This article originally appeared in Esquire and is reprinted on Longform by permission of the author.
THERE'S ONE STORY that says the whole thing. It was 1995, in the summer. Dick Cheney and a couple guys were on horseback in Yellowstone, clomping down a trail toward the river, heading for a fishing hole. It was muggy, hot. Bugs thick in the air, horses bogged down with gear, and, to be perfectly honest, they were lost. So as they fumbled through the brush, picking their way along, there wasn't a lot of hooting and hollering going on. All you could hear was the thump of hooves and the swish of branches pushed aside.
Silence didn't bother Cheney. In the woods, he took on the quiet, singular disposition of a man who didn't care about shit but fish. Primed up with a graphite rod and his favorite flies, he'd wrassle the river all day for a trout. But come sundown, while the rest of the guys would crack beers and gloat, telling grandiose lies, he'd sit alone with a can of Planters peanuts, reading a book on military history or the Soviet political economy. That was Cheney. Fish and politics. The second one you talked about, the first you just did.
So that afternoon, swishing through the hills, Cheney kept to himself, and his friends did the same. The woods were a bath of light and silence. But as they came around a bend in the trail, one guy named Mealey got his fishing pole caught on a rock. It bent back, slapped his horse on the ass, and all hell went free. Horse lit up like a brushfire, thrashing and bucking, and pretty soon Mealey hit the ground, where a set of hooves caught him hard in the chest. Mealey lay still. His rib was broken. His breath came thin and sharp. The guys rode over for a look, but nobody spoke at first. Cheney sat high in the saddle, with that half-crooked smile of his.
"Well, Mealey," he said after a while. "We going fishing or what?"
FISHING, HUNTING, HIKING. Ever since the morning of September 11, when Cheney was snatched from his office by Secret Service agents and whisked to a "secure location," he's been popping up in wilderness areas all across the country. In September, he was at Camp David, nestled into the Catoctin Mountains. In October, he was spotted duck hunting in upstate New York. By early November, he was gallivanting through the Dakotas, shooting pheasant in the grasslands. And in December, he was back home in Wyoming, watching the snow cover descend on the Tetons.
Being vice-president isn't bad. Technically, the VP doesn't even have a boss. He's not a member of the president's staff, and the president has no formal authority over him. He gets his paycheck from the Senate, but he isn't really a member of the Senate, either. His only legislative role is to break ties; the rest of the time, he's forbidden to speak on the Senate floor unless invited. All of which makes the vice-president, in the words of Dick Cheney, a "floater," whose only real responsibility, in the words of Lynne Cheney, is "waiting for the president to die or be impeached." Not a bad way to spend four years. Or eight, if you're lucky.
The downside to all this freedom is that most vice-presidents don't have any power. Just ask Dan Quayle. "I remember a lot of party building and fundraising," he says. "President Bush would say, 'Oh, well, we'll let the vice-president do that.'"
What makes Cheney different from other vice-presidents is that nobody would ever ask him to host a party, but everybody, even the president, asks his opinion. Cheney's big on policy, not politicking. He's from Wyoming. Oil country. Doesn't matter what's on the surface so long as there's fuel below. For a guy like him, the vice-presidency is the ultimate underground power. It's about guiding the president's hand, and for that he doesn't have to spend much time on the cocktail-party circuit. He can zip around the country in Air Force Two, stopping here and there to cast a line in the water, and whenever he wants to receive a briefing or convene the National Security Council, all he has to do is put down his rod, pick up his radio, and ask the Secret Service agents stationed around the perimeter to bring him a secure phone. Then, standing in his rubber waders at the side of the creek, he can bark at whomever he likes: Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, even his old friend Don Rumsfeld.
Cheney's been working with Rumsfeld for more than three decades, since they were both a couple youngsters in the Nixon administration. But in those days, it was Rummy who did the barking and Cheney who did the listening. In those days, it was Rumsfeld on the fast track, and Cheney was his faceless assistant. Twenty-five years ago, it was Rumsfeld who was poised to become the next vice-president, and Cheney who seemed destined for middle management. Until one weekend, when everything changed.
TONIGHT, RUMSFELD'S BACK from a whirlwind tour through five countries in three days. It's been that way lately. In the last two months, he's logged more than thirty thousand miles in the air, making compromises in Uzbekistan, getting promises from Tajikistan, smoothing tensions between India and Pakistan, all the while zipping around in military planes, reading briefs and faxing updates to the White House and, in between, fending off inquiries from reporters. This is what it's like to be the secretary of defense. It ain't the vice-presidency. The bags under his eyes look like prunes.
Seated now in the backseat of his official car, he's been home for less than twenty-four hours, and he's already heading out again, this time to the Four Seasons in Georgetown. People are waiting for him there, in the basement. Waiting in tuxedos and military uniforms, like the uniform of the Marine Corps commandant and the uniforms of three-star and four-star generals. Senators and congressmen flit about, and former secretary of defense Jim Schlesinger looms tall above the crowd with his wild burst of white hair. A group of marines look like exotic birds, with their red-vested chests and golden stripes down their legs, and there's a gaggle of men in tuxedos with medals hanging off their lapels, yards of medals, acres of medals, enough metal to stop a full burst of high-velocity machine-gun fire. At the center of the room, Frank Gaffney, tonight's host and the president of the Center for Security Policy, chats with Caspar Weinberger while defense contractors mingle furiously with their patrons. Boeing, Northrop Grumman, and Lockheed Martin are all here, schmoozing.
When at last Rumsfeld steps out of the car with his wife, Joyce, on his arm, they glide through the hotel foyer, then down the stairs into the basement. Faint applause rises from the crowd and there's a bit of drift in their direction, which might normally alarm the Secret Service, but not here, not tonight. The SecDef is safe among friends.
He's a thin and short and delicate man who has only become more thin and short and delicate in the months since 9/11. He looks up to meet the eyes of most men, stooping slightly as he moves through the room, holding on to the backs of chairs for stability, leaning on them when he pauses to talk. He walks as if his feet hurt. He'll be seventy soon, and in his black tuxedo with his black vest and one gold button, he has the dapper quality of an aging movie star. His broad, handsome face compensates for his frail, bony frame.
And he's smiling. It's been twenty-five years since his first term as SecDef, and this time it's so much better than the last. This time, they like him. This time, there's no need to worry about his politics or his future. This is it, the last act. He's tired but his smile is as bright as the afternoon, cheeks pinched up near his eyes, a million teeth spread across his face, slapping backs, shaking hands, calling everybody by name. "Hi, Todd, Hey, Frank, Great to see you, Jim, How's it goin', John..."
It's hot and crowded and dark, and people are smoking freely, drinking gin and tonics and wine. As Rummy moves through the room, a waiter follows behind him, banging on a little gong. Everyone lines up, shuffling into a back chamber for dinner. Inside, chandeliers hang over set tables, and when everyone is seated, an army major sings "The Star Spangled Banner," and dinner is served. At the end, Rummy makes his way to a platform, where he's greeted with a standing ovation.
"Good evening," he says. But the cheering won't abate. With a flourish, he pulls back his sleeve and points to his silver watch, and the clapping gives way to laughter, then silence. He peers over the top of the podium: "It's a real pleasure to be with friends." Behind him, two American flags frame a sign that says PEACE THROUGH STRENGTH. He glances back at the sign, then turns again to the crowd, a sea of familiar faces, the nerve center of the military-industrial complex.
"Frank Gaffney," he says, "if there was any doubt about the power of your ideas, one has only to look at the number of Center associates who people this administration." He pauses. "I was thinking about calling a staff meeting, but I think I'll wait until tomorrow morning."
Laughter trickles through the room as he goes on to say how important it is to build a missile defense shield and also to bomb Afghanistan, first through Ramadan, then through winter, and how when we're through with Afghanistan, "we'd best get after the rest." Then Cap Weinberger takes the podium to say "what an enormous relief and delight it is to have an administration of which we can be proud," and Jim Schlesinger stands to congratulate the crowd for being "people who were concerned with military strategy even before carpet bombing became fashionable." And so it goes, at a fever pitch, the defense establishment in solidarity, welling up in applause and standing ovations, celebrating its return to the height of national power, while Don Rumsfeld looks on — fading now but still smiling.
He's been to these events before. He's been through everything before, it seems, all of it, so many times you'd lose count before you even got started. To think, a quarter century ago, he was the youngest SecDef in history, a rising star in the GOP with an eye on the Oval Office. Back then, he would never have expected to be here now, in the same job. A job he never wanted in the first place. A job that cost him everything else.
THERE WAS A TIME when he actually wanted to move the party left. He was just the kind of young man who could move a party, too, one of those smiling, tan, and muscled charmers who fill the people around him with confidence. He had been to Princeton on scholarship. Had been a championship wrestler. Had been a Navy aviator. Had worked at an investment bank for a few years. Had been good at everything he ever tried.
He was from Chicago, not a product of great wealth, but certainly of privilege and ease. He knew his way around a yacht. When he married, the local paper ran a prominent announcement. Donald H. and Joyce. They had two girls and bought a station wagon. He would pick them up with his big hands and hold them high above the ground, as if toasting his own good fortune. He played tennis and he swam. He was quick with a joke, but he understood nuances; in his private papers, he kept a cartoon cut from the newspaper, a picture of the Lincoln Memorial with Lincoln hanging his head in shame. It was time for action on civil rights. He believed that. He believed a lot of things.
From day one, he had charged into the House of Representatives breakneck for change. In 1963, he was thirty years old, one of America's youngest congressmen, brilliant and gorgeous but as slick as a hungry wolf. Ambition glowed in him, and it didn't take long to spread. One Thursday afternoon in 1964, he was at home in Illinois, enjoying a break from the Hill, when the future opened up. It started with a ringing phone. Everybody calling all at once, all the other young Republicans. They'd decided to stage a coup in the House, and they wanted his help. He headed back to Washington that night, got in at 2:00 A.M., and was holding meetings by 9:00 the next morning.
The party had gone too far too fast, they decided. Goldwater had taken the reins, made a hard right, and charged off a cliff. It was time to return to the center. They made a commitment that day: To seize control of the House GOP. To launch a contest against the minority leader, the conservative Charlie Halleck. To nominate their guy, a moderate, Gerald Ford.
It wasn't personal. It wasn't philosophical. It wasn't about Halleck or even about Ford. It was about youth and power and the bare-naked fact that they wanted to guide the Republican party to the mainstream and to dominance. It was about, as Rummy said in a 1964 interview that was never published, the fact that "Jerry was considered to be a reasonable vehicle."
They won by six votes and suddenly had control of the House GOP. Suddenly, they not only held power, they were power. They even had a nickname: Rumsfeld's Raiders. The name was enough to make Rummy nervous. The trouble with power, he knew, is not that it corrupts. The trouble with power is that power has enemies. He knew it then, said as much. He talked with friends about the need to build on plateaus of power, to take it slow between moves. "You've got to resort to gluing over the pieces once in a while," he said.
He said it, then he kept pushing forward, pieces be damned. It was hard to think about gluing pieces when big things were happening fast. Before he knew it, in 1969, he was being sworn in as director of the president's Office of Economic Opportunity, standing in front of the White House with his right hand raised. With Joyce to his left and Nixon to his right and his newest child, Nick, at his feet. His little boy all dressed in white, looking up at him while he swore to God. He turned to his wife and kissed her that day, and as he did, the president picked up his son, held him high to see his father.
He had an office in the West Wing after that. A lot of people watching him. A lot of people jealous. He was just thirty-six years old with a double-edged reputation: one for talent, the other for self-promotion. Young people flocked to work for him — future SecDef Frank Carlucci and future senator Bill Bradley, among others-but old party warriors scorned Rumsfeld's ambition.
One who flocked was a kid from Wyoming just nine years younger than he, a lowly congressional intern, who'd taken it upon himself to write a paper on how Rumsfeld should manage the OEO. Rummy got a copy from the kid's boss, Congressman Bill Steiger of Wisconsin. He read the thing. He was impressed. He offered Dick Cheney a job.
Not everybody held up under Rumsfeld, though. One kid from Jersey, a twenty-three-year-old named Christine Todd Whitman, got a hell of an introduction to government at Rumsfeld's OEO. "He's not as volatile as he used to be," she remembers now. "He had high highs and, I don't want to say low lows, but..." Her voice trails off. "If he were president, I'd live in his country, but I'm not sure I'd want to work there."
Cheney held up. Of all the kids who worked for Rummy then, it was Cheney who stuck through, always in the background, always out of the way, always learning. Within two years, Rummy had steamrolled deep into Nixon's confidence, nudging aside men like Henry Kissinger to gain the president's favor. Malcolm Forbes made a personal announcement in his magazine: Don Rumsfeld was someone to reckon with. He was thirty-nine years old, and Dick Cheney was at his side.
At forty-one, Rumsfeld made a brief detour to Brussels for a year to serve as U. S. ambassador to NATO. Cheney spent that year in the private sector, working for a consulting firm. And while the rest of the party spiraled through the riptide of Watergate, they both watched from safe waters. Watched as Jerry Ford leaped from Congress straight into the Oval Office. Then they came back. Back to Washington. Back to the White House. Back to the game. Rummy became Ford's chief of staff and picked Dick Cheney as his deputy.
There was almost no higher for Rumsfeld to go. He was the second most powerful man in the White House. Every morning, he was the first to see the president of the United States, and he was the last to see him at night. He was one of the most prominent and promising members of his party. He took vacations at Camp David. It was time, at last, to plateau. Past time, really. He knew he'd made his share of enemies, and it was time to glue the pieces. If only he could tame his ambition.
EVERYTHING RUMSFELD WAS, Cheney wasn't. If Rumsfeld was the kind of guy who pushed buttons and got places, Cheney was the kind of guy you could pass in the hall without noticing. "He wasn't the most impressive-looking person when you first shook hands," remembers Gerald Ford with a chuckle. "But the more you talked to him, the more you knew he had ability. He wore well, let's put it that way."
First impressions had never been part of Cheney's social vocabulary. He came from Casper, Wyoming, where everybody already knew everybody, so there was no use trying to impress. To Cheney, cocktail parties and fundraisers had all the charm of a spinning reel. In fact, until he got to Washington, his idea of a goodFriday night was staying home at his parents' small yellow house on the outskirts of Casper, playing poker with his buddies or nuzzling on the couch with his sweetheart, Lynne. Before she was his wife, she was his date to the prom. That's how things were in Casper. When Lynne ran for homecoming queen, Dick ran her campaign. They broke up only once, near the end of their senior year, when Dick went chasing after a younger cheerleader. Lynne knew how to handle that. She promptly started dating Dick's friend Joe, and Dick came crawling back. "He still gets a little tender about it," laughs Joe. "Even after forty years! Nothing happened, heavens."
When Cheney left Casper for Yale in 1959, he wasn't much prepared for guys like Don Rumsfeld. Trying to adjust threw him off balance. He flunked out, came back to Wyoming for a while, went back to Yale, and flunked out again. After that, he decided to give up on academics. He took a job with a Wyoming power company and started sinking into the lineman's lifestyle. He drank too much. Got busted twice for DWI. Barely avoided Vietnam by enrolling in community college.
Things were slipping with Lynne, too. She had a future in mind that didn't include getting married to an electric lineman. She wanted something bigger from the world. Faced with a choice between Lynne and his own bad habits, Cheney chose Lynne. In the fall of '63, he registered at the University of Wyoming.
And so, just about the time Don Rumsfeld was leading a coup in Congress, Cheney was in Wyoming, studying for a political-science degree. Five years later, just as Rummy was about to land his first office in the West Wing, Cheney moved to Washington for a congressional internship. He was twenty-seven years old, not exactly on the fast track. But when he wrote a memo detailing how Rumsfeld should run the OEO, he gained traction. The memo was unsolicited, an intellectual exercise, but he showed it to his boss, and it wasn't long before he had a meeting with Rummy, then a job in the Nixon White House. He'd been in Washington a year.
Putty-faced and slack, Cheney mumbled into his sleeve and carried himself with a Western slouch. Nobody would ever mistake him for Don Rumsfeld. But their differences became their combined strength. Cheney had just the quality that Rumsfeld lacked, the calm surface to Rummy's abrasive edge.
So when Ford chose Rumsfeld to be chief of staff in 1974, Cheney was one of the first people Rummy called. At the age of thirty-three, with six years of Washington experience under his belt, Cheney became deputy chief of staff. An ambiguous role, the position of deputy chief of staff is defined largely by the person in it. With Cheney, it became a mostly secretarial position. As Henry Kissinger, the secretary of state during that period, remembers it, "Cheney did not impinge upon my consciousness. He didn't play any role. He was not involved."
For the most part, Cheney spent his time taking notes in meetings and harassing the White House secretary with a variety of arcane minutiae. His memos from that period, typed formally on White House stationery, crystallize the picture:
The White House
February 14, 1975
Memorandum for Jerry Jones From: Dick Cheney
Jerry, why don't you go to work and see if you can work out a head rest on the back of Mrs. Ford's seat on the helicopter. This is the little seat that faces the big one the President sits in. We don't want to spend a lot of money, but go to Gulley or somebody over there and see if it's possible to get some kind of a head rest on there. It would be helpful to the neck.
The White House
February 19, 1975
Memorandum for Jerry Jones From: Dick Cheney
It seems that there are salt shakers in the Residence which are used for Congressional meals (little dishes of salt with funny little spoons). Is there some reason that regular salt shakers are not used for small breakfasts and small stag dinners?
In spite of his relative insignificance — or perhaps because of it — Cheney was making valuable connections. As time went on, he wore well, partly because he seemed so unambitious, so diplomatic and unaffected. At staff meetings, he would offer his chair to underlings. He kept his opinions to himself, his politics out of the way, and over time he became the improbable center of a group of promising young men. Men like Alan Greenspan, James Baker, and David Gergen, who saw in Cheney the same thing Don Rumsfeld had seen all along: an immovable, reliable rock. Even as Rummy was making enemies, Cheney was making friends.
IN THE WEEKS BEFORE SEPTEMBER 11, Dick and Don were both on vacation. Everybody was. The president had announced a furlough, and Cheney and Rumsfeld and a half dozen others had retreated to their private corners of the world. The Cabinet was empty.
Rummy needed the break most. The pressures in Washington had been mounting all summer. Congress was balking at his most significant budget proposals. A large segment of the defense establishment was deeply suspicious of his plan to transform the military. He had painful personnel cuts looming on the horizon. The press was going nuts over his unwavering support of missile defense, portraying him as a dinosaur, a relic of the cold war who had only been brought back because of his old friend, the vice-president. Compounding everything else, the Washington social circuit had begun spinning rumors that he was about to be fired, so many rumors that The Washington Post printed the names of possible successors. As Frank Gaffney remembers, even Rummy's friends were starting to worry about "the prognoses of his imminent demise, which were much in evidence."
New Mexico helped ease it all away. Four long weeks, the longest presidential vacation in more than three decades, and Rummy had used some of the time to ground himself at his ranch in Taos, New Mexico, his own personal Camp David. Under the massive, cloudless night sky, the horizon marked a boundary between what was temporary and what was eternal. You could draw constellations of your fears.
It was different for Cheney, of course. To him, summer break was summer break, and he spent his time trying to hook the biggest fish in Wyoming. He did some reading and cooking at his place in Jackson Hole, visited with old friends, and one Saturday he even made his way to Casper for a minor league ball game.
The wind was soft that day, and the sun was huge, and since Cheney is one of the few famous natives of Casper, the game was sold out. Season-ticket holders grumbled in the dusty parking lot, waiting in long security lines. "Hell," one woman snapped, holding a hat in one hand and a large beer cooler in the other, "I've never seen anything like this." But when Cheney's entourage of limousines and SUVs arrived at the tiny stadium, the crowd roared in applause. It was, after all, Dick Cheney Day in Casper, as it is whenever he's in town.
Cheney was wearing a white button-down shirt and slacks, and he had a comfortable swagger as he strode onto the field for the first pitch. As a teenager, he had pitched from the very same mound for the American Legion baseball team, and spotting a microphone near first base, he paused to say a few words. "It's especially fine to see professional baseball here in Casper," he mumbled. "There were times in my youth when nobody dreamed they'd ever have a Dick Cheney Day." Then he took the mound, bounced a pitch, and headed to the grandstand for a few innings. With Cheney, you get the Zen built in.
For Rummy, it took time, but by the end of the August break, he had achieved something like it, playing squash and chopping wood and spending time with his grandkids. At dinner one night, when a friend finally asked the inevitable question, "How do you feel about all that stuff in the press?" he and Joyce didn't flinch. "Good grief," Joyce said, laughing it off. "It's nothing! It isn't 10 percent of what garbage we got dumped on us the last time we were down there."
BACK THEN, THE HATRED was overwhelming. At the age of forty-two, Don Rumsfeld was loathed by some of the most powerful people in the country. He told himself it came with the job of chief of staff. That it wasn't really his fault.
Like one time they were putting together a dinner for the West German chancellor, Helmut Schmidt, and one of the Cabinet officers wasn't on the invite list. Well, it wasn't long before the Cabinet officer came screaming over to Rummy, wanting to know why the hell he wasn't invited. And like any good chief of staff, Rummy took it to the president. And the president said no. No invitation. But then the next week, in a meeting with the president, the Cabinet officer asked Ford personally: Could he come? And Ford, who just wanted everybody to like him, said, "Yes! Of course." Which was no skin off Rummy's back, except for one thing: Pretty soon, the Cabinet officer started thinking about it, thinking maybe it was Rummy who had kept him off the list in the first place, thinking maybe Rummy was out to get him, thinking Rummy was the enemy, thinking he'd get Rummy back.
The speechwriter was another example. Guy named Bob Hartmann. Thought Rummy was out to get him. In a way, Rummy was. Because every time Hartmann would turn in a speech, Rummy would pass out copies to the staff, let everybody take a look at it, let everybody make suggestions and changes. And you're damn right it took away from the rhythm of the language. Of course it did. He felt bad about it, too, but what could he do? If you're going to have the president make a speech, he's got to say something meaningful, and if it's going to be meaningful, it better not contradict the rest of his positions. Otherwise you're putting the president in danger. So you pass the speech around for review, and you piss off the speechwriter. Now Hartmann hates you like everybody else, and they're talking about you behind your back, but you suck it up because that's the way it works. That's the job. Nobody likes a good chief of staff.
Or anyway, that's how it seemed until Cheney took over the job one Mondaymorning in 1975, the Monday that Rummy's wings melted, the Monday that he found himself on the far side of the Potomac, looking out the Pentagon windows toward Washington, a world away.
IT WAS HALLOWEEN weekend, and Ford had been out of the Oval Office for a few days, sick with a sinus infection. That's where the trouble started. The president had been up in the residence, alone with his thoughts, mulling changes.
Changes were overdue. Ford felt he'd been too accommodating when he came into the presidency. He'd left much of Nixon's Cabinet intact to preserve continuity, but after fourteen months in office, he was eager to get rid of some people. First on the list was the secretary of defense, Jim Schlesinger. Ford found Schlesinger arrogant and disrespectful. Then there was William Colby, director of the CIA. The agency was under investigation for illegal domestic surveillance, and it needed a fresh face. Kissinger was an issue, too. Nixon had allowed him to serve simultaneously as secretary of state and national security adviser, an obvious conflict of interest. And Vice-President Nelson Rockefeller, miserable as number two, had offered to step down.
By Sunday, Ford had a solution for every problem, save one. He would strip away Kissinger's title as NSA; replace Colby with George Bush, who had been the U.S. envoy to China; replace Schlesinger with Rumsfeld; and make Cheney chief of staff. The only thing he couldn't decide was whom to nominate for vice-president, but that could wait; the election was a year away.
To Ford, it felt like a list of chores he had finally managed to get done. Unfortunately, the people his decision affected were less enthusiastic. Schlesinger and Colby were obviously upset, and to a lesser extent Kissinger. But most surprising was George Bush's reaction. The Bushes had been bicycling around Beijing when a messenger found them to deliver the news. As soon as they got home, Barbara began crying. George dispatched a telegram to Ford. "I do not have politics out of my system entirely, and I see this as the total end of any political future," he wrote. "I would not have selected this controversial position if the decision had been mine."
Around the White House, it didn't escape anybody's notice that Rumsfeld seemed to benefit most from the shake-up. Everybody knew that Ford had originally considered Rockefeller, Rumsfeld, and Bush for vice-president. Now, with Rocky vacating the position and Bush heading for the political sink-hole of the CIA, Rummy was poised for the job. Maybe too poised. It wasn't long before White House staffers were milling rumors of another Rumsfeld coup, and by the time John Osborne, the noted Washington correspondent, conducted interviews with the Ford administration shortly after the shake-up, Rumsfeld's political standing had been torpedoed. He had become an exile in his own party.
As Osborne wrote in his book, White House Watch, "Nelson Rockefeller was convinced that Rumsfeld deliberately frustrated his efforts to contribute to domestic policy formulation, engineered the pressures upon Rockefeller to withdraw from consideration for the 1976 vice-presidential nomination, and beguiled Gerald Ford into firing Secretary of Defense Jim Schlesinger and CIA Director William Colby, replacing Schlesinger with Rumsfeld at Defense and Colby with George Bush at CIA... in the interest of placing himself in line for the 1976 vice-presidential nomination. Kissinger, Schlesinger, and Secretary of the Treasury William Simon, who detested the White House staff under Rumsfeld and his successor, Richard Cheney, as thoroughly as Rockefeller did, shared the suspicions of Rumsfeld and found them believable .... This welter of suspicion and hatred — the word hatred is justified — was discussed on and off the record with all the principals named here."
TO CHENEY, the "Halloween Massacre" was nothing short of a windfall. Over the next fourteen months, as Rummy learned his way around the Pentagon, Cheney learned his way around power. It was a political coming of age. At thirty-four, he had never been elected to anything and had never been involved in a federal campaign, but he had been watching Donald Rumsfeld for five solid years, and he'd learned from Rummy's mistakes.
Mainly, he had learned the value of friends. Almost immediately, he went on a hiring spree, filling the chairs around him with loyal cohorts. Among the first recruits was his friend David Gergen. Gergen was a speechwriter, but Cheney knew enough not to give him that title. He'd seen what happened between Rummy and Bob Hartmann. Instead, he hired Gergen as a personal aide and asked him to write an alternate draft for each major presidential speech. Cheney would bring both speeches to the president, and as often as not, Ford chose his and Gergen's.
Next, when Ford's campaign manager, Bo Callaway, got caught up in a real-estate scandal, Cheney fired him and eventually brought in Jim Baker. At that point, Ford was 30 percentage points behind Carter, but by Election Day, the contest was too close to call. "Until the 2000 election," Baker says, "I thought it would be the closest campaign I would have anything to do with."
But Cheney's most useful friend in the Ford administration was Ford himself. By the time Ford left office in 1977, Cheney had not only worn well, he had become closer to the president than any Other staffer. It was Cheney who went up to the White House residence at 3:00 A.M. on election night and told Ford that he wasn't going to win. It was Cheney who stayed awake that night to manage the staff after Ford went to bed. It was Cheney who, the following morning, delivered Ford's concession speech to Jimmy Carter.
"I was tremendously impressed with him, and I think that carried over personally," Ford says. "I sort of took him under my wing."
NOWADAYS, WHEN DON RUMSFELD arrives at the Pentagon at 6:30 A.M., he brushes past the military aides who stand to salute him in the anteroom, heading straight into a large rectangular office with yellow-tinted windows. The tint, which is intended to block electronic surveillance, gives a cheery glow to the Washington skyline, and as the sun rises to the right of the Washington Monument, the city takes on an ethereal glow.
But Don Rumsfeld doesn't waste time on the view. He pulls off his suit jacket almost as soon as he arrives, puts on a red or black fleece vest, and gets straight to work, standing behind his high wooden desk, which looks more like a wide podium and doesn't have a chair because he doesn't enjoy sitting down, and as the day brightens the room, he scans overnight paperwork, checks his morning schedule, and makes telephone calls on the STU-III secure phones that link him to the president, the vice-president, and the secretary of state.
Around the room, he keeps few decorations, just some bronze statues-a soldier, a sailor, Teddy Roosevelt — and a couple paintings of Western scenes. For the most part, Rumsfeld's office doesn't expose his warm side, and he rarely reveals himself at work. Maybe on the odd afternoon when he forsakes his private dining room to eat with the regular joes in the Pentagon cafeteria, or some days at the press briefing when a reporter makes him laugh gently. But mostly, it's rare that he loses sight of himself in public, because it's rare that he loses sight of the office he holds, an office more capacious than any one man, an office more likely to change its occupant than the other way around.
To get an idea of the power of the office, you don't have to look much further than Dick Cheney. Before Cheney reached the Pentagon, he spent ten years in the House of Representatives, where he built a solid foundation in the GOP, a plateau of power. But as the most conservative member of the minority party, his vote rarely carried the day. He was one of only four members of the House to vote against the plastic-gun ban, one of thirteen to vote against a federal AIDS commission, and one of sixteen to vote against extending the Endangered Species Act. He lost the vote to recognize the Nicaraguan contras, lost the vote to deploy national missile defense, and lost the vote against toughening apartheid sanctions. In taking over the Pentagon in 1989, his political influence catapulted to a higher plane. As SecDef, not only did he become a senior adviser to the president, but in matters of war he was the senior adviser — the second most powerful man in America.
"People don't understand this," says former secretary of state Jim Baker, who met with SecDef Cheney every Wednesday morning to discuss foreign policy over a breakfast of cereal and fruit. "Most people think the line of succession governs, even in times of conflict. But that's not true. In times of conflict, the authority to order military action runs from president to the secretary of defense."
What made Rumsfeld different from Cheney was that in 1976, he had no war to fight, nothing but official embarrassment from Vietnam, and on a more personal level, he had very few friends in power — no plateau to build on. Far from the launchpad Cheney found, the office of SecDef became, for Rummy, a political backwater, an estrangement from the nucleus of power. There were no weekly breakfasts with SecState Kissinger, who distrusted him. No calls from the speechwriter asking his opinion. No room for his input on the presidential campaign. And by summer, when Ford finally announced that Senator Bob Dole would be his running mate, Rummy had all but vanished from view.
He was, however, getting a crash course in bureaucratic management. After all, the SecDef isn't just a political leader. In 1976, he was also chief executive officer of the world's single greatest bureaucracy, with a global workforce of three million people. To put it another way, Rumsfeld had ten times more employees than IBM.
Like most ranking members of the Ford administration, Rumsfeld left Washington in 1977 to make room for the Carterites. Right off the bat, he put his management training to work at the pharmaceutical company G. D. Searle, firing so many executives that Fortune named him one of its Ten Toughest Bosses, and using his political connections to erase a bit of company trouble. Searle was in a prolonged war with the FDA over a new product called NutraSweet, which the FDA had been unwilling to approve for safety reasons. According to press reports that year, Rumsfeld, as CEO, applied the political grease, reaching out to his contacts at the FDA, and within months, the NutraSweet application was well on its way to approval.
But when the Reagan administration took office in 1981 and many of Ford's top aides rushed back to Washington, Rummy's exile continued. Jim Baker became chief of staff, David Gergen was staff director, Cap Weinberger was SecDef, and Cheney was Reagan's man in Congress, the one who would defend him most vociferously during the Iran-contra scandal.
Yet Rummy stayed on the sidelines. It had been five years since the Halloween Massacre, but memories ran long and bitter. Perhaps the vice-president's memory most of all. The gossip mill had made him look battered and abused by Rummy, and in a place like Washington, embarrassment can be hard to forget. As Dick Cheney once told a colleague, according to Bob Woodward, George Bush "has got a long history of vindictive political actions."
If anything, over the course of the Reagan and Bush administrations, Rummy got the jobs that nobody else wanted, the unpaid part-time low-level advisory positions that did nothing to sate a man's ambition. When President Reagan asked him, in 1983, to serve as an envoy to the Middle East, the first question he got at the press conference was, "Mr. Rumsfeld, some people say this is a no-win job. Why did you take it?" Then six years later, when Bush moved into the Oval Office, he didn't even bother with token appointments. He gave Rummy nothing. By then, Jim Baker was secretary of state and Dick Cheney was secretary of defense.
The most prominent position Rumsfeld held between 1977 and 2001 was during the Clinton administration, when Democrats appointed a group of skeptics and naysayers to a bipartisan commission charged with evaluating missile defense. The group — which included Lee Butler, a notorious antinuclear crusader, Richard Garwin, a longtime critic of missile defense, and Barry Blechman, an arms-control official from the Carter administration — seemed likely to deadlock. Putting Rumsfeld at the head only seemed to guarantee it. He wasn't known as a peacemaker. So it was a testimony to his much-improved management ability when he negotiated a unanimous decision in favor of NMD. As Frank Gaffney describes it, "It was herding cats, and he herded them."
Still, by 1999, Rumsfeld's vanishing act was so complete that Henry Kissinger couldn't resist the temptation to gloat in his latest memoir, Years of Renewal. "Somewhere along the way, this talented political leader abandoned his quest for power," he wrote.
But what Kissinger didn't know-indeed, what Rockefeller and Schlesinger and Colby and even Bush didn't know, and what they probably still don't know — is that Don Rumsfeld didn't do it. He never asked Ford to ship Bush to the CIA. "It was an idea that I had," Ford insists now. "I can tell you that, personally. I was the instigator of getting George to come back and be the head of the CIA."
And deep in the bowels of the Gerald R. Ford Library in Ann Arbor, Michigan, tucked into a forgotten folder that's inside a forgotten box marked RUMSFELD, DONALD, there is a memo dated July 10, 1975. At the top, it says, "Administratively Confidential, Memorandum for the President." Written by Rumsfeld, it's a list of recommendations for the CIA position. There are ten men on Rummy's list. Ten men he recommended in his confidential memo to the president. Ten men he suggested to become the next CIA director. George Bush is not one of them.
THESE DAYS, Henry Kissinger works out of a New York City skyscraper on Park Avenue and Fifty-first Street. Long since retired from the business of government, he has moved on to the governance of business, advising such corporations as Coca-Cola and Revlon on how to conduct themselves effectively in the world. In the process, the former secretary of state has acquired a multimillion-dollar fortune that is, perhaps to his credit, virtually undetectable in his appearance.
Sitting in his easy chair one afternoon, surrounded by pictures of himself with various world leaders, he lifts his feet slowly onto a coffee table, leaning back in his chair, way back, until he is almost horizontal, with his stomach rising up from the middle and his tie draped diagonally across it. He peers through thick brown glasses, trying to remember if he was surprised to see Cheney replace Rumsfeld as chief of staff at the age of thirty-four.
"To tell you the truth," he says finally, "I didn't know what to think. I barely knew Cheney when he became chief of staff."
Was he surprised Rumsfeld wasn't brought in during the Reagan or first Bush administration?
"Well... he and the older Bush had their problems." He pauses. "A lot of problems."
But Rumsfeld didn't want Bush at CIA....
He raises his hand. "There's a school of thought that he wanted Bush at CIA to preclude him from becoming a vice-presidential candidate."
But he didn't put him on his list of recommendations. It's all written down.
"He didn't? Really? That's interesting. I would have thought he did."
Everybody thought Rumsfeld was trying to take over.
He nods. "There were a lot of people who hated Rumsfeld. Simon hated Rumsfeld, Rockefeller hated Rumsfeld.... "
It's interesting that Rumsfeld is so far front and center now, when Cheney is so far in the background.
"Yeah, but if you look at it, it could also be that some people want him front and center to have a victim in case something goes wrong."
In that sense, he seems almost vulnerable. "Yeah. And you know, I've always thought, which may be wrong, that one reason for my prominence in the post-Nixon term was that everybody was happy to have me out there doing Vietnam. People say that I took over press briefings. I didn't have to fight off State Department people at the foot of the briefing platform. So you always have to consider that. Is Rumsfeld pushing himself forward, or are others leaving him out there?"
Especially given the rumors that he was about to be fired.
At that, Henry Kissinger smiles. "Yes."
IT'S A CONTEST, this thing, almost a show. Rummy comes breezing down the Pentagon hallway with a smile creeping around the corners of his mouth, and he streaks into the briefing room, up to the microphone, the face of our nation's war. They're watching him now, and he knows it. The country, the world, the president, even the enemy is listening in.
"Good afternoon," he says, looking out over the familiar press corps. "First, a piece of non-Afghan news.... "
As he speaks, the cameramen around the room, wearing combat boots and fatigues, catch every motion of his hands and face, every wave, every smile, every adjustment of his glasses, while the reporters scribble notes eagerly. But everyone is really just waiting for the question-and-answer session — waiting for a chance to square off.
Day by day, that's how it goes: a few dull announcements, an update on the war, and, finally, the verbal chess match begins. Reporters try to corner him into sound bites, and he refuses to give "bumper-sticker quotes." They ask him to speculate on the location of bin Laden, and he says, "I don't know." They dog him for classified information, and he taunts them: "I could tell you, but I won't." Everyone's in on the contest, and every day, Rummy wins.
Inside the White House, it's no different. He's a wartime SecDef now, second in command to the president, and all those White House staffers who were whispering a few months ago about the end of his career — well, he's made quick work of them. He makes them step out of the room whenever he briefs the president. Even senior members of the Cabinet get the boot from time to time.
But he and Cheney still have the click of a working friendship. No sense keeping secrets from each other, after all. After three decades of friendship, thirty years of working together, there's not much you can hide, anyway. Cheney knows what it is to be SecDef. He knows most of the military's secrets. And Rummy knows how the White House works. He's run it himself. Cheney knows how hard it is to keep military operations secret, and Rummy knows what the whole country knows: that Cheney's bunker is the opposite of a hindrance, that it's an excuse to operate below the radar.
And maybe Rummy's neck is on the line when he steps in front of the camera, selling the war to the American people. Maybe if things had gone wrong, blame would have fallen on him. Maybe it still could. But he's too old to worry about that now. Too old to primp and fuss for his public image. Too old to scheme for a political future. Somewhere along the line, his ambition washed away, just as Cheney's ambition surfaced. Somewhere along the line, the two of them traded places. Cheney became the political giant; Rummy fell by the wayside. But together again after twenty-five years, they're the face of the war. They're the men behind the first crisis of the new millennium. They're public and private channels of power, the principal voices in the president's ear, the old hands steering the trail, two friends high in the saddle, looking down with half-crooked smiles.