WASHINGTON -- Donald Rumsfeld, one week after his sacking as secretary of defense, was treated as a conquering hero accorded one standing ovation after another at the conservative American Spectator magazine's annual dinner in Washington. The enthusiasm may have indicated less total support for Rumsfeld's six-year record at the Pentagon than resentment over the way President Bush fired him.
Rumsfeld had recovered his usual aplomb as he basked in the Spectator's glow. But on the day after the election, he had seemed devastated -- the familiar confident grin gone and his voice breaking. According to administration officials, only three or four people knew he would be fired -- and Rumsfeld was not one of them. His fellow presidential appointees, including some who did not applaud Rumsfeld's performance in office, were taken aback by his treatment.
In the two weeks following the election, I have asked a wide assortment of Republican notables their opinion of the Rumsfeld sacking. Only one went on the record: Rep. Duncan Hunter, House Armed Services Committee chairman. A rare undeviating supporter of Rumsfeld, Hunter told me "it was a mistake for him to resign." The others, less supportive of Rumsfeld, said they were "appalled" -- the most common descriptive word -- by the president's performance.
The treatment of his war minister connotes something deeply wrong with George W. Bush's presidency in its sixth year. Apart from Rumsfeld's failures in personal relations, he never has been anything short of loyal in executing the president's wishes. But loyalty appears to be a one-way street for Bush. His shrouded decision to sack Rumsfeld after declaring he would serve out the second term fits the pattern of a president who is secretive and impersonal.
Lawrence Lindsey had been assured that he would be retained as the president's national economic adviser, but received word on Dec. 5, 2002, at around 5 p.m. that he would be fired the next day. Before Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill embarked on a dangerous mission to Afghanistan, he requested and received assurances that he would still have a job when he returned. Instead, he was dismissed in tandem with Lindsey.
Bush is no malevolent tyrant who concocts unpleasant surprises for his Cabinet members. Rather, letting the terminated official be one of the last to know of imminent removal derives from congenital phobia over White House leaks that I have seen exhibited by Republicans dating back to President Eisenhower (and leading to President Nixon's fateful creation of "plumbers" to plug leaks). The Bush team took pride in keeping secret the failed Harriet Miers nomination to the Supreme Court before keeping mum the fate of Rumsfeld.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich claimed the replacement of Rumsfeld two weeks before the election would have saved Republican control of the Senate as well as 10 GOP House seats. Many Republicans have bought into that dubious speculation, especially those who lost their seats Nov. 7. Presidential adviser Karl Rove told Rep. Clay Shaw of Florida, one of the defeated longtime Republican congressmen, that a pre-election exit by Rumsfeld would have been too political.
Shaw appeared to accept this explanation, but many other Republicans do not. They see the White House dedicated to the "24-hour-cycle theory of politics." They believe removal of Rumsfeld falling into the 24-hour cycle was intended to crowd out continued rehashing of disastrous election returns.
It is hard to find anyone in the Bush administration who endorses the way Rumsfeld was handled. His friend and comrade, Vice President Dick Cheney, is reported to be profoundly disturbed. But even before the election, Cheney appeared melancholic. A high-ranking administration official who visited the vice president then reported him to be nothing like the upbeat Cheney earlier years in this administration.
The last two years of eight-year presidencies are historically difficult, particularly after losing the final midterm election. Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1959-60 assumed a more aggressive conservative posture by firing off multiple vetoes of excessive spending legislation. During the Iran-Contra scandal, Ronald Reagan in 1987-88 was steadfast in pursuing Cold War victory. But the way George W. Bush handled Rumsfeld was not a good sign for his concluding years as president.