WASHINGTON -- His only bad day on the job, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has told colleagues, has been Sept. 11.
But, in fact, as he sat in his Pentagon office that morning with no clue that a hijacked plane was headed his way, there had been a number of bad days, at least by the calculations of others. So many that the 69-year-old Cabinet member was said to be halfway out the door.
A throwback to an earlier Washington with his slicked-back gray hair, resolute style and blunt talk, Rumsfeld was receiving a CIA briefing that day when a loud bang literally rocked the ground beneath him. He stuck his head out of his office to ask if anyone knew what had happened, then bolted outside, around the building and straight to the fiery crash site, where he helped the injured and those scrambling to get out of the building.
Rumsfeld could hardly have imagined a more horrific day. But oddly, the worst day of his tenure has proved to be the best for his professional fortunes. It's transformed the beleaguered Pentagon chief into the smash success of the administration's war on terrorism, and afforded him a brand new start.
Since the attacks on the United States, nearly all of the previous griping about Rumsfeld -- that he excluded senior military from decision-making, kept Congress in the dark, micro- managed the place with a brusque, arrogant, top-down corporate style -- has vanished. In its place is praise for the former Navy pilot, Illinois congressman and successful CEO -- the only man ever to be named defense secretary twice, once as the youngest, this time, the oldest -- who's now being heralded for his candor, determination, supreme self-assurance, crusty charm and acerbic wit.
"He is much more effective as a secretary of war than as a secretary of defense," says Andrew Krepinevich, executive director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, who has worked with Rumsfeld. "He is the kind of person who relishes a clear mission. A number of people were put off early on by the same attributes that are now gaining him so much applause."
A veteran bureaucrat who entered politics when John F. Kennedy was president, Rumsfeld is a surprising star. Once considered one of the tired retreads President George W. Bush dusted off and brought back from his father's circle of aging alpha-males, he is perhaps the most unlikely member of the administration to emerge as a darling of not only the media, but popular culture.
In fact, before Sept. 11, the former mentor to Vice President Dick Cheney tried to keep a low profile, working to reshape the Pentagon and engage in as little public relations, as little travel and as little of what he considers the empty protocol of the job, such as making nice with foreign dignitaries, as he could.
Now, the grandfather of five, known to his friends as "Rummy," is the most visible member of Bush's war team, appearing regularly on TV talk shows and assuming more of a public role than many of his predecessors. During the Gulf War, for instance, the uniformed Gen. Colin L. Powell, then chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, and Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf faced the press far more often than then-Secretary of Defense Cheney.
But now, squinting behind rimless glasses as if the sun was in his eyes and grinning like an entertainer who's got the audience in the palm of his hand, the commanding, swelled-chested Rumsfeld is the one at the podium. Several times a week, he informs the public of the military's progress in destroying the al-Qaida network and Taliban leadership, braces the nation for a long, dangerous haul and reminds his audiences at every turn that lives are now being put at risk because thousands of Americans were killed.
"We did not start this war," he said the other day in a familiar refrain. "So understand, responsibility for every single casualty in this war, whether they're innocent Afghans or innocent Americans, rests at the feet of the al-Qaida and the Taliban."
Unlike most of the jargon-filled, flavorless press briefings around town, Rumsfeld's are a blend of strikingly un-Washington straight talk ("We are there to capture or kill the al-Qaida"), good-natured, if patronizing banter (he scolded one reporter for "beginning with an illogical premise and proceeding perfectly logically to an illogical conclusion") and folksy "Rummyisms." ("It's chasing the wrong rabbit ... not a bottle that you can cork ... unbumperstickerable ... like feeding an alligator, hoping it eats you last.")
A public that could not even name the secretary of defense earlier in the year now gives the gray-haired, gray-suited leader a 78 percent approval rating, just a sliver behind Powell, who's been a near folk hero since the Gulf War.