By Marc A. Thiessen
With the passing of Donald Rumsfeld, our country has lost a great leader who helped liberate 50 million people from tyranny, deliver justice to the terrorists who attacked us on Sept. 11, 2001, and transform our military for the threats of a new century. And I lost a great boss and a dear friend who transformed my life in countless ways.
His work ethic was legendary. After the 9/11 attacks, we traveled 250,000 miles around the world, visiting combat zones and foreign capitals. His senior staff spent so much time in the plane with him, we called ourselves “Rummy’s tube dwellers.” He would often visit two or three countries in a single day. On a single trip, we’d stop in Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. (The reporters traveling with us had T-shirts made which read: “Rummy’s one-night stand tour.”)
One of my jobs was to write his memorandum to the president — the “POTUS memo” — summarizing his impressions from his trip. This memo had to be completed (along with every cable and thank you letter from his meetings) before the plane landed back in Washington. So we would spend a full working day in, say, Baghdad, then board an overnight flight home during which we spent another 14-hour work day in the air, and then land at Andrews Air Force Base at 5 a.m. utterly exhausted — at which point, Rumsfeld would walk into the staff cabin and say “See you in the office in two hours.” He meant it.
On one trip, his punch-drunk staff slipped a fake cable into his folder along with all the real cables. We had just come back from a bizarre meeting with the megalomaniacal leader of Turkmenistan, Saparmurat Niyazov, who had plastered seemingly every corner of his country with portraits and statues of himself. “Niyazov suggested U.S. consider having a giant neon portrait of President Bush displayed outside the Pentagon,” we wrote in the cable labeled STS (Super Top Secret). Rumsfeld must have been tired, too, as he edited a few sentences before he caught on and came out to have a laugh with us. Another time, we sent up a hostage note with a series of nonnegotiable demands (“We’re not from the State Department, so when we say nonnegotiable, we mean nonnegotiable.” Among them was that his lovely wife Joyce come on all future trips “to ensure a kinder, gentler travel program.”
On another trip, he called me up his cabin. I thought he wanted to go over a speech, but instead he sat me down to explain the “Rule of 72.” On a cocktail napkin, he drew out an equation which showed how to determine the number of years it would take to double your money at an annual rate of return. He began calculating different sums, showing me how long it would take to turn a few thousand dollars saved now into a million. “That’s the miracle of compound interest,” he said. “It’s like having people working for you while you sleep.” He knew my first child had been born a few weeks after 9/11, and despite all the pressing matters on his mind, he was worried about the financial future of my young family.
In addition to conducting the nation’s business, he would offer up pearls of wisdom in meeting with foreign leaders. He believed that the war on terror had given the United States a historic opportunity to cement new relationships with former Soviet states in Central Asia. During one meeting, he explained to a Central Asian leader what he should expect from the United States. “It’s like getting into bed with a hippopotamus,” he said. “At first it feels all warm and fuzzy. But then, in the middle of the night, he rolls on top of you. And the worst part is, the son of a bitch doesn’t even know you’re there.”
He hated to waste money. He would write on manila folders in pencil, so that they could be reused. Once, in Warsaw, we were going over the final draft of a speech for a NATO summit, and I had put yellow sticky tabs on the pages to indicate where edits had been made so he did not have to reread the entire draft. He put the sticky tabs in a big pile on the cover of the speech, then handed it back and said “reuse these.” When I looked at him incredulously, he explained: “I grew up during the Depression. I just can’t waste anything.”
He detested snobs. Because he was a Princeton graduate, people trying to ingratiate themselves would often try to play the “Princeton card.” That was the kiss of death. He told me that he was a scholarship kid, and the only way he was able to afford Princeton was thanks to the ROTC and wrestling programs — both of which Princeton had eliminated.
His brilliance made it extremely frustrating to be his speechwriter. We would work tirelessly for weeks on a major address. Then during the Q&A, he would say something like “there are known-knowns, known-unknowns, and unknown-unknowns” and the prepared remarks would be forgotten in an instant.
Nearly two decades after leaving the Pentagon, I still find myself quoting him. When my kids do something dumb, I remind them of Rumsfeld’s First Rule of Holes: “When you’re in one, stop digging.” Most importantly, he taught me humility. “Remember, you are not all that important,” he would say, “your responsibilities are.” He was a remarkable man, whose lessons I will never forget.
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Follow Marc A. Thiessen on Twitter, @marcthiessen.