It's a classic scene from what might be called "The World According to Don Rumsfeld." On a raw November day in Bratislava, the US Defense secretary strides onto a red carpet, places his hand over his heart, and listens to a military rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner." It's the type of ritual that Mr. Rumsfeld, impatient by his own account, usually only tolerates.
But this day is special - "thrilling" he says. Slovakia, a former part of the communist axis, has been invited to join NATO - and Rumsfeld, long a cold-war warrior, relishes the triumph. "Here we are!" he beams as he steps into the lights of television cameras. "[The world] has changed."
Rumsfeld recalls his Chicago childhood with Czechoslovakian immigrants, his impassioned "Captive Nations" speeches in Congress in the 1960s, and his vigil as NATO ambassador for President Nixon in the early 1970s.
Now, Slovakia stands as proof that "freedom is ascendant, and the cause of liberty has prevailed over the darkness of tyranny and terror and will do so again," he says later.
The obscure incident illustrates one of Rumsfeld's overarching beliefs: A strong America leads aggressively in the right direction, and the world invariably comes around. It's less unilateralism than an "America-knows-best" brand of paternalism. American might and right proved decisive in winning the cold war. It will win the war on terrorism. It worked in Afghanistan. It will work with Iraq.
Today, with the United States again poised on the brink of war, Rumsfeld's leadership style and core beliefs are shaping the use of American force at a pivotal point in modern history. In coming weeks, he will counsel President Bush on the use of preemptive military action to overthrow the Iraqi regime - with repercussions that could either transform or destabilize the Middle East.
Those decisions will flow from a complex man known to be both dedicated and, at times, domineering.
Friends, classmates, employers, and colleagues say Rumsfeld possesses an unusual mix of traits. He is solidly conservative but not strident, principled but pragmatic, old-fashioned yet forward-looking. Sober about the world's dangers, he is optimistic about tackling them.
His blunt convictions have won him praise, yet critics call him an abrasive, arrogant warmonger. Rumsfeld often voices exasperation that his views are distorted or misunderstood. Regardless, the hard-charging Midwesterner is a force to contend with in American politics.
"He has a lot of influence," says former President Ford, who first appointed Rumsfeld Defense secretary in 1975.
At the heart of Rumsfeld's worldview is the moral imperative of American leadership, which he embraced, along with his own duty of public service, half a century ago. As a clean-cut student on scholarship at Princeton in the 1950s, Rumsfeld was so inspired by former Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson's address at the March 1954, senior-class banquet that he has handed out copies for years.
"The world's fate now hangs upon how well or how ill we in America conduct our affairs," Mr. Stevenson said. "If America stumbles, the world falls."
Eight years later, in 1962, Rumsfeld repeated this conviction from train platforms along Chicago's North Shore, handing out pamphlets in an upstart congressional candidacy that would launch his political career. "Maintain a firm, no-back-down foreign policy based on the rightness of our position, and backed by our military strength," read his debut statement, featuring a fresh-faced 29-year-old Rumsfeld under the words "From Where I Stand."
Now a feisty 70, Rumsfeld stresses that America must lead a struggle against terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, confident that other nations will follow.
"It's less important to have unanimity than it is to be making the right decisions and doing the right thing, even though at the outset it may seem lonesome," he told a group of Marines in August, recalling Winston Churchill's warnings about Adolf Hitler before World War II. "In unanimity, we often find an absence of rigorous thinking."
At his spacious Pentagon office, Rumsfeld shows visitors a bronze plaque with a quote from Teddy Roosevelt: "Aggressive fighting for the right is the noblest sport the world affords." Today, it would appear, the Defense secretary has no shortage of athletic opportunities.
He was known - and feared - as "the speedy take-down specialist." As captain of the Princeton wrestling team his senior year, Rumsfeld, or "Rummy" to friends, perfected a bold move known as the "fireman's carry." It involved rapidly seizing opponents by the arm and leg, hoisting them onto his back, and slapping them down on the mat.
One hapless victim of this move, a classmate named Shelly Ivey III, vividly recalls the day he made the mistake of challenging "Rummy" - and got a concussion. "I went down very quickly, right onto the mat," he says.
Rumsfeld's confidence was so high that he executed the difficult fireman's carry on bigger wrestlers. "It was his patented move," recalls Brad Glass, a fellow wrestler and Navy pilot. Entries in the 1954 Princeton yearbook echo Rumsfeld's prowess: "Captain Don Rumsfeld ... appeared on the mat to twist his opponent into submission."
Many people who know Rumsfeld well, including his wife, say he is, in essence, a wrestler: Fiercely competitive, comfortable with one-on-one battle, ultraconfident in his ability to win. Even now, in a city filled with exceptionally ambitious people, he stands out for this trait.
Rumsfeld's relentless drive has made some critics charge that he's overeager to push toward military action - notably against Saddam Hussein. His management style, too, has rankled subordinates, including the top military brass whom he regularly grills on war plans and weapons systems. Last spring he publicly humiliated Secretary of the Army Thomas White when canceling a major army weapons system, the Crusader.
Yet Rumsfeld's steely determination has also made him the Bush administration's personification of the global war on terror.
"Wrestling is a man-on-man, no-second-place-money sport, which is what politics is," observes Ned Jannotta, a close friend who managed Rumsfeld's four successful House campaigns. "He has the guts to take on an issue head-to-head when he may win or lose."
Rumsfeld's tenure as defense chief is the latest stint in a political and business career in which he has repeatedly taken on challenges as an underdog and ended up on top.
At 29, Rumsfeld made a long-shot bid for Congress, taking on a veteran Illinois legislator in the Republican primary. He worked 15-hour days on the campaign, run by high school buddies on a shoestring budget out of one of his father's fixer-upper properties in Winnetka, Ill. On election night in 1962, Rumsfeld was riding in friend Art Nielsen's blue Buick when he learned the crucial 50th ward was going his way. "He jumped out of the car and let out a Princeton war whoop," Mr. Nielsen recalls.
In Congress, Rumsfeld mastered the floor rules. Too impatient to climb the seniority ladder, he became a party activist. Working with a core of young moderates, he helped orchestrate Mr. Ford's election as House minority leader in an effort to rejuvenate the GOP leadership after Goldwater's presidential loss in 1964. "He wasn't a mean partisan like [Newt] Gingrich or an ideologist," says former Rep. Ed Derwinski (R) of Illinois, who served with Rumsfeld for six years. "He was a gentleman and his loyalty ran to the party, which put him in the mainstream."
Still, Rumsfeld illustrated a shrewd political instinct and an ability to roll over opponents. Before the Watergate scandal broke, for example, he sensed trouble and left his job as an economic adviser to Nixon to become US ambassador to NATO in 1973.
"He didn't like what he saw was going on in the inner sanctum of the Nixon administration," recalls Ford. After Nixon resigned, President Ford immediately called his friend Rumsfeld back to become his chief of staff and later Defense secretary. Rumsfeld proved a skilled turf battler.
"He was one of the toughest operators in Washington," says Robert Ingersoll, a former US envoy who observed Rumsfeld's quiet maneuvering in Ford Cabinet meetings. "[Secretary of State Henry] Kissinger usually rolled over most of the other bureaucrats, but he didn't roll over Don - and I think Don rolled over him a few times."
That's not to say he lacks a softer side. Despite his busy career, he stays in touch with a close coterie of Chicago friends, taking time for visits and personal notes. He and his wife, Joyce, his sweetheart from New Trier High School in Winnetka, have three children and several grandchildren who gather regularly at the family ranch in New Mexico.
But as Pentagon chief and corporate CEO, Rumsfeld has earned a reputation as a tough, demanding boss. Using a dictaphone to send out memos so prolific they are called "snowflakes," he goes through endless revisions of everything from corporate mergers to war plans. "Every day he would come up with a new idea," says Mr. Jannotta, a Chicago investment banker who worked with Rumsfeld on a 1980s merger. "He was never satisfied until he had turned over every stone and not too concerned if he had made someone stay up all night doing it." The dramatic turnaround and 1985 sale of the Chicago-based G.D. Searle & Co. launched CEO Rumsfeld's multimillion-dollar fortune.
Indeed, Rumsfeld's sheer energy is legendary - especially for a man tied with George Marshall as the oldest Defense chief ever. Rising most days at 4:45 a.m., he arrives at the Pentagon by 6:30. Often wearing hiking boots and a cardigan sweater, he prefers to work standing up behind his desk. At home, he works into the evening in a room with a large television and desk stacked with papers. His wife tries to get him to bed by 9:30, friends say.
On whirlwind trips abroad, he jets across time zones and continents, working while reporters half his age sleep in the back of the plane. He then shows up fresh at a Pentagon briefing shortly after his return "looking as if he just stepped out of the shower," one correspondent groans.
Although he no longer wrestles or works out on the trampoline, he skis and plays a mean game of squash - taking on far younger men. "He plays squash as if he's using the racket as a weapon," says Jannotta. "I've won if I come off the court with my head still on."
His eyes narrow, his voice turns icy and low, and from his Air Force jet somewhere over the Atlantic, Rumsfeld issues another warning to Saddam Hussein.
"You can be absolutely certain we'll not allow our aircraft to continue to be shot at with impunity," Rumsfeld says, referring to another spate of Iraqi groundfire against US and British planes patrolling no-fly zones. He straightens his beige flight jacket. "We intend to respond."
Since emerging as a spirited war secretary in the wake of Sept. 11, Rumsfeld has made it clear that America is "leaning forward" - ready and willing to use force to defend US interests even if it means risking American lives. His newly unveiled "Guidelines" nudge the US toward a more robust military posture, shifting away from more cautious doctrines set down in 1984 by Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and reaffirmed in the 1990s by Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin Powell.
Even before taking the Pentagon job, Rumsfeld told Mr. Bush he worried that a perception of the US as casualty-averse was emboldening enemies. He won Bush's assurance that the next time force was required, the US military would, essentially, set the record straight.
Today, Rumsfeld is managing a growing presence of US troops in hot spots around the world - from Afghanistan to the Gulf states and the Horn of Africa. He says the approach is getting results. America's willingness to battle the Taliban and Al Qaeda was a crucial factor in mobilizing what is now a 90-nation coalition against terrorism, he asserts. Similarly with Iraq, he says: Lacking the threat of a US-led invasion, Baghdad would never have readmitted UN inspectors to search for weapons. "The reason that Iraq is now allowing inspectors in is because of the very visible threat of the use of force," he says. "Prior to that, they weren't willing to let anyone do anything."
The Weinberger-Powell approach aimed to prevent actions that could squander US lives - and was heavily influenced by Vietnam and the death of 241 Marines in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1983. Washington, they advised, should deploy US troops only as a last resort. With clear goals and firm support, Washington should then use overwhelming force to bring fighting to a swift end.
When Rumsfeld released his own guidelines for committing US forces in October - the first made public by a Defense secretary since the Reagan administration - he stressed that the risk of action must be weighed not in isolation, but against the "risk of inaction."
He cautions against risking lives except for "a darn good reason," but adds this advice to leaders who deem the use of force necessary: Acknowledge upfront the risk of casualties "rather than allowing the public to believe an engagement can be executed antiseptically, on the cheap."
Military action, once approved, should be early, forceful, and free from arbitrary deadlines or restrictions. Nor should military goals be compromised to win international support - an attitude that's rankled US allies and drawn fire from critics as unilateralist. His mantra: "The mission determines the coalition."
Rumsfeld's calls for a strong, unfettered military reflect his view of the world as a "dangerous and untidy" place, an impression that likely began in his wartime childhood.
Rumsfeld was nine years old when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. His father, who had risen from an office boy to become a successful real estate agent, left home to serve as a Naval officer in the Pacific. Intensely proud of his father's example, Rumsfeld joined the Navy ROTC in college and after graduation in 1954 he served three years as a Naval aviator and flight instructor. He often rekindles images of his father's enemies when describing the new array of threats America faces today.
"In World War II ... there were suicide pilots flying their aircraft into our ships," he told guests to the Lone Sailor Award dinner in May. "Today, a new enemy is seeking global power and has flown our own airliners into our buildings on suicide missions," he said. "They're working ... to gain access to weapons of mass destruction."
Over and over, Rumsfeld warns of the risk that terrorists will obtain chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons and "kill [not] a few hundred or a few thousand, but tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands."
Failing a regime change in Baghdad, he asserts, the nexus of terror and weapons of mass destruction is most dangerous in Iraq. Rumsfeld, who as a Middle East envoy met Hussein in 1983, calls him a "brutal, repressive dictator" and a master at manipulating world opinion.
His solution: Beat Hussein at his own game.
A press aide saunters to the back of Rumsfeld's plane after it rumbles down a runway in Santiago, and hands a reporter a copy of a Chilean article, highlighted in yellow.
"Read this, and then he'll [Rumsfeld] come talk to you," the aide says. Fluent in Spanish, the reporter translates aloud the first few lines, which sing Rumsfeld's praises.
"See!" Rumsfeld grins mischievously when he appears a few minutes later, waving the article. "It says I have a human side! I've only been here a day and they know me better than you do!"
Joking and sparring with the media is something this Defense secretary relishes more than most - but the friendly banter also has a clear strategic purpose.
Serving up deft put-downs and repartees peppered with homespun exclamations like "golly" and "dadburned," Rumsfeld has emerged as the administration's most skilled and televised voice for the war on terror.
Virtually overnight, Rumsfeld - with his rimless glasses, piercing look, and blunt use of the verb "kill" - became the public face of the war. It's a role he'll likely repeat if the US attacks Iraq - and how he handles it could shape American and world perceptions of the conflict. In the front-and-center job, he'll follow his own advice: "Invest the political capital to marshal support to sustain the effort for whatever period of time may be required."
The role reflects one of Rumsfeld's most firmly held beliefs about democracy: the idea that a well-informed public - the "educated citizens" of Adlai Stevenson's 1954 Princeton address - will find its way to the right decisions.
In a little-known act as a young congressman in 1966, Rumsfeld embraced Stevenson's "magnificent gamble" in a speech on the House floor, urging passage of the Freedom of Information Act. " 'A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both,' " Rumsfeld said, quoting James Madison.
Still, the Pentagon is far from a bastion of openness under Rumsfeld, who is as good at selectively withholding information as he is at managing his message.
He's drawn criticism for secretiveness and a strenuous effort to control the flow of information from his Pentagon podium. Leaks on Iraq-invasion scenarios in recent months infuriated him, and in August he ordered the FBI to investigate. But underlying his domineering style is a fierce patriotic bent as well as a desire to have the nation trust its leaders to do the job.
On some of the most sensitive topics arising in the war - military commissions and the treatment of detainees, civilian casualties, and the ill-fated Office of Strategic Influence (OSI) - Rumsfeld has welcomed informed debate, but dismissed much outcry over civil liberties as alarmist.
"Oh my goodness gracious, isn't that terrible, Henny Penny, the sky is going to fall!" he said en route to Chile in November, mimicking what he considered to be inflammatory editorials and cartoons related to the alleged disinformation plans of OSI, the short-lived office for shaping opinion that he shut down in February.
"I said ... if you want to savage this thing, fine, I'll give you the corpse." But, he added defiantly, "I'm gonna keep doing everything that needs to be done, and I have."
Rumsfeld likewise brushes aside concerns about a planned Pentagon computer surveillance system, designed to mine data around the world. The media should have more trust in government, he suggests. "Anyone with any concern ought to be able to sleep well tonight," he says in a fatherly tone. "Nothing terrible is going to happen."
And when all else fails, Rumsfeld has perfected another signature technique: the ability to keep mum - and deflect criticism - while getting the media to laugh about it.
A typical exchange goes like this one Nov. 14:
Reporter: Mr. Secretary, is bin Laden alive or dead apparently, now? And if he is alive, is the United States winning the war on terrorism?
Rumsfeld: Charlie, the answer to the question, 'Is he alive or dead' - the answer is, 'Yes, he is alive or dead.'
Rumsfeld: Thank you very much!