Rumsfeld: A personal portrait by Midge Decter

It being Veteran’s Day and all, I thought it would be appropriate to to take note of a military themed book. It just so happens that I recently finished a book that fits loosely into that category.

Rumsfeld: A Personal Portrait by Midge Decter is a rather breezy biography of the current Secretary of State. At 220 pages with pictures throughout it is a quick read. But if you are just looking for the basics (upbringing, career arc, etc.) this is a pretty good place to start.

The book reflects the perspective of the early popularity of Rumsfeld post 9/11 and in the run up to the war in Iraq. Decter found Rumsfeld’s sudden rise to stardom (rated as one of People’s sexist men, etc.) surprising and wanted to explore the path that led him to this point.

Rumsfeld certainly has an impressive resume:
– U.S. Navy aviator and flight instructor.
– Congressman from Illinois (first elected in 1962 at the age of 30).
– Director of the Office of Economic Opportunity, the Economic Stabilization Program, and Assistant to President Nixon.
– U.S. Ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
– Chief of Staff of the White House (Ford).
– 13th U.S. Secretary of Defense, the youngest in the country’s history.
– Awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award.
– Chief Executive Officer, President, and then Chairman of G.D. Searle & Co., a worldwide pharmaceutical company.
– Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of General Instrument Corporation, a leader in broadband transmission, distribution, and access control technologies.
– Chaired the bipartisan U.S. Ballistic Missile Threat Commission and the U.S. Commission to Assess National Security Space Management and Organization.

All of this before becoming the 21st Secretary of Defense.


Decter notes throughout that a close knit set of friends and colleagues surrounded Rumsfeld even as he frequently moved his family around the world. These friends often came from his college years at Princeton and his deep roots in the greater Chicago area. Despite his time in Washington, Rumsfeld has always seen himself as a Midwesterner (a Chicagoan in particular).

If there is a theme to Decter’s portrait it is that Rumsfeld was a take charge kind of guy. Whatever challenge he took on he wanted to make a difference and wasn’t afraid to step on people toes to do so. In Congress he pushed for changes in Republican leadership when he felt a more decisive stand was needed. He was always loyal to the President he worked for, but he seemed to thrive under challenging situations.

His early work in the Nixon administration he was tasked with overseeing programs he didn’t support. His mission was to try and reform and tighten these programs so they could better complete their stated missions. In private business he was never afraid to cut middle management and streamline operations to rescue struggling firms (and he did this successfully a number of occasions).

Of course, his desire to transform the U.S. military into a lighter, more flexible, and more high tech force continues today and has led to conflict with powerful forces at the Pentagon and on Capital Hill. Decter touches on these conflicts and on the ideas and perspectives Rumsfeld brought to bear, but in a largely cursory way. If you are looking for fuller discussion of the politics and policy involved you will need to look elsewhere.

As I noted above, this is a brief and breezy biography, but it is an interesting one nonetheless. Rumsfeld is an impressive figure and has played an important role in American government for the last thirty years. If you are looking for a quick and readable overview of his impressive career this is a good place to start.

About the author

Kevin Holtsberry

I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season - oh, and watching golf too).

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