George W. Bush’s administration certainly produced a cast of characters naturally vulnerable to caricature. Chief among these is Donald Rumsfeld: no matter the outcome of the current war in Afghanistan, for the left, the former hard-charging bespectacled SECDEF just looks the part of a right-wing villain in ways his round-faced successor Robert Gates could never hope to achieve, as illustrated this week by reporter Robert Draper’s fireball of a piece in GQ magazine.
Draper’s piece, on the whole, offers very little in the way of new criticisms of the infinitely criticized Rumsfeld, who has been blamed for an astonishing number of terrible things over the past few years. But Draper does spend a great deal of time playing up one specific criticism, astutely recognizing it would grab ahold of media attention and attract lengthy responses online: the allegation that Rumsfeld deployed Bible verse-laden covers on President Bush’s Iraq briefings. Hey, nothing tickles the fancy of the media like accusing a man of quoting the Bible.
Draper suggests in an unsourced sentence that “Rumsfeld likely saw the Scriptures as a way of making a personal connection with a president who frequently quoted the Bible.” As The Daily Beast summarized it: “The crusading cover letters made many uncomfortable, but sources say it was Rumsfeld’s way of cozying up to his religious boss—even if Rumsfeld himself was typically much more private about his religion.” The implication is that the ruse worked, and the President, a sucker for anything with “Jesus” on it, bought Rumsfeld’s crusading line.
Rumsfeld spokesman Keith Urbahn fired back today at this claim, rebutting Draper’s suggestions by pointing out an obvious flaw in his reasoning: not only were the slides in question prepared by staffers who did not report or work under Rumsfeld, but President Bush never received the briefings in question.
The slides in the “World Intelligence Update” were prepared on a daily basis by military personnel serving on the Joint Staff, which reported to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, not the Secretary of Defense. The report was briefed regularly to senior military officials in the Pentagon – only occasionally to the Secretary of Defense and not to the President of the United States.
Rumsfeld was fully aware that words and actions could be harmful and counterproductive to the war effort. It’s safe to say that some of these cover slides could be considered in that category. The suggestion that Rumsfeld would have composed, approved of, or personally shown the slides to President Bush is flat wrong. It did not happen.
Given that Draper used anonymous sources for this charge as well as for the rest of the innuendo in his piece, one would think he might have at least done a cursory review of the facts. He might then have avoided being taken by people with an axe [to] grind. When Draper goes back and checks reality against his reporting, he might also check whether GQ is in need of a new gossip columnist.
There are two conclusions that the media’s coverage of this story seems to want to imply about Rumsfeld. The first, and the more popular one among some corners of the online left, is the implication that the verses should be taken at face value, as high-test expressions of what they imagine to be the former SECDEF’s militaristic personal faith — and that they therefore show a man bent on becoming a bloodthirsty crusader clad in the cross of St. George, daydreaming of charging into the desert with the Sword of the Spirit, urging American soldiers onward to their deaths with cries of “Convert or Kill.”
The second is a suggestion that SECDEF has no personal faith, or at least not one to speak of, and that the verses instead represent a crass and devious attempt to manipulate a dull-witted evangelical president into following Rumsfeld’s wishes on policy matters. This latter sentiment has a big fan in the perpetually offended David Kuo — creator and destroyer of Culture 11 and one-time head of the White House’s faith-based program — who as far as I can discover never actually attended any Iraq presentations to the President or ever worked closely with Rumsfeld, and certainly had no security privileges for these briefings. Neither of these facts have stopped Kuo from sharing his personal insight into Rumsfeld’s private motivations.
In my own very limited time at The White House, I at least saw enough to know what a briefing for the President looked like as opposed to a briefing for others. On its face, this initial report struck me as ridiculous: it’s true that verses were occasionally used in the context of unrelated presentations, but the basic appearance of these slides is such that they are clearly the creation of a staffer for other staffers — not for the eyes of the Commander in Chief. The left may view President Bush as a faith-addled fool, but the images and verses chosen denote a variety of blond-Jesus-on-black-velvet faith that — honest though it may be as an expression of the staffer who created them — is not at all Donald Rumsfeld’s style.
Since leaving office, Rumsfeld infamy has only grown in most corners of the mainstream press — he makes a very natural target, and he has mostly stayed quiet even when his former allies were using him as a scapegoat. But other stories show a more complex picture. I was surprised by reports that have appeared in recent years detailing how the SECDEF expressed significant doubts about the invasion of Iraq — as someone who opposed the Iraq war (I believed then as now that Iran, not Iraq, poses a greater threat), I never thought that Secretary Rumsfeld and I would have any real agreement on the matter. Now writing his memoirs, Rumsfeld’s office today is clothed with signed photographs, images, and awards from a lifelong career spent in the arena, stretching all the way back to photos taken with Ike during his first Congressional campaign, signed pictures of great men of the ages, of soldiers and citizens he’s met along the way.
The walls are full of these pictures and tokens. But of images like the ones Draper features, there are none. There is one reminder that you could call spiritual, however: burned scraps from the plane that struck the Pentagon on 9/11, unavoidable and out in front. If you want to know how Rumsfeld expresses his personal motivations, you need look no further.
The unsourced suggestion that Donald Rumsfeld deployed these slide images and Bible verses to crassly manipulate President Bush toward his ends is a significant one, and one designed to insult and offend. It makes up the bulk of what is notable about Robert Draper’s piece. But on further examination, it appears to reveal more about cliched media views of the personalities of Rumsfeld and of Bush than of anything resembling fact.
Cliches tend to be this way: they are simple. They are easy. And they are usually wrong.