Joe Boyles – Guest Columnist
I just finished reading Donald R. Rumsfeld’s Known and Unknown, his extensive 2010 autobiography. Next year, Don Rumsfeld turns 80. He had led a remarkable life and apparently, saw fit to set his career down on paper. Part of this was to explain his tumultuous six year stint as George Bush’s Secretary of Defense.
Don Rumsfeld hailed from the North Chicago suburb of Winnetka. After schooling at Princeton and a stint as a naval aviator, he entered public life as a Congressional staffer. In 1962, he was elected to Congress and served three terms before Richard Nixon selected him for a series of cabinet posts, including NATO ambassador. During this time, Rumsfeld hired a young graduate student from Wyoming named Richard Cheney. Their career paths would intersect repeatedly over four decades.
In August 1974, Richard Nixon resigned the presidency rather than face impeachment hearings over the Watergate Scandal. His appointed Vice President Gerald R. Ford became the 38th president. Immediately he sent for Don Rumsfeld to become White House chief of staff. He was just 42. The next year, Ford appointed Rumsfeld the youngest secretary of defense in our history.
After Ford lost the 1976 election, Rumsfeld left public life for private business, becoming CEO of the G. D. Searle, a worldwide pharmaceutical company which developed the artificial sweetener Aspartame under his tutelage. Over the next quarter century, Rumsfeld would lead several large business organizations and serve both Republican and Democrat presidents as special envoy.
Following the contentious 2000 presidential election, George Bush asked Don Rumsfeld to unretire and return the Pentagon for a second stint as secretary of defense. He held that position until after the 2006 mid-term elections when he retired to his New Mexico ranch. Close to half of the book is devoted to his service in the Bush Administration.
Having led such an interesting and challenging life, Don Rumsfeld is known for having penned “Rumsfeld’s Rules.” There are dozens of these rules and I’ve selected a few to give you a flavor of their wisdom as well as my take on them.
(Public money drives out private money.) You can chisel this in stone. Wealth is created in the private sector. Government confiscates some of that wealth in the form of taxes to provide services. In so doing, it removes wealth from the economic engine.
(Treat each federal dollar spent as hard earned. It was … by the taxpayer. The federal government should be the last resort, not the first.) These are corollaries to the previous rule. All too often, we expect the government to do something that we can do ourselves much more efficiently. No one wastes money more than the government. Never forget, it is easier to spend (and waste) someone else’s money than your own.
(Watch the growth of the middle management level. Reduce the layers of management. They put distance between the top of the organization and customers. Find ways to decentralize. Push authority down and out in the organization.) I’ve combined three of the rules into one because they are related. Bureaucracies grow in the middle. It’s sort of like putting on pounds around the waistline. If you want to improve an organization, trim the administrators that make up “middle management.” When one of these folks retires, don’t replace him and see how the organization handles the vacancy.
(People do better in staff jobs if they have operational experience.) Oh yeah. Nothing can substitute for experience; they have walked in the other man’s shoes.
(Watch for the “not invented here” syndrome.) This is how good ideas are killed in a bureaucracy – we didn’t invent it so it must be a bad idea.
(Develop a few key themes. Repetition is necessary.) This is the genius of someone like Ronald Reagan. Develop a few key objectives (deregulate, lower taxes, defeat the USSR), hire good people, and focus their efforts on achieving the goals.
To me, one of the most interesting sections of Rumsfeld’s autobiography is his description of work in the private sector. His success in business was indicative that the leadership and skills he developed in public life would translate to the business sector.
Normally, I’m not a fan of biographies, and even less of autobiographies which often are self-serving, but “Known and Unknown” is different. It is well researched and supported by documentation, footnotes, and source material. If you are interested in the foreign affairs of the first half of the Bush Administration, I recommend Rumsfeld’s memoirs.