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The Donald Rumsfeld Show, Coming to You Live

The media-savvy defense secretary is blunt yet wily as he spars with the press.


WASHINGTON — Twice weekly, sometimes more, he stands at the Pentagon podium, eyes squinted and nose crinkled against the Klieg lights, facing a firing squad of some 80 reporters. Except in this verbal standoff, he's usually the one holding the guns.

Donald H. Rumsfeld, who pre-Sept. 11 was on the road to obscurity as the nation's 21st secretary of defense, is the voice of the war in Afghanistan, his press briefings a midday staple for people around the country who call his office asking what time the Rummy Show comes on. It's reality TV, Washington-style--unscripted but not exactly candid.

Asked recently if he could define the parameters of the search for Taliban leaders, Rumsfeld replied: "I could, but I'm not inclined to."

Prodded for one too many details about gear falling off a helicopter, the secretary snickered: "I get the feeling we've got an instinct for the capillaries."

Asked how he knew if Taliban forces were dead or simply running out of Afghanistan to neighboring countries, he shrugged: "Life isn't perfect."

Wars have a way of making heroes of ordinary men, but this one has made a media star of a 69-year-old master bureaucrat with rimless spectacles, brown hiking shoes and an acid wit that he appears to find quite amusing. But then, so do most of a growing number of cable TV junkies who tune in to watch him.

He is the controller of the message, casting the war's every turn in the best light while verbally abusing the fourth estate. He is the latest lampoon on "Saturday Night Live." His stripped-down, war-ain't-pretty accounts of what we are doing over there might be the most unvarnished in Washington, where hardly anybody ever says what they actually mean. Particularly at the euphemistic-minded Pentagon, where dead civilians are "collateral damage" and volatile Iraq is "a state of concern."

Except when Rumsfeld is at the mike. He refers to the accused terrorist mastermind as "Osama bin Laden, comma, mass-murderer." Iraq is "a bad regime." And he has consistently refused to indulge the notion that American troops are there to do anything less than kill the enemy.

When U.S. war planes started dropping cluster bombs to the dismay of humanitarian groups, Rumsfeld and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Richard B. Myers were asked to give the rationale for employing such a vicious weapon.

Myers launched a paragraph-long explanation of how the nation is prosecuting a war on terrorism and trying to be careful about hitting civilians. Rumsfeld said this: "They are being used on front-line Al Qaeda and Taliban troops to try to kill them ... to be perfectly blunt."

Asked to confirm reports that some Taliban troops in Kunduz were killed to prevent them from surrendering, Rumsfeld complied, vividly: "I have seen reports that people have been found with bullets in their heads, and not in the fronts."

Throughout his government career, Rumsfeld's self-assurance has been known to border on arrogance, but that was in peacetime. In war, he is the embodiment of American confidence, beginning countless sentences "There's no question but ..."

It took a triumvirate to explain the Persian Gulf War: Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, then-Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair Colin Powell and then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney. Now it is largely Rumsfeld, one of the most visible defense secretaries in history, stepping in for generals far less skilled in front of the cameras.

A chief executive with a government pedigree--he once ran the pharmaceutical giant G.D. Searle & Co. and served as defense secretary under President Ford--Rumsfeld is the picture of success and sensibility. He wears his worn-out hiking shoes to work "when I mentally feel I would prefer to be in Taos, New Mexico," his retreat. His suits, usually gray, are expensive but old. "He is very thrifty," one underling confided. With words, it seems, as much as with money.

Reporters have been skewered for long-winded queries and stupid questions (among the most memorable: What are you going to bomb next?) so many times that they now choose their words precisely. Some go so far as to write the questions down.

"He reminds me of a stern headmaster at a boys' school," said Tom Bowman, Pentagon reporter for the Baltimore Sun. "You have to really be on your toes with him. You have to watch the questions you ask. They have to be pointed, good, serious questions because, man, he'll jump on you like an alligator."

Born in a Chicago suburb and educated at Princeton, Rumsfeld toggles between folksy and searing, peppering his speech with Midwestern "oh, goshes" and "by gollies," then striking as unpredictably as a Washington thunderstorm.

On the controversial proposal to set up a military commission to try suspected terrorists, Reuters reporter Charles Aldinger--the dean of the Pentagon press corps--asked why it would be a military court rather than a civilian one, adding to his lasting detriment, "Is this the idea of summary courts-martial and executions?"

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