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Portrait Unveiling for Secretary Donald Rumsfeld

As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, The Pentagon, Friday, June 25, 2010

Good morning, and thank you all for coming.

I would like to start by welcoming Secretary Rumsfeld’s family back to the Pentagon –his wife Joyce, their children, Valerie, Nick and Marcy and their families.

It is no surprise that today’s event has brought together a truly extraordinary gathering of distinguished guests – men and women who’ve served at the highest levels of public life in the military, the executive branch, and the Congress.  I know the Rumsfeld family is honored and grateful for your presence, as am I.

A tradition has developed in the building that at the unveiling of a former defense secretary’s portrait, the sitting Secretary says a few words about his predecessor’s accomplishments.  It is an important tradition – one that reflects the fact that even as administrations change, there is a degree of continuity in the experience of the men who have held this post:  

  • The challenges we face;
  • The obstacles we have to overcome within this building and across the river;
  • The changes we pursue to better protect this country and do right by its men and women in uniform.

I often joke about having failed retirement from public life.  Well, Don Rumsfeld – who served as both 13th and 21st Secretary of Defense – has me more than beat on that account.  At least I returned to Washington to take a different job than the one I retired from.

Secretary Rumsfeld came to this institution with a mandate to transform the U.S. defense establishment from its Cold War posture, attitudes and moorings to a force ready to confront the threats of the 21st Century.  On a bright Tuesday morning in September, eight months into President Bush’s first term, a decade of slumber in a holiday from history came to a crashing halt.  This country and this military learned how dangerous and unpredictable this new era could be, and saw in the starkest terms how necessary was the task of transforming this department to meet these challenges.

On that dark day, and in the weeks and months that followed, Secretary Rumsfeld simultaneously inspired, educated and often charmed a wounded nation – including millions who were not even yet born at the time he was last in government.  They saw: 

  • A defense secretary put his own safety at risk by rushing to the scene of the Pentagon 9/11 attack to help with the wounded;
  • They saw straight talk from the podium about how yes, we were really going to “kill” America’s enemies who had so grievously harmed our country – jarring stuff for a country grown accustomed to euphemisms and political correctness; and 
  • They saw the rapid removal of two odious regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq.

As the U.S. military took on the arduous task to bring stability and a decent future in two traumatized countries, Secretary Rumsfeld simultaneously pursued an agenda of institutional transformation and reform – grappling with inertia and vested interests like the champion wrestler he once was.  The result is an American military that has become more agile, lethal, and prepared to deal with the full spectrum of conflict.  Consider just a few of the historic changes launched under Secretary Rumsfeld:

  • The Navy’s Fleet Response Plan nearly doubled the number of strike carrier groups that could be surged in the initial stages of a crisis;
  • America’s Special Operations Forces saw vast increases in budget, personnel, authorities – and most importantly, in capabilities;
  • The number of unmanned aerial vehicles grew some 40-fold to more than 6,000 by the end of the Bush administration;
  • Cold War basing arrangements in Germany, Korea, and Japan were modernized and sized to better reflect the security requirements of this century;
  • The Army underwent its most significant restructuring in more than two generations, moving from a division-based to a modular brigade-based force;
  • And much, much more.

On a personal note, I was struck upon taking this job of just how much more deployable and expeditionary the U.S. military had become compared to when I left government in 1993.  Without these institutional changes set in motion by Secretary Rumsfeld, we would not have been able to surge five army brigades into Iraq on short notice, or have the quality and quantity of UAVs that have made such a difference on the battlefield.

We are in debt to Secretary Rumsfeld on numerous counts, but I would add a personal one: the front office staff and senior appointees I inherited from him in December 2006. They are people of superb capability and strong character, a reflection of the talented man who selected them.  And reflecting Secretary Rumsfeld’s own sense of duty and patriotism, when I asked them all to continue serving, they did so.

Of course, Secretary Rumsfeld famously brought his own unique and bracing style of personal management to the Pentagon bureaucracy – which soon discovered that snowflakes really could fall in the middle of August.

Self described as “genetically impatient,” he did not brook much nonsense or suffer fools gladly – as many an unprepared briefer would find out the hard way.  He insisted that defense officials speak and write real English instead of burying the lead in a cluster of acronyms and power point, noting (quite accurately, as I can attest) that it seemed to be a second language in large parts of this building.  (I’m afraid I have allowed some unfortunate backsliding in this area).

Despite his fierce reputation, those who knew and worked with Secretary Rumsfeld could attest to his personal kindness and generosity, especially when it came to our wounded warriors – generosity that remains mostly unknown to the public at his own insistence.

That soft side – if anyone dare call it that – was more often than not brought out in the presence of Joyce, though her grace and kindness was matched by a formidable will and arch wit.  I’m told that the Secretary’s staff always looked forward to Joyce’s presence on trips as that assured a happier – and thus less demanding – boss.  With the extraordinary demands and sacrifices of this job in a time of war, in a city quick to praise and condemn without much reflection, I know Joyce – as she has been doing for more than five decades – kept his chin up and feet firmly planted through some trying times.

Teddy Roosevelt’s phrase, the “man in the arena”, has become so overused it has become something of a cliché, a description wearing like a cheap suit on those on whom it is too frequently bestowed.  So I’d like to close with a lesser-known portion of the same famous speech by Roosevelt, which was called “Citizenship in a Republic” – given in Paris, of all places.  I quote:   

“Among the free peoples who govern themselves there is but a small field of usefulness open for the men of cloistered life who shrink from contact with their fellows. Still less room is there for those who deride … what is done by those who actually bear the brunt of the day … [who] know nothing of great and generous emotion, of the high pride, the stern belief, the lofty enthusiasm, of the men who quell the storm and ride the thunder.”

For more than a half century Don Rumsfeld has “quelled the storm and ridden the thunder” – for the causes he believed in, the men and women he led, for the country he loves.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the 13th and 21st Secretary of Defense: 

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