WASHINGTON — Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was in a light mood when he met recently with the Monitor breakfast group in his private dining room. In his introductory remarks, before taking questions, he said of the 45 minutes he was scheduled to be with the assembled journalists: "Mike Mansfield could have answered 40 questions in the time allotted. He was a pro."
Mr. Rumsfeld didn't have to explain about Mr. Mansfield. That longtime Senate majority leader was famous for his "yep" and "nope" answers to questions. Reporters also feared they would run out of queries. Indeed, at one press breakfast, a reporter counted more than 50 of these succinct Mansfield answers.
But almost immediately after the secretary's opening remarks the mood turned serious as a questioner asked: "Is the war on terrorism running out of steam a bit?"
Firmly denying that this was occurring, the secretary asserted that the pressure was continuing to be put on terrorists and terrorist networks "to the benefit of free people in this country and elsewhere in the world."
He added, "We have said from the outset that there will be times when it [this application of pressure] will be more visible and times when it is less visible, but there will not be times when it is inactive. And it is not inactive. People are being arrested all across the globe."
Then another journalist asked this follow-up: "Is enthusiasm of the American public flagging in the fight against terrorism?"
Rumsfeld lifted his voice a bit as he answered: "No. The people in the press raise that question and they may flag themselves. I was getting questions from reporters about whether we were in a quagmire in Afghanistan several weeks after we started the bombing. But the American people [flagging in their support]? No, I don't detect that at all...."
Here was the secretary responding to what is arguably the most important question facing the Bush administration: Will it be able to sustain the public support it needs to carry on a long war much of it carried on beneath the surface that may last years ? "We have to deal with the problem by going out and finding those terrorist networks," Rumsfeld said. "If a person is bored, it is the person's problem."
On the morning of the Rumsfeld breakfast, The Washington Post had headlined a story, based on the previous day's release of national security documents from the Nixon administration: "Nixon Archives Portray Another 'War' on Terror." But that war, much of it being Nixon's response to a Palestinian terrorist raid on the 1972 Munich Olympics, did not last long. The documents showed, according to the Post, that Nixon's war on terrorism had, "after three months, lost its steam."
It's clear that terrorist threat now is vastly more visible and threatening than it was back in Nixon's day. Indeed, polls have shown that the public continues to be shocked and incensed over the Sept. 11 attacks. It has had a Pearl Harbor-like aftereffect.
But I have heard a few talking heads on TV speaking as if the global war on terrorism is ebbing. There also are signs that a "business as usual" atmosphere is returning gradually in this country. And, no doubt about it, the Israel-Palestine struggle in recent weeks has often pushed the Afghan war into second billing.
I can't believe the president isn't keenly attentive to the national mood on the war against terrorism. Although Rumsfeld says that a person can be bored with the war and it is that person's "problem" how he or she feels, Rumsfeld has to know that any widespread increase of such an attitude would present a tremendous problem to the administration.
I must emphasize that despite some warning signs I detect no major shift in the public's support of the war. The president is still riding high in the polls. And Rumsfeld himself is popular, too, with both public and press. As "Rummy" entered the dining room and shook hands with reporters around the long table, you could see how well he hits it off with those who write about him.