THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Donald Rumsfeld, Part I
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. My guest is Assistant to the President of the United States, about whom The Washington Post recently began a series of articles by writing, “Donald Henry Rumsfeld has a world view, holds three jobs in the White House. And has an organized office adorned with a bust of Abraham Lincoln. At 42, Rumsfeld is the most powerful man in Washington, next to the president.” As perhaps too many people note these days, the article then went on to describe Donald Rumsfeld as the Haldeman of the Ford White House, the faithful executor of presidential directives, and keeper of the gates of access.
Donald Rumsfeld, I’d like to ask you a little bit about those gates of access. It had been said at the end of the last administration that a guardian of those gates was an inappropriate instrument for a democracy. And I wonder how you feel today being characterized as the guardian once again?
RUMSFELD: Well, I don’t take all the articles I read in the press too seriously, Dick, to be perfectly honest. I don’t get excited or particularly agree with a lot of the characterizations I read. I’m not the guardian of the White House or the guardian of the door to the president. People write about that and they speculate it. I suppose part of its inertia from previous periods. But the president is a grown man. He’s perfectly capable of working up his own schedule, and he does. He’s perfectly capable of making judgments as to who he’s able to see and who he’s not able-to see and how he wishes to spend his time, and he does. I assist him in that process, as do a number of other people. But in terms of keeping people out, I just plain don’t.
HEFFNER: Well, let’s not take the attitude that we’re talking about keeping people out. But having people come in, there must be some sifting process in a nation as complicated As our own, there must be tremendous demands upon his time.
RUMSFELD: Well, there are demands on his time. And the way we do it is a fairly normal, orderly way. People make recommendations for the president to see certain people. These are Cabinet officers, staff people, letters, phone calls, congressional requests, press requests, whatever. These are then put forward to the president, and the president will make a judgment as to whether he wishes to or not. Now, there is a sifting process in the sense that if somebody writes in and says, “I’d like to come and see the president so that I can recommend that he shinny up Washington Monument,” that one might not reach him. But reasonable requests do, in fact come forward. A second sifting process is one the president undertakes. And that’s whereby he will say, for example, “during the period on Wednesday or Thursday, I’m going to be engaged in “preparations for some meetings with a foreign head of government, and I’d prefer not to have meetings on that day that don’t relate to that.” Or he may say, “I don’t want to engage in certain types of activities during a certain period of time,” in which case, those requests would not come forward during that period. In other words, he can give broader policy guidance. He may say that he wants certain things grouped together. But the fact of the matter is that he does make the judgments and indicate who he wishes to see. I meet with him, oh, once or twice a day for a short period of time with a series of these folders that indicate various requests. And he will very quick check “yes” or “no” or maybe,” or delay it or move it this way or that way. And it doesn’t take any great amount of time.
HEFFNER: You know I’m fascinated by the fact that you don’t want to be characterized as the keeper of the gates. And I realize from reading in the press that you reject that notion. But I would have assumed that if it hadn’t been for our most recent experience, let’s say with Mr. Haldeman, that perhaps you would embrace the notion that in as complicated a time as our own, one would have to watch those gates, that information glut could surround a president and push him under just as easily as a denial of access.
RUMSFELD: Well, it seems to me that your statement presumes, that that president doesn’t know how to handle himself, or that a president wouldn’t. And it strikes me that that’s not the case. That a president doesn’t get there by accident, he is a person that is capable of conducting the affairs of the public, and therefore he’s perfectly capable of making judgments with respect to priorities on his own time. I’m kind of old-fashioned, also. I think that the Constitution does put the power in the president and that, to the extent possible, the president should make judgments, and people should not make judgments for the president. Now, that requires that a president not make each individual specific decision in the executive branch of the federal government. Conversely, it requires that he develop broad policy guidance so that a whole range of decisions can be made the way he would want them made under that policy guidance. And that is, in fact, how the executive branch of the federal government works. And it works also this way -with respect to scheduling.
HEFFNER: Well, you say your old-fashioned, and the Constitution and the original structure seems to work correctly. I’d still ask you about the difference between the presidency in Washington’s time, or even in Lincoln’s time in the midst of war, and the presidency today. For some reason the White House staff has grown as it has. For some reason we have millions of federal bureaucrats rather than a few thousand. Don’t these reasons bring about the kind of situation in which the president must be assisted more and more in interpreting who shall have access?
RUMSELFD: On the access question I guess I would not agree with that. That is what he has to give the country, is time and the judgments that are made during his waking hours. There is probably nothing more important for the president to decide than how he’s going to use his time. Because it’s the judgments that are made, that he addresses during that time that he devotes to foreign policy, to economic policy, to energy policy that in fact shape the direction and the course of the administration.
HEFFNER: Does that mean that any staff person can get in to see the president and the White House? Or any Cabinet member at any time that he deems it necessary?
RUMSFELD: Well, it does. Now let me qualify that. Let’s assume that a staff member on the White House staff decides that it’s important for him to spend four hours a day with the president each day. And he begins to come in the room or call up the president or submit a request for those types of commitments of time. It wouldn’t take him very long to figure out after the president asked him to leave a few times or rejected the box “yes” or “no” on the schedule proposal, that that really wasn’t in the cards and that his priorities were different from the president’s. So yes and no. A Cabinet officer – this morning Secretary Rogers Morton was in the White House early for a meeting. He indicated he wanted to see the president. He was not on the calendar. I arranged for him to go in during a period when I was to have been in there. And we made an adjustment and he saw him. He was there for ten minutes on an important matter, got it worked out, and departed. Now, if a person abuses the opportunity to use the president’s time or to make demands on the president’s time, then of course the president, by a variety of methods, leaves that individual with no question in his mind that we have to adjust that. So the answer is yes, a Cabinet officer, a senior staff person, a member of the House, a member of the Senate can, in fact, see the president. And they do continuously. But it’s an opportunity and an allocation of time which can’t be abused and over a period of time.
HEFFNER: Why didn’t this happen in the Nixon administration?
RUMSFELD: Well, it seems to me that — first of all, a general answer – I’m not in the perfect position to compare this administration with any previous president or their administration. It seems to me that unless one is there, going through the decision-making process in, say, the Kennedy Administration or the Johnson administration or the Nixon Administration or whatever, George Washington’s, it’s very difficult to know what certainty that you would have done because you weren’t a part of that process. You weren’t affected by the pressures or the demand on your time or the concerns or the hopes or the aspirations or whatever. Now, the differences between administrations are significant. The most important difference is the president. The individuals are different human begins. Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Eisenhower, Ford, during my political career, since I went to Washington in 1957, have all been very different in terms of their approach to things, in terms of their methods of operating. A second thing is different is the times are different. Each of those presidents were president during a period of history that was different from the next. So I think that that begins to affect and shape things.
Now, the direct answer to your question, “why wouldn’t this have been appropriate in the previous administration?” It seems to me that what’s important is for the president to be president. That’s what the Constitution envisions, that’s the way the system’s designed to work. That’s how people make their judgments at election time when he’s measured against his performance. And therefore, a president has to do what he thinks is best. And it may be that one president might decide that this whole category of responsibilities is not of sufficiently high priority for him to attend to. Therefore, he delegates that, with some policy guidance, to someone else. A different president might have decided that that category of responsibilities were more important, and he would take unto himself the decision-making process with respect to those, and not delegate them. So you say, “why would this have worked in the previous administration, A: I’m not sure that what maybe, that’s what was being done. I can’t say with certainty that it was not, because I wasn’t a part of that direct linkage between the two of them. Secondly, if it was not what done, my assumption has to be it was not done because the President of the United States during that period made a judgment that it should not be done. And that was an active presidential decision.
HEFFNER: You’ve said, in talking about how decisions are made in the White House, you said that, “form is substance, that a properly organized decision-making process does not guarantee decisions of high quality, but are certain to have uneven decisions without an orderly process.”
RUMSFELD: I think what I really said was that procedure can affect substance, as opposed to form is substance. I don’t recall ever saying that. But that is what was quoted, you’re quite correct. My recollection of what I said was that procedure can affect substance. And this is true. It can affect it in a variety of ways. Let’s say that the president is about to make a decision with respect to oil, just to take an example. Now, oil at the same time, can be a matter that’s of highest importance to the National Security Council and the Secretary of Sate. It can be of the highest importance to the Secretary of Treasury and the Economic Policy Board. It can be of the great importance to the Congressional Relations Office, because they’re dealing continuously with the committees in the Congress that have an interest in that. It’s a subject that’s very much in the news, therefore the Press Office is involved. It certainly is something that the Office of the Council has to be engaged with, from a legal standpoint. Now, if you have a presidential decision-making process that has reasonable integrity and discipline to it, one would assume that the president would want to assure himself that he had the advice of the principal people in his administration, and out, who have competence and background and/or statutory responsibility for that area.
Now, when I say, “procedure can affect substance,” what I mean is this: if the system, the White House presidential decision-making process, and the system that sees that that moves along, lacks integrity or lacks discipline, one or more of those individuals who has a legitimate interest. In seeing that he and his bureaucracy, his interest, has an opportunity to be expressed with respect to that, if he’s cut out of the process, then in fact you run the risk that the President of the United States will be making a decision with less than the advice of all or each of his principal advisors. That means that he runs the risks of being blindsided, not knowing something that he should have known in making that decision. He runs the risk of having an imbalance in the advice, not the proper weighting. He clearly runs the risks of having an unhappy Congress, because the Cabinet officers are dealing with the congressional committees continuously. And for them not to have their views reflected in the process would be unfortunate, if he were not to take them into account. And therefore, the decision that’s finally made can be dramatically affected by the procedures you have in place to determine whether or not the president is or is not getting the advice of his principal people. Now, in every instance, he need not. That is to say, it’s perfectly proper for a president to say to himself, “this is a decision which requires the utmost secrecy and the utmost speed. Therefore, I am consciously not going to broaden the consultation process so that I will have the advice of every conceivable person who might have a view or a legitimate interest in that subject.” That’s all right if he decides it. In my judgment, it’s wrong if someone else decides it. In other words, my task to make sure that the process has integrity, so that he either has the advice of those principal people, or he knows consciously that he does not, and that it’s his decision not to.
HEFFNER: Suppose we don’t use the word “gatekeeper” any longer. We don’t talk about access; we talk about decision-making. Then your responsibility, once the president has decided to put that process into motion, is an extremely important one, isn’t it?
RUMSFELF: It is important, although it’s not one of excluding. Quite the reverse. It’s one of trying to ensure that the other elements of the government are in fact part of that decision-making process.
HEFFNER: Those who ensure who get into the process, of course, wield a tremendous amount of influence and power. You really don’t want to deny that, do you?
RUMSFELD: I guess I don’t deny or affirm it, because it’s not my power, it’s presidential power. If he says to me, “Rumsfeld, this is how I want this to operate,” and I then operate it that way – which is how I happen to think it ought to operate – and I then operate it that way.
HEFFNER: With no judgment? Just a mechanical…
RUMSFELD: It is his decision that that’s how he wants it to operate. And if I fail to see that the people are properly included in that process, he certainly will learn about it very rapidly. And I will have failed my job, my task, my assignment. And certainly then the correction comes very quickly. So there’s not a… there’s discretion in seeing that it’s done in the way that he advised or that he wishes, but there’s not broad discretion over a period of time without fairly rapid correction, as it should be.
HEFFNER: I remember years ago in Aspen, when President Ford was a participant in a seminar and was to come back the next year and couldn’t. He was then the House Minority Leader and he said there was the brightest young man he had had ever known, he wanted him to come out in his place. And you were the person. What…
RUMSFELD: You have quite a memory. (Laughter)
HEFFNER: I remember that very well. And I… what was the nature of your own relationship with the president that led him so long ago to identify you as a person he’d want to have take his place?
RUMSFELD: Well, when I wasn an assistant to a congressman, one of the congressmen I worded for was Bob Griffin of Michigan. He’s now a senator and a very close friend of the president, and a tremendouly able man. He’s now the the Republican Whip in the United States Senate. I met then Congressman Jerry Ford from Michigan in the fifties. When I was elected to Congress in 1962, one of the first things I did was to assist Rob Griffin in helping to elect Jerry Ford Republican Conference Chairman. It was my assignment to recruit votes from among the newly elected freshmen congressman, of which I was one, to support Gerald Ford against the incumbent Republican Conference Chairman. Two years later, after working with Congressman Gerald Ford, I then met with Bob Griffin and two or three others, and we decided that we felt it would be healthy for the Republican Party if there were a contest for the post of Republican leader in the United States House of Representatives. We went over the 140 surviving Republicans after the 1964 Goldwater/Johnson election, and selected Gerald Ford as the person we felt who best could represent the Republicans in the House of Representatives. We asked him to run. He finally agreed to run. We worked very hard, and he won by two votes. So I naturally got to know him quite well back in the very early 1960s. It was immediately after that ‘64 election for the House Republican Leader that he asked me to fill in for him at the Aspen Institute.
HEFFNER: The press reports, as it always must because it’s always in this adversary relationship to anyone in power, that you have ambitions to succeed him in his present position. What’s your comment on that?
RUMSFELD: (Laughter). My goodness. I read that stuff. I’ve never suggested that to anybody. And certainly, if one looks at my background, they would have to agree that I have not taken the steps that a prudent person would have done were that their single-minded goal. I don’t think that I know anybody who would’ve ever suggested that I become Director of the Office of Economic Opportunity in 1969 when it was an embattled agency, the poor were disenchanted and cynical about it, the non-poor, who had been paying the bills, were disappointed that it had not worked as well as they had hoped. And that was not considered a lush spot for a person who had ambitions. Then I went from that to the director of the Wage-Price Controls. Now, that was phase two, the one that worked, you’ll recall. But imagine running Wage-Price Controls in a republican administration. The first peacetime attempt or experiment with Wage-Price controls in our history. Again, not the kind of a thing a person would get involved in were they pointing towards what you’re suggesting. And finally, I make a decision in 1972, that I had been in Washington long enough and that I wanted to see some different people and wrestle with some different problems and read some different books and I managed to become Ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which at that time was felt to be a bit of a graveyard and off the beaten path and out of the action immediately after the former president had been re-elected by some 59 percent, the second-highest election in history. And I sold my house in Washington, made plans to go back to Illinois after I completed my assignment as Ambassador to NATO. Lo and behold, I’m back in Washington. I didn’t volunteer for it, but it… I guess there’s no answer to it. I have liked to work hard because I enjoy working hard. I like government, and feel very privileged to be able to be involved in government during a major portion of my life. I like to do well at things. It’s important to me that, if you’re given an assignment that you try to do it the best you can. I’m afraid that some people confuse that with some sort of single-mindedness on my part. I can’t predict what the future will hold. I certainly couldn’t have predicted any one of the last ten years of my career, as to what I’d be doing next. And I swear that I don’t even know what I’ll be doing next year.
HEFFNER: Well, what I mentioned before, this adversary relationship that sometimes requires that a public official, elected or otherwise, always there in the hot spot, I was referring somewhat to that constant needling of you that I see in the press. Needling in the form of the recognition, I think, of real ability, and the assumption, therefore, that that ability must be about to turn itself to political use, to personal political use, along the lines of…
RUMSFELD: I can’t think of a worse job for anyone to be in if they had ambition than the job I’m in. It’s a graveyard. People who served in it previously have had tremendous difficulties. It’s an incredibly difficult job. It’s exhausting in terms of the number of hours. It’s terribly demanding. There’s a great reluctance on the part of people to criticize a president. So when the president decides that he’ll veto a bill instead of not vetoing the bill, those that are happy praise him, those that are unhappy claim he got bad advice from somebody mysterious. Or if they find that he makes a judgment not to see them rather than see them, they, needless to say, don’t attribute that to the president, because that would mean that they lost face. Therefore, they suggest that somebody is keeping them out. There’s somebody mysterious up there in the White House who’s doing something very bad. Well, that’s life. And while I didn’t volunteer for the job, I accepted it, and I’m happy to do it for the president because I think he’s a fine person and doing a good job. But it is certainly the worst job in Washington from the standpoint of trying to advance yourself. I mean, It’s just a constant source of criticism and difficulties, because any time you try to coordinate eight or nine people and see that they’re all part of that process, why, some win, some lose. And there’s always some criticism of the person who’s involved in that process of coordinating.
HEFFNER: What would make it the best job in Washington would be if the person who holds it became President of the United States.
RUMSFELD: Is that right?
HEFFNER: Wouldn’t you admit that, at least?
RUMSFELD: Well, I don’t know that I’ve ever realty spent that much time thinking about that. I’ve been around the office of the president, and I’ve seen several presidents. I guess my hope and intention at some point is to leave government for a period of years, try to spend some time with my family as my children continue growing. Try to walk away from the trees so I can see the forest. I’ve been in Washington for the most part since 1962, with the exception of two years in Belgium as Ambassador to NATO. I’ve had a chance to be involved in the legislative and the executive side. I’ve had the chance to be involved in the domestic, the economic, and the national security side. I feel very fortunate, but I think it would probably be good for me, just as I left for a period to go to Belgium, to leave Washington for a period and be in Illinois or some other part of this country as a member of the private sector, either in business or in the academic community, not wrestling with government problems every minute. I think that would be a helpful thing to me personally in terms of perspective, in terms of balance, in terms of knowledge. And so I would kind of pointing in the other direction, I’m afraid.
HEFFNER: Do you think the inability of so many of us to accept that at face value is a function of, well, in the instance between the two of us, a generation gap, or the assumption that anyone in high power must want more power and more power, and want it immediately? That seems to be the theme of recent events in Washington.
RUMSFELD: That may be part of it. All I can speak for is myself. And I mean, I didn’t sell my house in Washington for my health. I just fully intended not to come back to Washington when I went to Belgium, But I’m back.
HEFFNER: And you did, I gather, in terms of your own relationship with Gerald Ford, in terms of your own devotion to him.
RUMSFELD: I did indeed. Well, my father had died, and I came back to the United States and happened to be at the funeral and he asked me to come and see him. And it was a point where he had decided that General Hiag should become the supreme allied commander in Europe, and he prevailed upon me to take his post. And so here I am.
HEFFNER. Let me just ask how much more time we have. We have another minute? Let me just ask you a few questions and then, if may, ask that we continue taping after this program and come back for some of the points that you’ve raised that I haven’t followed, but what I’d like to. But this question, you say, when you came back and the president asked you to stay in this position. You feel that it’s a position, I gather from opening comments, not that of chief of staff. Is that a fair statement?
RUMSFELD: Well, I actually administer over the White House machinery. And that’s a line function. My third responsibility is as the coordinator of the other principal assistants to the president.
HEFFNER: Okay. I think that’s a fair point at which we’ll take a break and come back again next month with another program. Thanks so much for joing me today, Donald Rumsfeld, Assistant to the President of the United States.
And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope that you will join us again on The Open Mind. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck.”