By His Own Rules: The Ambitions, Successes, and Ultimate Failures of Donald Rumsfeld

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Donald Rumsfeld is my grandmother.

He is also my father.  Like many of us, he is a writer; like our heroes, he wants to change the world; like our villains, he was almost great, but he almost wrought destruction. He’s the scholarship kid at Princeton, a Tobias Wolff or Harry Potter. Like all compelling characters, he mostly ends up changing himself.

This is why people cannot stop writing about Donald Rumsfeld.  Cheney is opaque and static; Bush a simple prince; Condi wonky; Wolfowitz JV.  Rumsfeld though—spendthrift, moral, middle class-ish, workaholic, perfectionist, judging, prolific, linguistic, on the record, enemy to the status quo, reaching highest, failing, falling, an insider with an outsider’s soul burning with something to prove.  We all know Rumsfeld.  We love and hate him more because that’s how we love and hate grandmothers, fathers, writers, changers, heroes, villains, Harry Potter, and ourselves.


The 5th Biography of Rumsfeld.

Bradley Graham’s By His Own Rules is the fifth[i] biography of Donald Rumsfeld published since a sweet portrait first appeared in 2003,[ii] followed by many, many angry non-biographies featuring him prominently.[iii] Graham shares a rare pre-2009 quote from Cheney—”Don  generates more paper than I do”—and it’s obviously true: the man is hugely documentable.  (Cheney, on the other hand, has produced only one recorded conversation with Rumsfeld available to the public, according to the author of bio #4[iv]).

Is this the definitive Rumsfeld biography?

Probably.  Bradley Graham simply has out-documented his once and future rivals: over 300 interviews by his account, primary documents galore, including many classified or privately-held ones.  They don’t make a whole lot of books like Graham’s anymore, with such uncommercial journalistic restraint: few tricks, few judgments, few short cuts, few concessions by way of gloss, pacing, cinematic scenes, sensate evocation, rich language, adjectives.  Brad reports, you decide.  But there are some key things missing—I’ll get to that—despite  the fact that By His Own Rules is 686 pages long with 60 pages of footnotes and a 20 page bibliography.  Once you’re looking at a book that long, it’s hard not to ask: why not 1500 pages and make sure you get it all?

But isn’t that asking too much?

Maybe.  It’s so freaking hard to write books.  But the fact is, this one ends up feeling too metrical, categorical, and lifeless, which is too bad, because life in the time of Rumsfeld was not lifeless at all.  No other book about the man contains more corroborated who, what, and where than this one.  And because of all that data, the why is there for us to figure out mostly on our own, with very little preaching—a feat that seems truly remarkable in our age of punditry.  So if you want to understand the man, and men like this, the great almost-rans who made a dent on history and how history makes them, in most of its minutiae, this is the book.

But if you also want to know what it felt like to have dinner with such men, served jail time with them, slept with them, feared them, loved them, felt the air move as they box-chopped it with their hands, if you want to feel his presence in the room as you read, the way he evoked such passion, the elites he dazzled, the men who hated his guts, the way he used to seem more human than everyone else on TV, if you want to experience rather than understand these kinds of men, you won’t.

Very few writers can do real journalism and this other thing at the same time, because either journalism and research takes over, or writer’s voice takes over, and either way you lose that chance for the glorious combo[v] of scene and scholarship.  Lincoln, Kennedy and King get books like that; Rumsfeld is more like a modern day Aaron Burr without the dual or conspiracy, and this calm and thorough book is as good as he is going to get.

rumsfeld1Should I read it?

If you’re really asking, then the answer is probably no.


You want to know whether or not to read a book.

1. Yes! — You’re totally obsessed with Rumsfeld, the Bush years, Iraq, torture, politics and/or the impact of character on history.

2. Yes, but — You’re interested but in a more normal, general, healthy way and should skip the sucky intro, read the epilogue first, figure out which ingredients interest you, and get ready to skim heavily through the Homeric barrage of names that don’t mean diddly to you but thrill insiders because they just had lunch with that guy’s sister the other day!

3. No, but — You’re not that interested but sort of interested: finish this review.

4. No — You’re not at all interested and in fact you were looking for something else.[vi]

You want to know what a book says but you don’t really want to read it.

Who has time?  Borges used to write book reviews of books that didn’t exist because that seemed more efficient.  Rumsfeld would have liked that spirit of executive summary:

By His Own Rules, in which a middle class wrestler kid from the Midwest goes to Princeton on scholarship, fails to become a Navy fighter pilot, serves in Congress, learns hardball politics under Nixon, tries it out under Ford, earns big bucks and a cutthoat reputation as a CEO, launches a failed presidential bid, vanishes, returns as a triumphant cranky old man to transform the military but ends up launching and botching two wars although not without help from the Armed Services and his friends.

You want to know what a book means.

If you hate Rumsfeld, you should hate him even more because:

1. After his unsuccessful run for president in 1988 he lost some of his principles, judgment, patience and plain mojo that could have saved lives in Iraq, prevented torture, and reformed the military.

2. On key specific issues—such as the disastrous transition of Iraq command from General McKiernan to General Sanchez—he doesn’t accept responsibility, claiming he didn’t really know what was going on.

3. Unlike McNamara, Rumsfled regrets none of his actions publicly and never will.

If you love Rumsfeld, you should love him even more because he had guts but feels sad that he lost his touch and:

1.Picked bad partners (Sanchez, Haynes, Cambone).

2. Abandoned his own practice of questioning assumptions (WMD intel, post-war scenarios, counter-insurgency strategies).

3. Became too obsessed with military reform to manage the war.

If you’re not sure, consider this: Graham’s story is one of how character shapes history in Washington D.C., where utopic dreams, power lust, and loyalties collide in the hearts of everyone who matters.  Their strengths become our triumphs.  Their flaws become our tragedies.  Their mediocrity, ours.  U.S. government, for better and for worse, is designed to protect us from our own character, good and evil alike.  But when things get out of whack—and they were out of whack from September 11, 2001 until the mid-term elections in 2006—then this protection of government fails and character takes over, and the story of Rumsfeld’s character becomes our story too.

You want to know what a famous person thinks about a book.

Updike tackles Sallinger!  Kakutani roughs up Roth!  Clinton reviews Clinton!  Well, Updike’s dead and Clinton’s busy, so you’ll have to settle with Kakutani[vii] and Kaplan[viii], neither of which I’m going to read until I finish writing this review.


Act like a real journalist

Bradley Graham is a real journalist.  He knows Donald grew up in a house that had an apple tree in the backyard; he’s read unpublished recollections from Joan Ramsay about childhood mischief; he interviewed Myles Cuningham and Bob Nellis on Rumsfeld’s wrestling moves—and that’s before we get to Washington.  After that, all hell breaks loose on the interview front: Adelman, Holcolm, Cambone, Gebhard, Shelton, Giambastiani, Gingrich, Card, not to mention a heavy dose of Rumsfeld himself.  Graham has talked to everyone.  He’s read everything.  Everything on every page is cited. Professional journalism may be dead and dying but Bradley Graham is a real journalist.

Admit you’re the writer

That said, the fact is real journalism exists in an age where everyone thinks about point of view; everyone knows narrators are flawed and unreliable; everyone knows the process is part of the product; everyone knows that time must pass before what matters and what doesn’t comes clear.  And so it is that Bradley Graham waits too long to admit he is writing this book, that he has access to a lot of information but that there are of course pieces missing, that some people would talk to him and others wouldn’t; that Rumsfeld himself was helpful in this way but resistant in that one; that it was probably too soon to publish this thing and that’s why he has to include everything, because who knows who might be right or telling the truth?

I’m not looking for the David Foster Wallace biography of Rumsfeld, but the 21st century biography needs to have some ongoing recognition of the imperfect process, or else risk the reader thinking: why didn’t you talk to Jay Garner or Donald’s kids?  Did you ask Rumsfeld about the war being right or wrong?  Why don’t we know that he looks off to the left when he’s thinking, or that he often inflects non-question sentences like questions, or that he wears old cords in the office on Saturday?  The fact that Graham proves himself one of the last non-fiction writers in the world who refuses to make stuff up does not release him from the fact that credibility, objectivity and omniscience are dead, and to pretend otherwise is suspicious, especially you’re writing a book about how character determines everything.

Don’t let sources run the show

As we get deeper into the machinations of Washington and the war, Graham relies more and more on secondary sources—Woodward’s Bush books[ix], Doug Feith’s memoir[x]—and becomes increasingly obsessive about multiple perspectives, leading to cacophony and info overload.  Rumsfeld begins to disappear as a man of flesh and blood.  Scenes and senses begin to fade and fog.  He becomes an invisible verb: decided, met with, planned, approved.  There’s simply too much information—names, reports, committees, background—to keep him alive and get in all Graham’s data.  By the time Graham brings him back to life towards the end of the book—a visit to the grandkids, a rare and insightful squash game anecdote—it’s too late. Without making the book longer or trusting more information to endnotes, Rumsfeld the man must die.

Teach the reader how to read

Graham tries to provide us with a  narrative hook in his crappy prologue: the resignation of Rumsfeld.  Start at the end.  Work backwards.  See that ending and  beginning anew. Except it doesn’t work: there’s no moment of surprise in those first pages that makes you want to read a 700 page book about a guy you suspect you already know or actually don’t care much about in the first place.

Every book must teach the reader how to read it.  And since this is the definitive biography, this intro needs not just a better hook, not simply a more vivid scene, not simply a sense of paradox and surprise to propel us through the surprising and paradoxical life of Donald Rumsfeld.  No, this intro needs to say, in so many words: I have set out to write the definitive history of this man and his role as Secretary of Defense from 2001-2006.  There’s a lot of crap in here but it’s worth it, because you will understand exactly what happened, why it happened, and how it can happen again, because as rare as the guy was, we are all of us, every one of us, closer to being Donald Rumsfeld than we think.












Rumsfeld painting by Roberto Parada

Eric B. Martin is a novelist who lives in Durham, North Carolina. His novels include Luck, Winners, and Donald, co-written with Stephen Elliott. More from this author →