An encounter with Donald Rumsfeld, who died earlier this week, when I was 19 drove me away from a life in government service, made me cynical about what public leaders know and care about, and led me to despise Rumsfeld for decades.
In 1977, the spring of my sophomore year at Princeton University, I took a course called Presidency and Executive Power, taught by Fred Greenstein, who was a founder of the study of political and presidential psychology and who would go on to be one of the main scholars to celebrate the previously underappreciated Eisenhower presidency.
Greenstein was more a political scientist than an inspired speaker, but I was fascinated by his insights into how the personal character of presidents helped determine their decision-making and ultimately altered the fate of the nation. We’d just witnessed the devious Richard Nixon warp the entire polity of the United States and damage our democracy. All of us were concerned about the motives and mentalities of the people leading our country.
Greenstein taught us how the particular characters of presidents affected their actions ― especially in crisis ― in situations including Pearl Harbor under FDR; Harry Truman’s Berlin airlift in 1948; John F. Kennedy’s Cuban Missile Crisis; and the Vietnam War under three very different leaders — Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Nixon. I took my professor’s lectures personally: At age 19, I wanted to become president of United States myself, and I believed this course would help me become a better president than Nixon. I would, I told myself, be a leader striving to exemplify my university’s motto as put forth by its former president, Woodrow Wilson: “Princeton in the nation’s service.”
Late in the course, we were told we would have a guest: Donald H. Rumsfeld, former congressman, former director of the Office of Economic Opportunity, former White House chief of staff, former secretary of defense, and quite possibly future president of the United States. Rumsfeld had deep ties to Princeton, having graduated in 1954, a middle-class kid from a renowned public school in Illinois who became captain of the Tigers wrestling team and was known for his brutal, hard-charging, head-on takedowns on the mat. He was lecturing at Princeton that spring, so this class visit was part of his homecoming.
Dressed in a severe, dark suit as if he were poised to return to the situation room at any moment, Rumsfeld seated himself at our table, two students away from me, in a seminar for the lecture course (known at Princeton as a precept). We met in a windowless, white-painted classroom in the basement of what was then called the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Our preceptor was a Ph.D. student named Alvin S. Felzenberg, who would go on to be director of outreach under Rumsfeld during his second stint as defense secretary in the George W. Bush administration. Felzenberg also later wrote a book about the conservative establishment provocateur William F. Buckley.
Prompted by Felzenberg, Rumsfeld held forth in fairly general terms about what he had done in the White House and Pentagon. (He wasn’t about to disclose state secrets to sophomores.) Then we got to ask questions. Pretty soon, I held up my hand and Rumsfeld nodded my way.
“Mr. Secretary, we’ve learned a lot about how presidents and their staff respond in crisis, from Truman’s Berlin airlift to Kennedy assessing Khrushchev during the Cuban Missile Crisis, to Vietnam and now to Cambodia today,” I said. “I’m wondering about how your knowledge of previous presidential decision-making affects how you all actually make decisions. How do people in the White House and Pentagon use your knowledge of what went on before them? How do you learn from how your predecessors acted and how does it affect your actions?”
Rumsfeld stared at me as if I’d asked him if his notorious Princeton wrestling holds were fair play. He scowled.
“What ― do you think that during the Mayaguez incident we were just sitting around, thinking, ‘Hell, what would Harry Truman do?’ We’re too busy for that. People in a crisis don’t think that way. That’s a ridiculous question.”
He turned away from me and inclined his jaw to the rest of the precept. Felzenberg quickly summoned another questioner.
I was humiliated and infuriated. Sure, I was a sophomore and maybe my query wasn’t varsity level, but I thought I was asking a question that went to the core of our course ― and to the larger issue of whether a knowledge of history and politics has any impact in the actual world where power is exercised by political characters. But Rumsfeld didn’t even entertain it.
I doubt that there will ever be a Donald H. Rumsfeld School for the Study of Historically Informed and Contextualized Defense Policy Implementation. He remains the world’s second-worst Donald.
In the years since, whenever I’ve heard Rumsfeld’s name; whenever he facilitated more deaths of American and Iraqi people; whenever he charged in with seemingly little knowledge of the policies or motives of American leaders who had charged in decades before him, I’ve remembered with persistent fury how he spoke to me that spring day in the Wilson School basement. The way he treated me, the way he treated history, was my personal point of entry into the damage he did over decades.
I saw Donald Rumsfeld again years later, as he marched with his fellow alumni of the Class of 1954 during a procession at a Princeton reunion. Dressed in my orange and black party gear, I was too polite — too Princetonian — to charge up and fall into step with him to remind him of that day and ask him again what he thought about what presidents and defense secretaries need to know about the past as they make the future happen. One of my college buddies loudly muttered, “There’s the guy who fucked up the world.” Rumsfeld heard him and turned to glare.
Now Donald Rumsfeld is dead, having outlived the 7,000 American troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan and the more than 317,000 civilian casualties in those countries. I doubt that there will ever be a Donald H. Rumsfeld School for the Study of Historically Informed and Contextualized Defense Policy Implementation. He remains the world’s second-worst Donald.
My reaming out by Rumsfeld that day was, for him, the most minor of skirmishes in a lifetime of combativeness, but his aggression had a life-altering impact on me. I decided there was no way I wanted to be president of United States if I had to deal with people like him. (Maybe I really didn’t want to be president; maybe I just wanted to hear “Hail to the Chief” when I entered the room.) Based on the mostly dismal, process-obsessed reading I had to do in my politics courses, as well as my interactions with glib politicos on campus and beyond, a life in politics or in government service seemed all gamesmanship, matters of tactics and muscle, an intramural competitive event that made most human beings into spectators. My bout with Rumsfeld was the final blow that led me to leave the arena.
So, soon after this incident, I decided not to be a politics major or to apply for a place in the Woodrow Wilson School. I majored in English. While I’ve stayed politically informed and engaged — trying, in my own way, to be in the nation’s service — I’ve focused my life on the language, complexities and dramas of literature, where character matters. I also became a poet. Shelley called poets “the unacknowledged legislators of the world”; Auden said “poetry makes nothing happen” but that “it survives, / A way of happening, a mouth.”
Now, decades after Donald Rumsfeld derided me, I have a mouth, a voice. I get the second-to-last word. It is history, which Rumsfeld seemed to ignore, that will get the last word.
David Groff is the author of two books of poetry, “Theory of Devolution” and “Clay.” An independent book editor and publishing consultant, he teaches in the MFA creative writing program at the City College of New York. For more, visit www.DavidGroff.com.