of Afghanistan in autumn 2001, there was a rush among reporters and pundits who conflated his ability to oversee air-war carnage with new status as some kind of hunk.

Three decades after President Richard Nixon pursued a “madman” strategy in an attempt to intimidate North Vietnam’s leaders, more than a few liberal pundits joined in the acclaim for Rumsfeld as someone capable of pinning the violence meter. During a CNBC appearance (Oct. 13, 2001), Thomas Friedman said: “I was a critic of Rumsfeld before, but there’s one thing … that I do like about Rumsfeld. He’s just a little bit crazy, OK? He’s just a little bit crazy, and in this kind of war, they always count on being able to out-crazy us, and I’m glad we got some guy on our bench that our quarterback — who’s just a little bit crazy, not totally, but you never know what that guy’s going to do, and I say that’s my guy.”

And Ahmad Chalabi was Rumsfeld’s guy. Relentlessly promoted by the Pentagon chief and top aides, the slick Iraqi exile was widely understood to be an accomplished liar. But that didn’t impede New York Times reporter Judith Miller and a team of colleagues as they put out front-page prewar stories about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, with Chalabi serving as the key unnamed source.

The Times wasn’t alone. Many reporters on mainstream payrolls took the nod from Rumsfeld, eagerly succumbing to the Chalabi scam. And some avowedly independent journalists did likewise. Christopher Hitchens, for instance, ended up dedicating his book about the Iraq invasion to Chalabi and a few others — calling them “comrades in a just struggle and friends for life.”

When Rumsfeld comes in for harsh media criticism, he takes a licking and keeps on ticking … like a time bomb. Since early 2001, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd has referred to him as “Rummy” with escalating frequency (in more than 40 columns last year), and some other pundits have also been scathing at times. Yet the prevailing media narrative has been compatible with the Rumsfeld “new American century” agenda: Boys will be boys, Rumsfeld will be rummy, war will be bloody, and the Pentagon media machine will keep spinning while the defense secretary leads the way.

Rumsfeld was back in media action for a long interview Aug. 17 on the PBS “NewsHour” with host Jim Lehrer. Mostly, Rumsfeld spun the fine fabric of public relations. Along the way, he talked about how to get “the best intelligence” and “good all-source analysis” without “having it all single-perspective.”

Minutes later, Lehrer got around to asking whether Pentagon analysts doing “lessons-learned studies” on Iraq had determined “why the intelligence turned out to be so wrong about weapons of mass destruction.”

Rumsfeld: “Ooh, no, that wasn’t what we did, no. The Central Intelligence Agency did that.”

Lehrer: “Right. So you didn’t — that was not part of your lessons learned?”

Rumsfeld: “No. We’re not in that business.”

The evasive reply came from the Pentagon honcho who’d flatly declared before the Iraq invasion that the U.S. government knew where Iraqi weapons of mass destruction were located.

But — without a word of followup — Lehrer changed the subject, moving on to a matter of tactical foresight. “What about the intensity of the insurgency after major combat,” he asked, “was that an intelligence failure within the Pentagon — or not?”

Rumsfeld’s response was predictable and easy (“things are always different than one anticipates … a war plan doesn’t ever outlive the first contact with the enemy…”). In an interview that involved several thousand words and focused largely on intelligence, Lehrer permanently dropped the WMD question as soon as Rumsfeld blew it off.

Major U.S. news outlets are hardly inclined to be up in arms about Rumsfeld’s record of prewar deception when they remain so dainty about critiquing their own. What passes for soul-searching at the New York Times and the Washington Post is much more like autoeroticism than self-flagellation. No wonder Rumsfeld the media star is back.

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