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The Worst

Author: Max Boot, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies
March 17, 2011
The New Republic

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There are essentially three reasons to write a memoir: for money, for literary value, and for vindication. Neither of the first two applies to Donald Rumsfeld. Having made a bundle as CEO of G.D. Searle (the maker of NutraSweet), he has no apparent need for more; in any case the proceeds from his memoir are to be donated to charities helping American service personnel. Nor is there any artistry apparent in the writing: like most politicians' books, this one is clunky and inelegant. If Rumsfeld has any pride of authorship, he hides it well. His acknowledgements suggest that no fewer than three people contributed to the writing while eleven more checked facts, transcribed dictation, and acquired documents and illustrations. The result reads, not surprisingly, more like a memo written by a team of clever if unprincipled publicists—“The Case for Donald Rumsfeld”—than a genuinely reflective memoir that tries to delve into the author's inner life and come to grips with the decisions he made and their consequences.

No doubt Rumsfeld was motivated to write with Churchill's (apocryphal) dictum in mind: “History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.” Churchill was such a powerful polemicist and successful statesman that he largely achieved his ambition; it would not be until decades later that historians would unravel the self-serving spin of his magisterial, six-volume The Second World War. Donald Rumsfeld, needless to say, is no Winston Churchill. If the initial reviews are any indication, his memoir will do nothing to rescue the reputation of a man who is destined to be remembered as one of the two worst secretaries of defense ever—exceeded, arguably, only by Robert S. McNamara, whose missteps cost far more American lives. Although it scarcely seems possible, Known and Unknown may even lower Rumsfeld's standing.

The book is certainly revealing, but mainly in ways that are unintentional and unflattering. It does help to answer the riddle of how someone who seemed so supremely qualified for high office—a man who had served previously as a congressman (in the 1960s), White House aide and NATO ambassador (for Richard Nixon), White House chief of staff and secretary of defense (for Gerald Ford), and corporate chieftain —how a man with such a sterling resumé could be such a miserable failure in managing the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, both of which we were losing by the time he left office.

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