Don­ald Rums­feld and the Wash­ing­ton meat grinder D

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - Thomas Sow­ell

efense Sec­re­tary Don­ald Rums­feld faded away more quickly and qui­etly than al­most any­one who has been so prom­i­nent and so con­tro­ver­sial for so many years.

What his­tory will say of him, we can­not know be­cause most of us can­not to­day know all the things that were known within a small in­ner cir­cle of those who had all the avail­able facts — and all the weight of re­spon­si­bil­ity for de­ci­sions that had to be made un­der in­escapable un­cer­tain­ties and dan­gers.

It is hard to think of any de­fense sec­re­tary who has ever been pop­u­lar, and Don­ald Rums­feld cer­tainly did not be­come a his­toric first in that de­part­ment. He did not suf­fer fools gladly, even though they are a ma­jor con­stituency in Wash­ing­ton.

What­ever his­tory’s ver­dict on the Iraq war and on Mr. Rums­feld, both de­served to be dis­cussed and de­bated far more se­ri­ously and re­spon­si­bly than the all-too-com­mon me­dia sound bites, po­lit­i­cal spin and ven­omous cheap shots. Whether Don­ald Rums­feld’s poli­cies were mis­taken or not, that is no rea­son to ac­cept su­per­fi­cial and even gut­ter-level dis­course on mo­men­tous na­tional is­sues. Once even politi­cians un­der­stood that.

When Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter Neville Cham­ber­lain died early in the Sec­ond World War that his own blun­ders brought on and nearly lost, Win­ston Churchill de­liv­ered the eu­logy — though Churchill had more rea­son than any­one else to be bit­ter at Cham­ber­lain, who had for years turned a deaf ear to all Churchill’s warn­ings.

“Neville Cham­ber­lain acted with per­fect sin­cer­ity,” Churchill said. How many peo­ple would say that to­day about a po­lit­i­cal op­po­nent on an is­sue as ex­plo­sive as war and peace?

Churchill said “we are so of­ten mocked by the fail­ure of our hopes and the up­set­ting of our cal­cu­la­tions” but “how­ever the fates may play, we march al­ways in the ranks of honor” when we have done our best. Cham­ber­lain’s best fell dis­as­trously short, but no one could ac­cuse him of do­ing what he did for self­ish or cor­rupt rea­sons — which has be­come stan­dard op­er­at­ing pro­ce­dure for many to­day. That was a dif­fer­ent era but we need to be- come aware of what is pos­si­ble and how much we have de­clined from those days.

In the United States, Wen­dell Wil­lkie re­ceived the largest vote of any Repub­li­can can­di­date for pres­i­dent when he ran against Franklin D. Roo­sevelt in 1940. But, af­ter the elec­tions, he did not spend his time trash­ing Roo­sevelt. He in fact be­came an emis­sary from Roo­sevelt to Prime Min­is­ter Win­ston Churchill.

The is­sue is not whether peo- ple should be nice to Don­ald Rums­feld or even whether his­tory will vin­di­cate or con­demn him. The real is­sue is whether we can have re­spon­si­ble adult dis­cus­sions of is­sues while the na­tion’s fate hangs in the bal­ance in its most dan­ger­ous hour, with reck­less and hate-filled lead­ers in Iran and North Korea about to be­come nu­clear threats.

This coun­try needs to be able to draw on its best peo­ple from ev­ery walk of life and from ev­ery part of the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum. But the na­tion will not get them if go­ing to Wash­ing­ton means see­ing the hon­or­able rep­u­ta­tion of a life­time dragged through the mud just be­cause some­one dis­agrees on a po­lit­i­cal is­sue.

Our con­fir­ma­tion hear­ings for fed­eral judges have be­come a cir­cus and a dis­grace. Nom­i­nees who have fought for civil rights, even when that was risky in the South, have been pic­tured as “racists” just as a po­lit­i­cal ploy to pre­vent their con­fir­ma­tions.

Wash­ing­ton has be­come a po­lit­i­cal meat grinder where char­ac­ter as­sas­si­na­tion is stan­dard pro­ce­dure. Clever and glib peo­ple say “If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen.” But the far larger ques­tion is whether the coun­try can af­ford to re­pel peo­ple who are des­per­ately needed but who may have too much self-re­spect to let po­lit­i­cal pyg­mies smear their char­ac­ter.

We need to at­tract al­lies abroad as well as Amer­i­cans at home. Yet too many in the me­dia are as ready to trash our al­lies as to trash Amer­i­cans whose pol­i­tics they don’t like. It is a great game to some, but a dan­ger­ous one when the coun­try faces un­prece­dented threats.

Thomas Sow­ell is a na­tion­ally syn­di­cated colum­nist.

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