SUPPOSE YOU ARE a new White House chief of staff. One of the difficulties you face is an extraordinarily powerful, well-entrenched Cabinet secretary who enjoys the strong support of the president. What do you do? Not to be vague about it: How should Joshua B. Bolten, who is driving to reshape the Bush administration, deal with Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, who is fast becoming a political liability and may resist any serious change of direction?
There's already a model for this. It was set by none other than the young Rumsfeld himself, when he became White House chief of staff in the Ford administration and was confronted with the overwhelming authority of Henry A. Kissinger, then secretary of State and national security advisor
When Ford became president after Richard Nixon's resignation in 1974, he summoned Rumsfeld, his old friend from the days when the two were congressmen. Rumsfeld, who had been serving as Nixon's ambassador to NATO, quickly recruited Dick Cheney -- his top aide in two earlier jobs -- to serve as deputy chief of staff. At the time, the two had no mandate to challenge Kissinger. On the contrary, as Cheney later recalled, Ford's instructions to his new White House aides were to take control of domestic policy and to "stay out of the national security area." That was to be left entirely in Kissinger's hands.
Nevertheless, over the next 15 months, Rumsfeld whittled down Kissinger's role in national security and took on more and more power. How did he do it? And how might the young Rumsfeld have taken on the formidable Rumsfeld of today? Here are lessons for Bolten from Rumsfeld's early career:
1) Bide your time. In the early months, Rumsfeld left Kissinger alone and went after lesser rivals. You need time to redefine the issues.
2) Don't target him directly. Instead, go after his bureaucratic empire.
The early Rumsfeld cut down Kissinger by arguing, rightly, that the same individual should not serve as both secretary of State and national security advisor. Someone challenging Rumsfeld today could fault his Pentagon for battling to maintain its control over agencies such as the National Reconnaissance Office and the National Security Agency. Focusing on the secretary of Defense's turf battles with other agencies is one way of pointing out that Rumsfeld's disputes extend beyond his struggles with the career military.
3) Invoke the issue of openness. In the final, chaotic hours of the Vietnam War, Kissinger erred by allowing the media to be told that all Americans were out of Vietnam, at a time when some U.S. Marines were still struggling to get out of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. Rumsfeld ordered the press secretary to make it public. "This war has been marked by so many lies and evasions that it is not right to have the war end with one last lie," Rumsfeld said.
Noble sentiments. Bolten could similarly make clear that he favors greater access for the media to information about the war -- disclosures that might not reflect well on Rumsfeld.
4. Let the Republican rank and file go after the Cabinet secretary's top political patron. Kissinger was dominant inside Washington but not within the Republican Party. Politics was the job of Kissinger's longtime friend and patron Nelson Rockefeller, who at the time was vice president of the United States. Sound familiar?
By the fall of 1975, Republican leaders grew increasingly disenchanted with Rockefeller, and President Ford decided to distance himself from his own second in command. Once Rockefeller was neutralized within the Republican Party, Kissinger's authority eroded too. Rumsfeld, who had clashed with Rockefeller inside the White House, did little to shield him. Bolten should keep in mind that Rumsfeld's standing today is linked to Cheney's, and if Cheney's position weakens, Rumsfeld's will too.
5. Let Capitol Hill do the heavy lifting. Ford nominated Rumsfeld as secretary of Defense in the fall of 1975, at the same time elevating Cheney to White House chief of staff. At Rumsfeld's confirmation hearing, he was grilled by Sen. Henry (Scoop) Jackson, who demanded to know why Kissinger, as secretary of State, possessed so much more authority, and so much greater access to the president, than did the secretary of Defense. Rumsfeld gave bland answers in his testimony -- and then went back and secretly sent a transcript of the hearings to the president, showing him Jackson's queries.