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The long, hot summer of his discontent

August 25, 2006|Hart Seely | HART SEELY is the author of "Pieces of Intelligence: The Existential Poetry of Donald H. Rumsfeld."

AUGUST KILLS POETRY. For starters, it's too hot. You can feel the days shrinking. You can sense changes coming. August devours poets.

Maybe that's what's eating Donald Rumsfeld.

I refer to the secretary of Defense, from whose throat spontaneous verses once poured. For years, Rumsfeld shared his idiosyncratic haiku with the nation during televised news conferences, while his hands made hypnotic kung fu gestures for the cameras.

Back then, in the salad days of the war on terror, Rumsfeld would romance every question, then uncork a response that might bob across an ocean and back. He discussed "chasing the chicken around the chicken yard." He described Iraq as "an enormous country ... bigger than Texas, or as big, I guess." He noted the "unknown unknowns," those intangibles that "we don't know we don't know," the bumps that bedevil all those who launch silly things, like wars.

But lately, Rumsfeld has entered a J. D. Salinger mode. He's cut back on news conferences and, when fielding questions, generally avoids the chicken yard.

His last significant poem gushed forth in a July 31 briefing. Asked about the war in Lebanon, Rumsfeld offered what I have on his behalf titled, "Observations on Wasted Sunlight":

It is what it is.

What's happened has happened.

And the folks over there are sorting

it out.

And Condi and the president

Have both commented on it.

That's good enough for our coun-

try.

Good to see you all.

Why are you all not out there

In the sun, getting a suntan?

If Rumsfeld that day was musing about some far-off beach, who could blame him? In recent weeks, he's been laid bare in public more often than Pamela Anderson. A new bestseller, "Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq," by Washington Post reporter Thomas E. Ricks, blames him for "perhaps the worst war plan in American history." For Rumsfeld's critics, the book has had the foaming effect of Mentos placed in a bottle of Diet Coke.

But the cruelest cut came Aug. 3, during a rare Rumsfeldian visit to Congress. Before the Senate Armed Services Committee, he endured a sound-bite tongue-lashing from Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), who asked, "Given your track record, Secretary Rumsfeld, why should we believe your assurances now?" Rumsfeld winced, perhaps from Clinton's lack of pentameter, but then could offer nothing poetic beyond, "My goodness."

So we wonder: What's happened to the Beltway Bard? Unpopularity? Thin skin? A tightened White House leash?

Or could it be age? On July 9, Rumsfeld turned 74, making him the oldest Defense secretary in history. If he lasts until 2007, he will replace Robert McNamara -- author of that earlier fiasco, Vietnam -- as America's longest-enduring Pentagon chief. He'll become the Cal Ripken Jr. of unpopular wars.

As Rumsfeld would say, that's one long, hard slog. Then again, William Wordsworth wrote poetry until age 77. Robert Frost conjured a verse for incoming President Kennedy at 87. Ezra Pound was still ranting at 89. Surely Rumsfeld has a few couplets still inside, burning to get out.

But as the elections approach, don't expect Rumsfeld to be calling bingo at GOP fundraisers. His name already adorns a newfound species of slime-mold beetle, Agathidium rumsfeldi. He faces lawsuits. He faces attacks. If Iraq doesn't improve, he likely faces ever-harsher judgments. He may feel it's a good time to lie low.

Thus, I feel compelled to try to answer Sen. Clinton's question: Why should we believe Rumsfeld now?

Actually, it's simple. In poetry, truth can take many forms. But it's always in there somewhere, stuffed amid all the things we thought we knew that we knew -- and now realize that we didn't. And it's not necessarily the truth we hoped to hear.

Believe whatever you want. At the end of the day, poetry is only words.

The book on Rumsfeld? He is what he is. What's happened has happened. It will take a long time to sort everything out. But, hey, feel that sun! Who's got the cocoa butter? It's August, the eater of poets. The days are growing shorter.

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