James Mann's recently published Rise of the Vulcans is a 400-page exploration of the background and activities of the leading figures in George W. Bush's war cabinet. This is an excerpt from Chapter 1, entitled "A Rising Politician amid War and Dirty Tricks" and devoted to Donald Rumsfeld's work for Richard Nixon....

By James Mann

--From Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush's War Cabinet, by James Mann (New York: Viking, 2004), pp. 14-17.

Throughout 1971 and 1972, while Rumsfeld was serving as a full-time White House adviser, he had a series of intermittent private talks with the president about his own future, about American politics, foreign policy and the state of the world. Those long, meandering one-on-one conversations, preserved on the Nixon tape recordings, provide a remarkable insight into the two men.

Rumsfeld continued to speak up for moderate to liberal causes that ran against the generally conservative drift of the administration. His work at the antipoverty agency [the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), established during the Johnson administration to run new programs aimed at eliminating poverty] had given him a constituency and, for a time, a sense of purpose. "We need to be able to communicate with the young and the black and the people who are out, even though we don't get their vote," he told Nixon in one private conversation in March 1971. [Note 35: Nixon conversation with Rumsfeld, March 8, 1971, conversation 463-6, Nixon tape collection, National Archives.]

Nixon decided Rumsfeld's liberalism could be put to good use, winning support in places where the administration was weak. "I think Rumsfeld doing, frankly, two [kinds of] people, suburbia and young, sounds awfully good," he told Haldeman. ". . . Forget the environment, farting around with the old folks, the Negroes and everything, right now there has to be organized, I want to get something done on college youth." [Note 36: Conversation of July 23, 1971.]

Nevertheless, Rumsfeld's political positions were hard to separate from his intense ambition. He appeared to hope that his progressive views would work to his advantage in an administration that was struggling to attract voters in the political center. His plea on behalf of "the young and the black and the people who are out" was made immediately after the president asked Rumsfeld for his opinion about Vice President Spiro Agnew. Nixon wondered why Agnew was so unpopular.

RUMSFELD: The vice president's demeanor . . . tends to tell people that he's not communicating with them. Look at his background. He came to this straight out of Maryland.

NIXON: Pretty hard to go straight out of Maryland to the top.

RUMSFELD: You better believe it! My goodness. I mean, I had three times as much experience in government as he did. [Note 37: Conversation of March 8, 1971.]

It is hard to escape the conclusion that Rumsfeld would have liked the president to dump Agnew and run on a Nixon-Rumsfeld ticket in 1972.


The principal item on the agenda in these conversations was Rumsfeld's career. Nixon was engaging in one of his favorite pastimes, dispensing political advice. At the time of their talks both men assumed that eventually Rumsfeld would run for the U.S. Senate from his home state of Illinois. The main question was what jobs or experience would help him win a Senate seat. Nixon encouraged Rumsfeld to do something in foreign policy.

"Believe me, in any big sophisticated state, and yours is a big sophisticated state, it's about the world. It's not about their miserable little subjects," the preisent told Rumsfeld. He recounted his own experience as a representative from California, becoming active in the House Un-American Affairs Committee and in the investigation of Alger Hiss, so that when he ran for the Senate from California in 1950, he was considered a foreign policy "expert" and voters looked up to him.

Rumsfeld agreed that he'd like to be involved in foreign affairs because "that'd give me a credential." Nixon suggested Rumsfeld might consider a job in the Defense Department but warned him away from becoming a secretary of the Army, Navy, or Air Force. "The service secretaries, well, they're just warts," the president said. "I like them as individuals, but they do not do important things."

Nixon also outlined for Rumsfeld which countries and regions of the world might help further the career of an aspiring politician and which wouldn't. "The only things that matter in the world are Japan and China, Russia and Europe," Nixon explained. "Latin America doesn't matter. Long as we've been in it, people don't give one damn about Latin America, Don." Stay away from Africa too, Nixon warned. As for the Middle East, he went on, getting involved there carried too many potential hazards for a politician. "People think it's for the purpose of catering to the Jewish vote," Nixon told Rumsfeld. "And anyway, there's nothing you can do about the Middle East." [Note 38: Ibid.]

But while repeatedly dangling the possibility of an assignment overseas or some big new domestic post, Nixon offered nothing specific. "We always expected you to go to a cabinet spot -- I still expect you to, but yet the damn thing just hasn't opened up," he told Rumsfeld in March 1971. Four months later he apologized again. "What we talked about is not going to materialize," he told Rumsfeld. Romney was going to stay on in the cabinet, and so was Transportation Secretary John Volpe, who occupied another job to which Rumsfeld might have been appointed. [Note 39: Ibid. for March conversation; Nixon conversation with Donald Rumsfeld, July 22, 1971, conversation 542-5, Nixon tape collection, National Archives.]

While he waited, Rumsfeld did what he could to please the president, and that meant helpint out the White House political operations. He worked with Mitchell and Colson, the key figures in Nixon's political apparatus. One secret bit of help Rumsfeld volunteered was to use his old Princeton ties for secret contacts with the Gallup Poll, which Colson believed had "dovish" instincts. "We have decided that we'll try Rumsfeld working with Gallup. He went to school with George [Gallup] Jr. at Princeton," Colson told the president in July 1971. Nixon and Colson were eager to try to influence the results of major pollsters, notably Gallup and Harris, perhaps getting them to phrase their questions or to present their results in ways that were helpful to Nixon. "I mean, if the figures aren't up there, we don't want them to lie about it," Nixon explained to Colson at one point. "They can trim them a little one way or another." [Note 40: Nixon phone call to Colson, July 23, 1971, conversation 6-197, Nixon tape collection, National Archives.]

There is no evidence in the Nixon tapes that Rumsfeld tried to sway the outcome of Gallup's polling results. Rumsfeld did, however, manage to glean some advance information about what Gallup's upcoming poll results would show, giving Nixon an edge of a few days to prepare. Rumsfeld appeared to realize that in these contact he was asking Gallup to go beyond the traditional independent role of a pollster. At a White House session in October 1971, Rumsfeld urged Nixon to keep these contacts with the Gallup Poll top secret:

RUMSFELD: Say, I want to just report, sir, about my conversation with George Gallup [Jr.].

NIXON: Oh yeah, you went to school with him, didn't you?

RUMSFELD: I did. And I kind of want to be awful careful about telling people around the building that I'm talking to him. Because all he's got in his business is his integrity.

Rumsfeld then informed Nixon an upcoming Gallup Poll would show that the president's popularity had recently gone up. [Note 41: Nixon conversation with Rumsfeld, October 19, 1971, conversation 11-135, Nixon tape collection, National Archives.]

Nixon and Haldeman seemed to believe that these secret contacts through Rumsfeld to and from the Gallup organization were paying off in subtle ways. On the eve of Nixon's trip to China, Haldeman told the president that the Gallup Poll would be timed in a way that would help Nixon. "I can't believe that Gallup would tell Rumsfeld that he would hold a poll," Nixon exclaimed. "Because Gallup was always, 'Jesus Christ, I call them as I see them.' " Haldeman explained that Gallup wasn't rescheduling the poll itself, but merely altering when the results would be made public. "He would wait and release it next month, after you got back," he explained.