A View from the White House, Part II


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Donald Rumsfeld, Part II
VTR: 7-6-75

I’m Richard Heffner, you’re host on the Open Mind. Donald Rumsfeld is Assistant to the President of the United States, was my guest on the last Open Mind program, and is back with us again today.

Mr. Rumsfeld, I’d like to begin today’s program by referring to a speech that you made at Lake Forest College on June 7, 1975. I was very much impressed with your beginning, and you said – and with the ending too, and the middle too – you said that in 1954 you had heard a speech that had had a profound effect upon you and you didn’t, in the course of your speech itself, indicate who delivered that speech. Who did?

RUMSFELD: Actually, it was Adlai Stevenson, the former governor of the state of Illinois, who was, at that point, between his two presidential campaigns. And it was, as you mention, in 1954. He was in a very reflective mood. He had not been back to Princeton, where he had graduated, for many years. And he came back and spoke to our senior banquet shortly before graduation. It was a very special speech. It was brilliantly delivered, very thoughtful, and as I indicated, something that did have a profound effect on me.

HEFFNER: What was the nature of its content that had that effect?

RUMSFELD: One of the events of that period was the McCarthy Hearings, which of course had, it was really one of the first major televised congressional hearings in history. And it was a time when there was a good deal of mistrust in the country. Governor Stevenson’s talk, his visit with the graduating seniors, was used essentially to talk about the nature of the American political system, about the importance of individual citizen action and involvement in that process. As I recall, he said something to the effect that our country had made a magnificent gamble, that we had decided that the people should have an opportunity to help guide and direct the course of our country, and that that was a magnificent gamble, and it was a gamble in the sense that it presumes that free people will be able; given sufficient information, to make correct judgments. It presumes further that trust, that fundamental glue that assists in communications, because without trust there is no communication, there is no leadership by consent as opposed to command, that that trust will exist. It presumes that good people will involve themselves in the affairs of government, either as principal, active participants, or as supporters or defenders or correctors of those who are in public life. He said it considerably more eloquently than I have.

HEFFNER: You say, “given sufficient information, the people can govern themselves.” I don’t mean constantly to strike a negative note, but there have been those who have felt that in our own times it was almost impossible for the average citizen to have the kind of information that would be considered sufficient for him to govern himself, to vote appropriately. How do you respond to that? In the 21 years that have elapsed since you heard Governor Stevenson, I wonder whether we haven’t…

RUMSFELD: Has it been that long? (Laughter)

HEFFNER: It’s been that long, I’m sorry. Sorry for myself and for you. Hasn’t our society become so much more complicated that the possibility of being well informed has diminished considerably?


RUMSFELD: No, indeed, just the reverse is the case. The means of communication today are so far superior to 21 year’s ago. Now, it’s true that this is not any more ancient Greece where the constituency could sit on a hillside and discuss and debate the affairs of the city state. We talk of future shock, the compression of events, the glut of information. But do you know, the human being is an amazing mechanism. People are able to adjust to things. And I don’t question for a minute but that as the technological changes have occurred, as the television has come upon us, as the velocity of world events has accelerated, I don’t question for a second but that there may be periods where people might lose their bearings, where it’s more difficult than in other times. But people adjust. Their tolerance level changes. And they find that they can sift and sort. And it’s not necessary for each citizen, 213 million in this nation of ours, to have all information on all subjects so they could act in each other’s stead in government on all decisions. What is essential is that there be a rough sense of direction, that there be a point where a correction can be made, as we do have every two years when a majority of all the members of the House and a third of the senators are elected and where a president is elected every four years or re-elected. There has to be, in our country, to govern successfully, people have to have a sense of the American people, they, successful public leaders. They have to be in communication with them. And they have to prove themselves and be measured against what they say and what they do. So I think that, despite the changes we’ve seen in the world, despite the changes we’ll see, probably at an accelerated rate in the coming 21 years, my estimate is that our system of government does work, that that magnificent gamble is a good gamble, and that in fact we’ll find that human beings can adjust and continue to adjust and fulfill that role of public responsibility, which they have.

HEFFNER: You said too that the other quality that Governor Stevenson referred to was trust. And when I was reading your speeches, I noted to you before the program, you said. “but what struck me” — and you were talking about his speech — “and what remains in my mind was the importance of trust in the American system.” And then I asked you whether you meant trust in the American system, or whether you meant the importance of the element of trust, of believability in our system.

RUMSFELD: And without question I meant the element of trust in the sense of believability. If you have a system that suggests that the people can play a role, and if you have a system where leaders lead not by command but by consent, by agreement, that means they lead by persuasion, by communication. And with trust there is no communication. If a person disbelieves, they don’t listen. They don’t want to listen. And I think that the, if one thinks of graduating seniors today, or thinks of any of us, we’ve gone through some perfectly startling events in the last 10 to 15 years, in the lifetime of these students that are now graduating. We’ve had a president assassinated in office, we’ve had one candidate for president wounded, another killed. We’ve had a president who wasn’t able to run for reelection. We’ve had a president who, for the first time in our history, resigned. We’ve seen inflation, recession, war. There have been some very unusual events. And we’d, I think all would agree that we’ve also lived through a period where, for one reason or another, the reservoir of trust has been drained somewhat. You know if you’re in a sailboat and you turn the rudder and you’re not moving, theSailboat does turn. It just stays there. You need steerageway to steer the sailboat, for the rudder to work. Trust is like that for our society. If everyone’s going off in their own direction and doing their own thing, or doing nothing as their own thing, nothing happens in our society, because although we believe in the individual as the real source of creativity in our society, we know that for really great things to be achieved, it require that people work together. And the only way that they can work together is if, in fact, there is a leadership and a followership that comes from communication, that comes from trust, that comes from ascent. That is to say that cooperation and cohesion, voluntarily achieved, is in fact the thing that has enabled our country to do some perfectly splendid things.


HEFFNER: There seem to be a great many people in the last decade who have felt that that ascent literally has come from on top to below, and that what you had was communications downward and a somewhat high degree at carelessness about literally what the people tell or what they meant, if indeed there was any consensus that you could identify as what they wanted or meant. Do you feel that there is some sense of reversing that today? Is there some means by which we can reverse it?

RUMSFELD: When I was out the country for two years, and when I came back I was struck by the fact that the leadership structure at our society seemed to have flattened somewhat, that there weren’t groupings of people working towards common goals, that there was a sense of anti-politician and anti-union or anti-school or anti-church feeling. This is disturbing. It tends to confirm what you’re suggesting that for one reason or another people were mistrustful or not willing to be a part of something bigger than themselves, not willing to submerge their own views into something that had the support and cooperation of a great many more people. I see it changing, personally I think, there’s probably nothing more frustrating than freedom that’s purposeless. And freedom is a very special thing. And when one doesn’t have it, they tend to value it greater than when they do have it. But it’s not a very special thing if it’s for nothing. And that freedom that we have as individuals, I think, is purposeless unless we begin to recognize that it’s through groupings of people and institutions and working with others that something important can be accomplished.

HEFFNER: And you see the role of leadership as providing that purposefulness.

RUMSFELD: Well, I guess I think the first thing that has to be done – and I personally believe it is now being done – is to refill that reservoir of trust. I don’t think you have steerageway without that. Because unless you can communicate and be believed and have people have a sense that that is in fact where you are and who you are as a political figure or as a leader in a family or in a company or a union, there isn’t, any followership, there isn’t any cooperation, there isn’t any communication back and forth so that the direction can be voluntarily agreed upon by more than one person. We see a microcosm of this, I think, in the United States today. Now as a former congressman, I don’t want to sound critical of that institution, because I think it’s a great institution. But the fact of the matter is it truly represents the country. And in it’s most recent period, it’s reflected something of what I’ve just described. That is to say 435 members of the House and 100 members of the Senate tending to each go off and do their own thing. Well, that’s not good enough. Simply because a person has a mimeograph machine doesn’t mean we need 535 economic policies or 435 energy policies or 100 foreign policies, one to suit each senator. In fact, we need one foreign policy for the country. And that means that there has to be compromise, there has to be adjustment, there has to be a movement toward some common principles, and some point we’ll see some gelling of the leadership structure in the House and the Senate, and we will, I think, probably see it at a point where we also see it in the country.

HEFFNER: Well, how do you analyze the comments that some people make, aside from dismissing them? I trust you wouldn’t. But how do you analyze the comments that some people make that that trust that you ask for, that you find so necessary as the glue that keeps a democratic society together, that it is not possible any longer at a time when the very media that you spoke about that provide us presumably with so much information, have it or see it as a part of their task to present the whole story, the whole story being that which makes it so much more difficult for us to have and to keep idealized images of leaders? How can you have the trust when, on the one hand, we have an information industry or an information input that constantly is demeaning to the presentation of all the information, our capacity to admire a leader, our capacity to have trust? Is it really possible? And I wonder what your analysis of that comment that so many people make these days, that we’ve moved away from the possibility of having trust in those images, because idealized images are necessary.


RUMSFELD: Well, if one follows what you’re saying — and I’ve heard it, as you’re suggesting, it is a theory that’s common today — but if one followed it to it’s logical extreme, it would suggest that free people can no longer participate in governing themselves, that something has happened to our life and that it’s not possible for human beings to adjust to this new situation. Now, I just reflect that. There is not a doubt in my mind but that the people of this country will be able to begin to sift out from that glut of information, from the editorializing, the interpretive comment, the negatives, the pluses, and sit through it and make relative judgments. Now, they may alter their view as to what a leader is. It may be something less than perfection. It may be more like a real human being. But it’ll be relative. It’ll be is this person a better leader than that person? That’s a relative judgment, as opposed to, is this person perfect? Indeed, we’re not perfect. We’re human beings, those of us in government, those of us in leadership positions – and every person in the country is in a leadership position, as well as a followership position. So people begin to measure it from their own life. And they will do that. They will know that in some instances they’re a good father or a good mother or a good friend or a good foreman. In some instances they may have made bad judgments, but that doesn’t make them evil people. It means that they will alter their expectations. And expectations will be not for the man on the white horse who is perfect, who knows everything, who I simply want to wait for him to tell me where to go and what to do and what to think. But rather it will be an expectation that’s more realistic maybe, or adjusted to what is in fact exists in our society. And yet, the reason it will occur is because people at some point will say, “it’s not acceptable to have everybody running off in a separate direction. It’s not acceptable to have every senator thinking he can conduct the foreign policy of our country.” We’ve got to have one national energy policy. It’s not acceptable for 535 members of the House and Senate to tear around, each thinking they can have their own one, meaning we have no policy for our country. They will reject that at some point. And that is to say they will reject it because they know that it’s ineffective, it’s purposeless, and in fact, they will say, “this may not be perfect, but it makes more sense than something else.” I believe that.

HEFFNER: In your address at Lake Forest though, you indicated that there are several dangers. You’ve never denied the danger, and I admire you for that. And one of the dangers, of course, is the possibility that the substitute for the many, many, many disparate voices being heard will be one voice, and not the voice of all the people, not consensus, if that’s a word we can use again, but rather the voice of a man on horseback. And I wonder where it is written, in your estimation, we will come out of it with a sense of identifying an individual and turning to him, because it would seem that the history of the world is the history of men on horseback coming galloping on the scene at a very time such as our own. What gives you your, this faith?

RUMSFELD: Well, I did mention that in my remarks, because particularly having watched the European political scene and listened to the discussions there about people who are so frustrated with the rates of inflation in Europe, which are considerably higher than ours, who are so frustrated with the confusion, the strikes, the disarray that many of those countries find themselves in, that people do start saying, “well, what we need is strong leadership. What we need is authoritarian leadership. What we need is someone to really take ahold of this thing.” Now you take that to an extreme and you end up with an authoritarian system that means that in exchange for that benefit of order you pay a penalty. And the penalty you pay is freedom. And that’s a penalty we won’t pay in this country. Why do I say what I say?

HEFFNER: I was going to ask you. I’m glad you’ve asked yourself.

RUMSFELD: I guess I say it because we’ve seen 200 years of history in our country, and more. As I go around the country, I find people who are dissatisfied with where the pendulum is at the moment, but they’re not looking for violent swings, either to the left or to the right. Yes, there is a bit of despair, there is some mistrust, there is a sense of things didn’t quite work out. That is not necessarily a bad thing, that people feel that way, because to the extent people participate in this process they can make good judgments. And to the extent things might not have worked out perfectly for us in every instance, it’s all right for us to reflect on our past judgments and to, try to improve them in the future. But I don’t think that this country will make that kind of a violent turn to the left or the right.


HEFFNER: Where, what are the evidences that you have of a resurgence of this glue, of this trust, of the quality of trust and belief in ourselves and in our leaders? Where do you see it?

RUMSFELD: I suppose partly its faith in the people in this country that I know and respect. Partly it’s faith in the system that we have that may be imperfect but that, as Churchill said, “it’s far better than any other that’s ever been tried.” And partly it’s microscopic pieces of evidence. George Schultz, the former Secretary of the Treasury, was in Washington a number of weeks ago for the unveiling of his portrait as Secretary of Treasury. It was a very small affair mostly family and friends. He said something that struck me. He said, very simply, that “this president of ours is trusted because he trusts people.” And there’s something true about that. You tend to find in life what you go out and expect to find. And a person such as President Ford is, who does trust people, does find that that trust is reciprocated. If a person approaches life in a different way – and I’m not saying this to praise him – I think its just happenstance that he happens to have quality. It may be developed, it may be environmentally created, but the fact of the matter is he happens to be president, and I think it’s fortunate that he is, because he does trust people. And people can tell that. And they respond to that. No, I believe at some point that will begin to be seen and felt. I think also after people go on a bit of a binge and mistrust everything, that’s kind of a, without mooring lines, they then say, “well, that isn’t all fired great anyway, and I think maybe I’ll go back and maybe trust something.” So you begin to see pieces of it throughout the society. And I could cite other little things, but I don’t know that they would be any more persuasive. I think maybe history will have to prove me right or wrong.

HEFFNER: Well, it does bring back, of course, the question of, that again you raised in your speech, the question of the search for scapegoats, when we are, I mean, we can turn to trust, as you’ve suggested – but we can turn to scapegoats, and we can turn to men on horseback. And I gather your assumption is we’ll do neither of those.

RUMSFELD: I think we’ll do some of the first two. We will possibly muse about the advantage of having strong leadership, and then shy away from that too-strong leadership. We may very well, people in this country, may go through that process of saying, “it was their fault.” But in fact, all of us, I think, to the extent things aren’t perfect, recognize that it’s very difficult to pinpoint blame only on others, that each of us has a responsibility. One of the things Adlai Stevenson said in his speech in 1954 was, he said, “If a good man in public life is attacked unfairly, and others fail to defend him, good people won’t go into public life because they won’t be willing to tolerate the guerilla warfare of life unless others will assist them, support them, defend them when they’re right, criticize them when they’re wrong, but be helpful and be a part of it, because it’s not enough to do that alone.”

HEFFNER: But you…

RUMSFELD: And I think that that begins to come.

HEFFNER: You smile so benignly when you referred to Stevenson’s comments because I gather to you it means that people will support those who have been unfairly attacked, and that those who watch what has happened will continue to enter public life.

RUMSFELD: I think they will.

HEFFNER: All right, but perhaps in our own time we’ve seen how difficult it is not to be attacked, and we’ve seen and heard of a number of instances in which people have withdrawn from public life because the kitchen has gotten…

RUMSFELD: Really hot.

HEFFNER: … too hot. Too hot. None, it might be well to remember with great admiration what Adlai Stevenson says, “unless this happens, there will be a refusal of good men to enter politics.” Perhaps in our own time we’ve seen the result, not of that as a contrary-to-fact statement, but as a factual statement that the heat is too great. Again, the adversary press question. President Ford hasn’t experienced it to the extent, certainly, that President Nixon did or that Lyndon Johnson did. What happens to men who find now that with media that bring instant information instantly everywhere, that everyone is fair game? Do you think you can… do you personally feel that in your own life situation you can take that kind of heat, want to take that kind of heat?


RUMSFELD: I can say as I enjoy it, no. I mean when I’m attacked unfairly, and I admit that I get praised inaccurately as well as blamed inaccurately, I suppose in life you have to take the good with the bad, but I don’t like it. But maybe what happens to us is that we develop the ability to belong and get a little tougher skin and recognize that that’s just the environment we’re functioning in. It is a critical period. People are critical. They do look at each person and examine them under the microscope. And they find imperfections because we’re human beings. But I don’t know that that necessarily means that our system can’t work. I think that it is working. And I think that it’s going to be working better in the coming period. The warning that Stevenson gave in 1954, do you think that what has happened since that time has indicated the wisdom of that warning in terms of the growing pace, the acceleration of attacks upon public figures? Not in the McCarthy sense necessarily, but just that you’re all fair game.

RUMSFELD: Um hum. I think it’s like many lessons that, when you’re dealing with human beings and groups of human beings, many of the lessons that need to be learned are never learned plainly. They have to continuously be learned. And my sense of it is that his comment had a high degree of validity in 1954, but in many respects they’re equally valid today, for this generation. And I think they may very well be valid 20 years from now, albeit in a somewhat different way.

HEFFNER: So your concerns are not quite that great when you thrust into the future 20 years?

RUMSFELD: We’ll make it.

HEFFNER: We’ll make it. Thank you very much for joining me today and helping us interpret the ways in which we can make it, Donald Rumsfeld, Assistant to the President of the United States. All of the political and public and information chaos of our times, and I do appreciate your having joined us today, Mr. Rumsfeld.

RUMSFELD: Thank you very much.

HEFFNER: Thank you very much.

And thanks too, to you ladies and gentlemen in the audience. I hope that you’ll join us again on THE OPEN MIND. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck.”

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