Donald Rumsfeld and the Washington meat grinder D
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.