Rumsfeld wraps it all up

Likely last appearance covers favorite themes

December 09, 2006|By Julian E. Barnes | Julian E. Barnes,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- For much of the past six years, a question-and-answer session with Donald H. Rumsfeld was the best show in town. The combative secretary of defense's bristling self-assurance made the Pentagon Briefing Room one of the hottest seats in Washington.

The Bush administration's erstwhile rock star delivered his last major performance yesterday, as quotable as when he began. At a Pentagon "town hall," Rumsfeld delivered with style, gamely teasing questioners, popping off trademark "by gollys," quoting Winston Churchill, invoking George Washington and expounding on "eurocommunism" of the 1970s.

Although the Senate has confirmed Robert M. Gates - a decidedly more measured and reserved public speaker - to serve as the next defense secretary, he will not be sworn in for nine days. For a little while yet, Rumsfeld remains in charge.

But he is not due to appear before Congress again, and his public affairs staff says there will be no goodbye news conferences. Rumsfeld said yesterday's town hall, his 42nd such appearance answering questions from military personnel during his second Pentagon stint, would be one of his last public appearances.

In some respects, his last town hall was a greatest hits collection. Rumsfeld managed to riff on many of his favorite topics: the electricity supply in North Korea, the fashionableness of "eurocommunism," the near-sacking of George Washington, the media strategy of insurgents and the failure of the American press to chronicle good news from Iraq.

As unrelated as those topics might seem, Rumsfeld routinely evokes them to defend the war in Iraq or his own leadership.

North Korea's lack of electric light, his favorite set piece, shows what happens to those who reject democracy. People who thought eurocommunism offered a good economic system during the Cold War, Rumsfeld suggests, were as misguided as opponents of Iraq policy.

Critics might question America's current war leaders, but Rumsfeld wants people to remember they also questioned the father of the country at the beginning of the Revolution.

And when the media reports on insurgent attacks against civilians it is, in the Pentagon's view, helping the enemy try to weaken the will of the American people.

The public's doubts about Iraq and the need for America to maintain its support for the war have been a regular theme of Rumsfeld's public appearances for much of this year. And yesterday, he used the stage to plead for more time in Iraq.

He said there was "an impatience in the United States and Congress." But, he said, the larger fight against violent extremism, in Iraq and elsewhere, was going to take patience and perspective.

"We have invested a whale of a lot in the Afghan situation and the Iraqi situation," he said. "And to pull out precipitously and inject that instability into the situation there, in that country and that region, I believe would be a terrible mistake."

For his part, Rumsfeld was not fessing up to many mistakes yesterday. He did say the abuses by American soldiers at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, Iraq, had led to his worst day on the job.

By his own count, Rumsfeld has held 613 news conferences. And although yesterday he criticized media coverage of Iraq, as usual, he also singled out the Pentagon reporters for praise.

"As hard as it may be to believe," Rumsfeld said yesterday, "I even miss our press conferences."

Julian E. Barnes writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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