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Rumsfeld: The Making of An Artful Warrior by Midge Decter


Rating: (Recommended)


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Midge Decter decided to write Rumsfeld: The Making of An Artful Warrior when she discovered a photo of the Secretary of Defense hanging in the home of a friend. The book presents a flattering portrait of Don Rumsfeld and contains great pictures throughout. Here’s an excerpt from the beginning of Chapter 4, “Taking Charge,” (pp. 79-84):

It used to be said in Washington that when the Republicans are out of office they go home to where they came from whereas the Democrats always stick around waiting for the chance to return to power. That may no longer be true (if it ever was), but there seemed little doubt that with Ford out of office the Rumsfelds would soon be heading back to Winnetka.

During that first spring, however, now freed from the constraints of being a member of Gerald Ford's team and thus somewhat careful in his public discussions of our relations with the Soviet Union, Rumsfeld spent some time going around the country—as he would continue to do in the years ahead—speaking out against the seductions of arms control ("thinking that if we disarm the Soviets will follow").

In addition, he was a visiting lecturer at his alma mater Princeton, and he also taught two courses in government management at Northwestern. But apart from its appeal to him as a chance to do some serious reading and thinking out from under the pressure of daily hard decision-making, the academic life in the end held little attraction for him. Because it was precisely under Washington-style pressure—or some other pressure like it—that the former newsboy-Eagle Scout-wrestler-navy pilot would always find himself most alive and at ease.

In any case, by April of 1977 the Chicago press began to carry stories suggesting that there was about to be yet another career for Rumsfeld, one that would present him with a new and distinctly different world to map and master. And indeed, it was shortly announced that on June I he would become the president and chief executive officer of the Searle Pharmaceutical Company of Skokie, Illinois.

The company, an old family firm then being run by two Searle brothers, Dan and William, and their brother-in-law, Wesley Dixon, had fallen on rather hard times. Sales of Searle's products were up, but for more than a year the company's profits had been declining. Moreover, the animal studies that had been submitted to the Food and Drug Administration in support of Searle's two new diuretics, Aldactone and Aldactazine, had been found so flawed as to make it impossible to determine whether or not they might be toxic—so flawed, indeed, that the PDA had even called for a grand jury to investigate the company. In the face of all this, the price of Searle stock had now fallen to $10 from its 1973 high of $41.

The Searles had known and admired Don since his days as a Congressman (Dan Searle had been an early supporter) and were full of hope that he could do something to turn the company around. Jeanette Rumsfeld, on the other hand, was dead set against her son's taking the job. You now have such a good reputation, why risk it, Jeanette warned him, by trying to run a business you know nothing about, a business that is even under investigation by a grand jury! As it inevitably would, and fortunately for both the Searles and the Rumsfelds, this maternal warning fell on deaf ears.

Beyond turning their company over to someone whom others in the business community must surely have considered a mere amateur, the Searles and Wesley Dixon did something else quite extraordinary, if not, indeed, almost unheard of in the annals of business: In order not only not to interfere but to be seen as not interfering, they moved out of their offices at Searle and into another building. Whereupon this gesture of confidence was answered by the new CEO with a gesture of his own in a similar spirit. He set aside a place for a master file containing each and every bit of important paper produced under his management and he then announced to the Searles and Dixon that the file had been expressly created for them and they could come around and go through it whenever they wished. Whatever would be the future lot of the Searle company under its new CEO, then, it is unlikely that there could anywhere in the annals of American business have been an instance of more handsome relations between a company's retired owners and its new management.

Rumsfeld spent from April to June—two months—studying the business and then took over. By September he was ready to move on what seemed to him one of Searle's major problems: the operation had become too centralized and too focused on corporate headquarters rather than on the company's actual business, which was the research into and production of pharmaceuticals. He then set about to remedy the situation by firing 150 employees outright and transferring 150 others from the corporate staff to the various groups that were actually in charge of producing and selling Searle's various product lines. (In addition to achieving what he felt was the necessary decentralization, this move was to save the company some five million dollars.)

Henry Kissinger had once characterized Rumsfeld as ruthless ("ruthless" being a term of art in the White House, applied to someone whose strength of mind is used in opposition to, rather than in support of, yours). No one of importance at the Pentagon seems to have leveled this charge during his first tour of duty there, but at the time the military were having far more serious problems than the secretary could have had time to make for them. At Searle, however—certainly among those three hundred employees whose lives he had with so much dispatch turned upside down, but among others as well—a heavy load of hard feelings was quickly collected, followed inevitably by a full measure of nasty stories. After all, whatever else it might be, a business whose corporate headquarters are steadily being expanded is a place of comfort. And through this warm place the new CEO had, in virtually no time and with no hesitation, sent a cold, cold wind. It is said that he had come to be known there as "the axman." (The other side of this coin, of course, is the feeling of security experienced by people when they recognize that they are working for someone who knows what he is doing.)

Soon after, he again did something that few CEOs with formal business training might have thought—or dared—to do: He sent for his old friend, John Robson, whose life, like his own, had thus far been spent exclusively in public service, "jawboning" about economics in the Johnson White House, serving first as general counsel to the Department of Transportation and later to the Civil Aeronautics Board. At the time Rumsfeld summoned him to Searle, Robson was a fellow of the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank. "You had better come out here," Don told him. "There's a lot to do here."

Robson, who had been issues director in Rumsfeld's first congressional campaign, was in some ways very different from and very much a complement to his new boss: a man who loved to dance, for instance, and who, like Joyce, was passionate about music and the arts. As a lawyer with experience in the fields of economics and government regulation, he would play a far more important role in the business than that of counselor. He would, in fact, be Rumsfeld's right hand—and would later replace him as CEO.

The following winter Rumsfeld brought in James Denny to serve as chief financial officer. Denny, though not then the close friend he was soon to become, happened also to have been a member of the Princeton class of 1954. Before coming to Searle, he had been working in Akron for the Firestone Tire Company, which was then in some financial trouble, and Rumsfeld never tired of claiming that he had been Denny's rescuer. (Later the three men would create a partnership for the purpose of doing some investing. This partnership would be called TBM—which stands for Three Blind Mice.)

"When I went to Searle," Rumsfeld says, "I was interested in the private sector. And it turned out I had really been thinking about it one-dimensionally. I didn't understand it as I needed to, that is, three-dimensionally. A government agency or a congressional committee can delay something for a week or a month or a year. And I had not understood, for example, what kind of impact such delays had on a large company as against a small company. A large company has lawyers, lobbyists, and so on—in other words, has sufficient heft that a delay isn't quite so costly. It is costly, of course, but the problem is masked by this mass. But a small company it sucks the life out of A six-month delay on whether or not the government is going to renew something, say, a tax exemption for Puerto Rico, makes it difficult for a company. Where are you going to put a new plant, for instance? Congressional committees hold hearings, and uncertainty is exactly what increases their PACs and draws the money in. There were so many things like that that I really didn't understand. To get into a business and get a sense of the effect of the things we had been taking for granted in Congress was just fascinating."

There’s more in Rumsfeld about his public service than his business career, so those readers interested in that aspect of his life will need to search elsewhere. Also, this flattering profile describes enemies and criticism, but a more balanced or critical view can also be found elsewhere. If you’re looking for reinforcement of the positive impressions you have of the current Secretary of Defense, Rumsfeld is the book for you.

Steve Hopkins, January 22, 2004


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The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the February 2004 issue of Executive Times

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