Many of Donald Rumsfeld’s longtime relationships had survived his stormy tenure as Defense secretary, with most of his oldest friends and close former associates either sharing his views or putting aside their differences in the interest of camaraderie. But during his last weeks in office, two of Rumsfeld’s oldest relationships were shattered.
“Did we love our friendship with Kenny? Absolutely,” said Joyce Rumsfeld. “Did we love our friendship with Steve? Yes. And it’s over.”
Ken Adelman had first worked for Rumsfeld in the Nixon administration and then in the Pentagon under Ford. In later years, their families had vacationed together, and Rumsfeld continued to call on Adelman for advice. In 2001, Rumsfeld appointed him to Defense Policy Board. But Adelman had turned increasingly critical of Rumsfeld, confronting him at board meetings about the course of the Iraq War and about efforts to transform military.
Rumsfeld asked Adelman to his office on Friday afternoon, September 22. He began warmly, recalling their long friendship and expressing his desire that they remain friends. Then he jumped to his main point, saying, “It might be best if you got off the board.”
“If you want me off the board, write me a letter and I’ll get off the board,” Adelman replied. “It’s your choice.”
“I’m not telling you I want you off the board. I’m saying it might be best,” Rumsfeld went on.
“It wouldn’t be best for me,” Adelman countered, intent on not making it easy for Rumsfeld. He asked why Rumsfeld no longer wanted him as a board member.
“Because you’re disruptive and negative,” the secretary explained.
Adelman agreed with the negative part, but took issue with being called disruptive.
“You interrupt briefings; you don’t let people finish,” Rumsfeld told him.
“Yeah, but you know where I learned that? I learned that right in this room, 30 years ago,” Adelman remarked, motioning to where Rumsfeld sat. “I learned it from the master.”
Rumsfeld laughed, and the two men went back and forth for some minutes more. Adelman accused Rumsfeld of all too often deflecting responsibility. Rumsfeld insisted he accepted responsibility all the time. But Adelman noted that when things went wrong, Rumsfeld tended to blame the military commanders, the State Department, or the Iraqis.
When Adelman also took his old boss to task for what he called the “abysmal quality” of his decisions, Rumsfeld pressed him for some examples. Adelman cited Rumsfeld’s poor handling of the Abu Ghraib scandal and his dismissive “stuff happens” remark in response to the extensive looting in Iraq immediately after the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime. To Adelman’s disbelief, Rumsfeld claimed not to remember having said “stuff happens,” which had become one of his most infamous comments. The secretary remarked that U.S. troops had been given orders to stop the looting, although he could not say who had issued the orders or why U.S. forces still made little effort to pursue looters.
On Abu Ghraib, Adelman blamed Rumsfeld for not doing more to deal with the fallout from the case once he learned of it in January 2004. Rumsfeld insisted he hadn’t realized initially how serious it was or that the photographs existed. He argued that had he tried looking into the case, he would have risked being accused of command influence. Adelman saw Rumsfeld’s response as another example of the secretary’s evasiveness and tendency to deflect blame.
Ending the meeting, Rumsfeld walked Adelman out of the office. Adelman expressed his appreciation for having had the chance to talk; Rumsfeld offered a quick goodbye. A few weeks later, Rumsfeld sent Adelman a letter saying that, as they had discussed, plans were under way to reorganize the Defense Policy Board and a replacement would soon be named for Adelman, and he expressed appreciation for Adelman’s cooperation.
Rumsfeld’s longstanding friendship with Steve Herbits, who had served as special assistant to him at the Pentagon during the Ford years and who returned in 2001 to help on personnel and organizational matters, similarly disintegrated. The October publication of Bob Woodward’s State of Denial about the Bush administration revealed that Herbits secretly shared criticisms of Rumsfeld and memos he had written disparaging Rumsfeld’s management style and choice of key subordinates.
Just a few months earlier, during the revolt of the generals, Herbits had publicly come to Rumsfeld’s defense, writing a letter to The Washington Times urging the news media to dig deeper into the backgrounds of those retired generals who were assailing the secretary. Herbits had acted on his own, without prompting from anyone at the Pentagon. But he had already spoken to Woodward for the book, deciding to do so in the interest, he said in a later interview, of trying to explain how the United States had gotten into such a mess in Iraq—and particularly how Rumsfeld had contributed.
“I think Rumsfeld’s behavior from the summer of 2003 on was unusual for him,” Herbits said. “All his worst instincts came to the fore. And the impact of his leadership was just of such consequence that it couldn’t be ignored.”
For Rumsfeld to lose a close friend or associate was rare. Perhaps his only other public rupture comparable to the breaks with Herbits and Adelman had occurred with Al Lowenstein in 1970, when Rumsfeld backed Lowenstein’s opponent in a congressional election, alienating his friend. “Did we love our friendship with Al? Absolutely,” said Joyce Rumsfeld, when asked about severed ties. “Did we love our friendship with Kenny? Absolutely. Did we love our friendship with Steve? Yes. And it’s over.”
Excerpted from His Own Rules: The Ambitions, Successes, and Ultimate Failures of Donald Rumsfeld by Bradley Graham © 2009. With permission from the publisher, PublicAffairs.
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Bradley Graham spent more than 30 years at The Washington Post in various reporting and editing assignments focused on military and foreign affairs. The author of Hit to Kill: The New Battle Over Shielding America From Missile Attack , he lives in Bethesda, Maryland.