(Interview with Mark Leibovich, The Washington Post.)
Q: Hi, Mr. Secretary. It's nice to talk to you.
Rumsfeld: You bet. I've got you on speaker and Larry Di Rita is here.
Q: Hi again, Larry. Happy New Year.
Rumsfeld: You've got to be careful with your language. He's got sensitive ears.
Q: All right.
Thank you for doing this. As I'm sure you've been briefed, I'm working on a profile of the vice president who you obviously go way back with.
I think he is probably one of the least understood figures in Washington, at least among the general public, and I'm helping readers hopefully to understand what it's like to be in a room with him, to be in a meeting with him, to be his friend, to be in an argument with him, what have you. You obviously have a broad range of historical context, and also very timely context.
You told I guess a fairly famous story, it was either at AEI [American Enterprise Institute] or [Hudson] earlier this year or last year, about the time you first met Cheney and how you didn't like him supposedly.
Rumsfeld: No, this is totally untrue.
Rumsfeld: He told a story --
Q: Oh, he told a story. Okay.
Rumsfeld: -- in a joking way about his first meeting with me when I was interviewing a series of people for an American Political Science Association Fellowship in my congressional office. And I was looking for someone who had a different skill set than he. He was an academic working on his PhD or masters at the time. So I ended up going in a different direction and my close friend, Bill Steiger, ended up bringing Dick on board as his American Political Science Association Fellowship, APSA.
As it turned out, the vice president worked with Bill Steiger on the Education and Labor Committee, and then I became head of the Office of Economic Opportunity, and Dick wrote a very good memorandum for Bill Steiger at Steiger's request for me, which I then read, used, and then I recruited the Vice President.
He tells another story that's also in good humor, that I asked to see him. He walked in the office when I was head of the Office of Economic Opportunity and said you're in charge of congressional relations. The office is down the hall or something. Instead of asking him if he'd like to do it. Those are the kinds of yarns that get told in good humor over the decades.
You've obviously been in a number of different meetings with him over the years back at OEO and in the Ford White House and certainly now. How has the manner or style of Vice President Cheney evolved over the years when he is participating in a meeting? Not necessarily leading it, but as a principal in a meeting on any number of matters.
Rumsfeld: He's gone from a position where he was an assistant without line responsibility to a position where he had line responsibility to a position where he was my deputy in the White House, chief of staff, to a position where he was chief of staff, to a legislative role, and then to SecDef, and now to vice president. I've watched him through those various posts and he's gone from being obviously, like we all have, from being relatively new in those positions to having been through them and experienced a whole host of things over several decades.
His approach is a very appealing one. It is to ask a lot of questions, to pose things for consideration as opposed to asserting things. And it has the value -- no one in these jobs knows all there is to need to know and therefore, it is an approach that he uses that tends to bring the best out of people, that tends to cause people to think about things instead of reacting to things.
He has, because of the breadth of his background, he also has the advantage of being able to present insights from different perspectives. He'll look at something from 360 degrees rather than from one single slice. He thinks about the effect of some course of action from multiple perspectives which a person with his seasoning can do very well. And he does it in a way that I think brings the best out of other people in the meeting, which all of us need. Unless you're Mozart and go off in a room by yourself and do something brilliant, all the rest of us do whatever we do by interacting with other people.
Q: In doing this and in trying to be as effective as possible in these settings, how does the vice president use silence? I guess that's a weird way of looking at it, but this is a town full of talkers, and there's a conception or misconception perhaps that if you're going to function effectively in a political role or in a government role you need to talk. And the vice president is famously taciturn, which I assume the closer in you get is totally less true.
But how unique is it in your eyes, given the vice president's notoriously sort of low-key style and not to talk excessively, and what effect does that have within the context of a meeting or a discussion?
Rumsfeld: Well, I'm trying to think. For one thing, it obviously causes people to be interested in what he thinks, because those people who meet with him know his background and know his capacity and his capabilities and the contribution he makes. Sometimes people with that background and experience I suppose can present things in ways that are more or less interesting or persuasive and he happens to have an approach, a natural inclination or bent to present things in ways that people tend to have their receiving sets open rather than closed. Which makes him particularly effective.
Q: Can this be intimidating or off-putting at all if you're not accustomed to it?
Rumsfeld: I've never sensed that it was to anybody.
Q: You obviously have to have your facts straight and you obviously have to know what you're talking about. You shouldn't be blabbing on off the cuff, but I think you're probably right. It probably does bring out very, very different dimensions in different principals.
One thing I would ask you is on a continuum of sort of Washington self consciousness and the sort of need for adulation and the need for credit and the need for good press, where would you put Dick Cheney on that spectrum? How much does he care about this stuff?
Rumsfeld: Oh, I think he's got -- first of all, if you're talking about in his current position it's about zero.
Q: Really? Let's talk about it in terms of his current position.
Rumsfeld: Does he have the ability in the event that he thought it was necessary or valuable to the president or the country, does he have the ability to shift gears and do something that's highly visible and helpful? Obviously he does that and can do it. I mean he has on a number of occasions in the past three years been I'm sure asked, although he's not said that, and stepped forward to carve out a position or a body of information for people to understand and see. But he has no personal need to do that. Whereas some people may or may not, but he's not one of those that feels a personal need to do it at all.
Q: How unusual is that in your experience?
Rumsfeld: Oh goodness, there are a number of people in this town who have that quality. I would say Speaker Hastert --
Q: A lot of people have made that parallel.
Rumsfeld: -- would be an example of a person who's an enormously effective legislator. His interest is in seeing the legislative product result as opposed to thinking of himself as needing to be connected to it. The vice president's very much the same way. To the extent that he can achieve that which is in the best interest of the Administration and the country, that's what he wants to do.
Q: I guess it's no coincidence that the two of them fly fish together and never say a word to each other while they're fly-fishing.
Q: Is it possible for you and the Vice President to have something resembling a normal friendship given how far back you guys go and how well you know each other? Given your current positions.
Rumsfeld: Why sure, why not?
Q: I don't know. You guys are busy and -- I mean how do you communicate with each other? Do you talk by phone?
Rumsfeld: Both. We'll talk by phone or he'll come over to the house and we'll talk, or I'll go over to his place and talk. It's a very good relationship that's been long-lasting. And Joyce sees Lynne.
Q: Have you ever seen emotion come into play with Vice President Cheney when he's making a decision? I mean he strikes me at least from afar as a uniquely unemotional person when it comes to what he does for a living. I mean how would you speak to that?
Rumsfeld: I've never seen him have emotions adversely affect a decision. I've certainly seen him emotional, where he feels strongly about something and that it gives him energy to step forward and to talk to people about it and to improve the focus, sharpness of the focus on it.
But the idea that emotion would adversely affect his judgment, that isn't how he works.
Q: What's he like to argue with?
Rumsfeld: Well, it's appealing for a lot of reasons. One is if you're having a discussion with somebody and you're not learning anything then you're probably talking to the wrong person. So in the case of the vice president when you're talking to him you do tend to learn something because of the distinctiveness of his background and his thoughtfulness.
Q: Even in the context of a disagreement?
Rumsfeld: Why sure. The other thing that's attractive about discussing something with him is that you know that his interest is not himself. His interest is in an outcome that's the best interest, for the best interest of the country. And that is always a refreshing thing.
A third reason he's a good person to talk on something about is because he's a good listener.
Q: How can you tell?
Rumsfeld: Well, because you can measure his responses. He tends to respond to what somebody said rather than simply repeating rote something that was in his head already. And that tends to move the ball down the field.
Q: How is the fact that the vice president does not want to be president one day help him be effective in his current job?
Rumsfeld: Oh, I think it can be a bit of a distraction.
Q: Meaning if he wanted to be president?
Rumsfeld: Yeah. It might affect how you spend your time or your days. Clearly, his interest is in spending his time and his days doing things that are helpful to the Administration and the country.
How did you go from San Jose to dealing with high tech stuff to dealing with politics?
Q: I made a terrible, terrible mistake and they made me go over here. It's a terrible punishment. It was either this or be fired, so I needed a paycheck.
No, I don't know. I just needed a change. I figured technology was a little old and I just got sick of it. I needed a change.
One last question I would ask is, in the same continuum of people having a need to have their rear end kissed by underlings, by people who need things, what have you, how important a premium does Vice President Cheney put on the kinds of flattery that are so pervasive in this town?
Rumsfeld: I've never noticed that he does put any premium on it. He's seen an awful lot of people come and go and go. He's got staying power. He was well thought of as a legislator. He's got a lot of people who are friends that date back into the '70s. His focus tends to be there. I mean you go to his birthday party, for example, and you'll see some friends from college, roommates, you'll see folks that worked with us at the Office of Economic Opportunity and at the Cost of Living Council, folks who worked in the Ford White House.
Q: Do you think I'll get invited to his birthday party?
Rumsfeld: It's not clear to me that you will. I'll have to see the article.
Q: I think it all depends on what goes in the paper. (Laughter.)
I really appreciate your time. And thanks again, Larry. It's been great.
Rumsfeld: It's been good to talk to you.
Q: Thanks. Happy New Year.
Rumsfeld: Thank you. Happy New Year to you.