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Jewish World Review April 15, 2002/ 4 Iyar, 5762

Kathleen Parker

Kathleen Parker
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Straightforward success | It's a safe bet that Donald Rumsfeld never pictured himself a rock star, a babe magnet or a celebrity of any stripe. Yet a witness to Rumsfeld's reception by members of the most cynical audience conceivable -- the American Society of Newspaper Editors -- could infer little else.

The man has personal power, humor, intellect and a command of the English language that must be envied -- and should be studied -- by others in the White House. He got laughs and respectful questions, which he answered seamlessly. At the end of the program, the applause far exceeded politeness, and he was mobbed by admirers, mostly student-reporters who cover the annual editors' meeting for an in-house newspaper.

The kids jockeyed for autographs and photos as though the U.S. secretary of defense were Britney Spears, or whomever they admire these days. Toto, something tells me we're not in Vietnam anymore. Turning to one of Rumsfeld's handlers, I asked, "Is this usual? Does he always get mobbed like this when he speaks?"

"He almost never speaks outside of the Pentagon," she said. "He's busy running the war."

The war, of course, was the topic of discussion. More precisely, the question was how the government informs the public through the press during wartime. Marvin Kalb, executive director of the Washington office of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy -- though better known for his career with network news and on Meet the Press -- posed the questions.

Americans familiar with Rumsfeld's regular press conferences, wherein he explains to reporters the rules of war, already know him to be a straight shooter.

Q: Secretary Rumsfeld, why are you using daisy cutters, our biggest, meanest bombs, in Afghanistan?

A: Well, gosh, Joey, we're using daisy cutters because they're our biggest, meanest bombs and we're trying to kill bad guys. Next?

In person, Rumsfeld is equally crisp. He is also beguiling, disarmingly charming and difficult to dislike. Politicians should take notes. More important to reporters and the public, Rumsfeld is impenetrable. He's not a guy you'd want to invest in emotionally, but you'd figure yourself lucky to find him in your foxhole.

That is, after all, where we are. In the foxhole, at war, dealing with bad guys, and we're in unfamiliar territory. In recent years, our lives have been circumscribed by banal emotionality: Who's sleeping in the Lincoln Bedroom? Who's doing what to whom, with what did you say, and where? We've witnessed more tears rolling down our former commander-in-chief's cheek than one guesses Rumsfeld has shed in a lifetime.

His tough, no-nonsense and, frankly, manly demeanor have swept Americans off their feet. ASNE editors could never admit so publicly -- they don't worship at anyone's altar -- but they clearly like and respect this man. Grizzled old editors rarely "standingly ovate," but their lengthy applause made clear their approbation.

Given the reporter/editor's instinct to trust no one, Rumsfeld poses a challenge. Why? Because he emotes trustworthiness.

Does Rumsfeld believe in disinformation? Yes, sometimes. "Eisenhower engaged in a lot of disinformation, trying to keep the Germans confused to save lives. . . . Was he justified? Absolutely."

Does Rumsfeld ever lie to the press? No. "I've never had any need to lie to the press. . . . You lose so much more if people can't believe what you say." When it comes to sensitive issues, "We don't lie; we just don't discuss it."

It's easy to forget, sitting in an audience, watching two amiable men in soft chairs chatting about the press, that what we're really talking about is war and death and human suffering. It is also comforting to realize that Rumsfeld never loses sight of that fact and will put the lives of his forces ahead of his popularity ratings back home.

Maybe that explains why all those young people, college students who could be called to fight someday, lined up for autographs. And why those old editors, many of them parents, too, clapped so long.

JWR contributor Kathleen Parker can be reached by clicking here.

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