The Critic

Book Review: 'Rumsfeld's Rules' by Donald Rumsfeld


The first thing to understand about Rumsfeld’s Rules is that, as the introduction explains, “‘Rumsfeld’s Rules’ are not all Rumsfeld’s. Nor are they all rules.” So what is Rumsfeld’s Rules, exactly? It’s basically a collection of aphoristic life lessons, wrapped in a management/leadership manual, wrapped in a memoir, sort of. The rules in question—quotable nuggets, such as “When starting at the bottom, be willing to learn from those at the top” and “Don’t be afraid to see what you see”—have been collected by Rumsfeld over his lifetime, first in a file folder, then in an informal manual typed up at the request of Richard Nixon, then in a kind of samizdat manuscript passed around and read by “presidents, government officials, business leaders, diplomats, members of Congress, and a great many others.”

Rumsfeld has had quite a life. It’s hard to imagine a more accomplished political résumé that doesn’t include the word “president.” He won a congressional seat in Illinois at the age of 30. He was United Nations ambassador for Nixon, White House chief of staff for Gerald Ford, and Defense secretary for Ford and George W. Bush. In the private sector, he’s served as a chief executive officer and chairman.

Your most recent memory of him, though, is no doubt as “Rummy” (Dubya’s nickname for him): the publicly prickly advocate of the now-by-nearly-all-accounts-disastrous invasion of Iraq; the coiner of one of the more iconic, and, truth be told, philosophically nuanced, quotes from the ugly Aughts (the one regarding “the known knowns … unknown knowns … and the unknown unknowns”); and the only member of Bush’s Cabinet to resign his post, which Rumsfeld did in 2006.

There’s some obvious, Jay Leno-level joke to be made about Rumsfeld writing a book about decisions, given that so many of his turned out terribly. Otherwise innocuous advice, such as “You get what you inspect, not what you expect,” sounds grimly hilarious in the context of his later career, like fortune-cookie messages you wish he’d read in the days leading up to the invasion of Iraq.

As a management tome, Rumsfeld’s Rules is occasionally useful—the rule “If you’re working from your in-box, you’re working on other people’s priorities” is now taped above my computer screen—and it offers cracker-barrel wisdom and requisite Sun Tzu quotes. (Although I have to imagine that if you traveled back in time and told Sun Tzu, the august Chinese warlord, that he would one day be America’s management guru of choice, he’d set himself and his horse on fire and ride screaming off a cliff.)

At times, the book comes off like a long, rolling humblebrag. Many sections begin with variations on “When I was 29 years old and running for Congress …” or “When I chaired the U.S. Ballistics Missile Threat Commission …  .” These are juxtaposed with the kind of superspecific career advice you expect from an HR manager: “When it comes to drafting a résumé, I prefer to read about a person’s background on a single page.” At worst, this combination conjures the image of a man reduced, of someone looking back on his life through the wrong end of a telescope. At best, it brings to mind Rumsfeld chairing a ballistics missile threat commission, grumbling about someone’s padded résumé.

Rumsfeld’s abundant in his praise for Nixon (and, surprisingly, for Jon Stewart); noticeably less so for George W. Bush. He shares a self-serving anecdote about sitting in a National Security Council briefing on Saddam Hussein’s WMDs, during which he apparently “wrote a note I still have saved to this day. It reads: ‘caution—strong case, but … could be wrong.’ ” (Could be!) Rumsfeld once made an infamous crack during a press conference—when asked about widespread looting in Baghdad, he said, “Stuff happens”—about which he now writes, with almost melancholy understatement, “It left an inaccurate and regrettable impression that stuck with me for some time.”

The Rumsfeld of Rumsfeld’s Rules is a competent storyteller and personable companion, the kind of guy you wouldn’t mind sitting next to on a plane. But the real pleasure in the book comes in parsing what he says, how he says it, and what he chooses not to say at all. To paraphrase his most famous line—the Rumsfeld rule most likely to outlive him—it’s all about the said saids, the unsaid saids, and the unsaid unsaids.


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