Tough Pentagon to-do list awaits Cold War veteran

Rumsfeld's views to be heard today at Senate hearing

January 11, 2001|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- A quarter-century ago, as the Defense Department's youngest boss, Donald H. Rumsfeld looked around the Pentagon and made a snap decision. Let's redecorate.

"This is ugly," the 43-year-old defense chief said to an aide, pointing to the bare, institutional green walls. Hopping aboard a golf cart, he scooted around the snaking Pentagon hallways, suggesting paintings, historical exhibits and photographs to enliven America's war-making headquarters.

It was vintage Rumsfeld, said former aides, forceful and energetic. "He wanted a sense of mission on the walls," recalled Ken Adelman, who was Rumsfeld's speechwriter at the Pentagon and later served as director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency under President Ronald Reagan.

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Rumsfeld's efforts helped turn the Pentagon into a magnet for tourists, who now see George Marshall's desk and Douglas MacArthur's corncob pipe in glass cases.

Today, Rumsfeld is to appear before the Senate Armed Services Committee for his confirmation hearing as George W. Bush's defense secretary, facing lawmakers eager to learn how this Cold War-era Pentagon chief plans to take America's military into the 21st century.

The 68-year-old Rumsfeld has a gilt-edged resume -- Air Force pilot, pharmaceutical company executive, Illinois congressman, NATO ambassador. He was also a Nixon aide -- one of the few who emerged from the political cauldron of the Watergate era without being burned.

Rumsfeld spent 14 months as President Gerald Ford's defense secretary, but he used that time to begin the revival of a troubled, post-Vietnam military. He successfully lobbied Congress for more money to help U.S. forces keep pace with their Soviet counterparts. The political skills he displayed then may quiet those who wonder if he has the personal presence to hold his own in policy debates with Colin L. Powell, Bush's choice for secretary of state.

As Ford's defense secretary, Rumsfeld sometimes crossed swords with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, the supreme Washington hardball player, who viewed his youthful colleague with the grudging admiration of an aging All Star eyeing the hot new slugger at spring training.

"Rumsfeld afforded me a close-up look at a special Washington phenomenon: the skilled full-time politician bureaucrat in whom ambition, ability, and substance fuse seamlessly," Kissinger wrote two decades later, noting his sometime adversary could deflect policy initiatives into a "bureaucratic bog" if he opposed them. "I came to believe that if he ever reached the presidency, he might be a more comfortable chief executive than Cabinet colleague -- indeed, he had the makings of a strong president."

In fact, Rumsfeld briefly flirted with seeking the 1988 Republican presidential nomination.

Associates describe Rumsfeld as quick, organized and decisive, a man who prods staffers with a wry and sometimes needling wit. And he has a good eye for talent. Rumsfeld's staff as head of the poverty-fighting Office of Economic Opportunity in the Nixon administration included Dick Cheney, Bill Bradley and Christine Todd Whitman.

A voracious reader of history and policy papers, Rumsfeld is hardly a sedentary bureaucrat. He maintains his Princeton wrestler's build with aggressive games of squash, together with Reaganesque woodchopping and horseback riding at his Taos, N.M., hacienda.

And he is well-versed about America's post-Cold War world, chairing commissions during the past two years that studied the missile threat posed by rogue states such as North Korea and Iraq, and the future of space-based warfare.

"We are in a new national security environment," Rumsfeld said last month when he was selected by President-elect Bush. "We do need to be arranged to deal with the new threats, not the old ones ... information warfare, missile defense, terrorism, defense of our space assets and the proliferation of mass destruction throughout the world."

Indeed, Rumsfeld will face some of the same challenges he inherited in the fall of 1975, when he commenced his first tour on the Pentagon's E-Ring power corridor. This time around, analysts say, the military's morale suffers from too many overseas deployments rather than a defeat in Southeast Asia. Low pay and crumbling military housing have helped fuel an exodus of young officers. Recruiters are scrambling to attract young, bright prospects who can pick up a better salary at a fast-food restaurant.

And the estimated $290 billion Pentagon budget needs to grow, as much as $30 billion to $100 billion each year, say many military officers and analysts. Bush, however, has called for $4.5 billion per year on average during the next decade.

That Bush budget proposal "won't do it," said former Reagan Defense Secretary Frank Carlucci, who studied at Princeton with Rumsfeld and later worked for him at OEO.

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