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Cheney and Rumsfeld: Still Heroes to Some

Watching the non-stop coverage of the many events that unfolded in Boston and Washington commemorating the life of Ted Kennedy, I had a weird thought. It happened as the military detail at Arlington National Cemetery issued forth with a gun salute as this deeply flawed man was laid to rest.

On the day of the senator’s death I was invited onto Sky News to discuss the Kennedy legacy; behind me in the massive studio was a huge tableau of images of the family at various periods in its turbulent history. I was torn between condemning him for his lapses in moral conduct and praising him for being an indomitable champion of the downtrodden. The anchorman, Dermot Murnaghan, led me down both roads and I was glad the good and bad were included in the discourse. As Antony says at the end of Julius Caesar, “the evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.”

This leads me back to the aforesaid weird thought: July 9 marked the seventy-seventh birthday of Donald Rumsfeld. As I watched the presidential-level ceremonies accorded Ted Kennedy I thought of what an unremarkable funeral the former defense secretary will have, after having ended his career “in disgrace,” according to the liberal media and ex-neoconservative community.

Both Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, throughout their service under a succession of Republican administrations, and despite accusations of being the “agents of oil, the military establishment, and pharmaceutical companies,” stayed with the same wives and appeared to be churchgoing family men. I am afraid I am not well-connected enough to know if they were actually womanizing wild boys (there were those noises from the vice presidential bunker at the Naval Observatory) but the one virtue that did seem to stand out was their patriotism.

Those who have read my editorials know about my staunch support for universal health care. I did admire Kennedy’s tireless campaigning for a health care program and was moved by his observation at a National Press Club appearance that he had just met the uninsured grandchildren of Massachusetts constituents he had encountered decades before and who were also without coverage. But the dedication to protecting the American people from the ultimate killer, world terrorism, was and is the rallying cry that makes Rumsfeld and Cheney the men who deserve twenty-one-gun salutes.

Here is why:

In recent weeks Dick Cheney has been criticized as the noisiest ex-veep ever, but I can understand his alarm. The outing of CIA operatives who apparently subjected terror suspects to torture will, according to Cheney, create unease in the intelligence community that could render them impotent and compromise national security. (I am one of those folks who thought Seymour Hersh ought to have been incarcerated for revealing the Abu Ghraib story in the New Yorker; lest we forget, it was wartime and some things are best kept within the military community.)

Cheney has time and again reminded the world that the spread of radical Islam across Europe and Great Britain represents the goal of the movement’s many leaders: the reestablishment of the caliphate or a Muslim world order overtaking the globe. At London dinner parties, mentioning his appraisal of the threat is regarded as a kind of madness. Yet go to Hyde Park one Saturday and witness crowds of young Muslims carrying a large white sheet celebrating the imminence of the caliphate. Cheney has always been correct in his assessment of the danger of radical Islam and its dreams of a new caliphate. He remains focused in his retirement and should be listened to.

Rumsfeld’s witty press conferences at the Pentagon were an uplifting experience for the world after 9/11. He helped make the most terrifying day in American history since Pearl Harbor an image of heroism as he refused to be evacuated to a bunker, helped rescue victims outside his office, and held a press briefing in the still-smoldering building.

Behind that “doggonit” exterior was a man who understood the threat symbolized by 9/11 and who came out with statements few would have dared murmur: about tiny Israel he said, “You can see both sides of the country from the top of a skyscraper,” and he noted the Jewish state had won territories in 1967 that any victorious nation was entitled to keep as the spoils of war in a neighborhood filled with dictatorships intent on its destruction. Rumsfeld had been a ruthless and successful businessman — yes, I will admit some of the stories about his people relations in private industry could give the fainthearted the chills — but that was what America needed after the most shocking week since the Cuban Missile Crisis. Indeed, the next 9/11 could be a real nuclear attack and despite Rummy’s jokes and teasing, one grasped his grit in defending the nation as best as he humanly could. Like Winston Churchill in the wilderness years, he saw a threat with clarity of vision. (It is said Rumsfeld carried with him a video of the superb BBC play The Gathering Storm, about Churchill’s unheeded views on Hitler.)

I talk to Republicans who feel Rumsfeld lost his way during the Iraq campaign by poo-pooing complaints by troops about equipment, causing the party electoral damage; the liberals I encounter consider him a war criminal who should be prosecuted for allowing Abu Ghraib, rendition, and Guantanamo to flourish. I believe much of the electoral damage came from a lack of leadership at the highest level. Hurricane Katrina enraged even conservative pundits. (Who can forget Fox’s Shepard Smith standing on that bridge next to the swollen, week-old corpse?) The concept of “the buck stops here” never seemed to figure in the Bush 43 regime.

Rumsfeld is made of tough stuff and won’t end up a suicide as did James Forrestal, another wartime defense secretary, despite reports of Washingtonians intimidating the septuagenarian at bus stops. He was once photographed by Annie Leibovitz; how the mighty do fall.

My own estimation of Cheney and Rumsfeld is that they are men of personal integrity who understand the threat the world faces from a radical movement backed by bottomless money. They have lived out their lives dedicated to public service and in Rumsfeld’s case in active and reserve military duty until his fifties. However reviled they may be by a significant proportion of the world’s population, I remain convinced they are the kind of leaders America needs in a catastrophe, but I doubt the administration, or even Defense Secretary Robert Gates, will call on them for advice anytime soon.

I urge Americans to listen to Cheney’s words of warning about pandering to the human rights establishment. Rumsfeld will never get a sendoff like that accorded Ted Kennedy, but his life story should be a template for young people seeking a career in public service. He will always be a hero to those who appreciated his brilliance in the days after 9/11; one hopes there will be figures in this administration who can inspire a nation in its darkest hour should a terrible day like the one in September 2001 engulf its shores once more.