At Defense: Been There, Done That

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Pentagon revisited: Defense secretary nominee Donald Rumsfeld

Leave it to George W. Bush and his fondness for old Republican pros to finally fill his vacancy at defense secretary ... with a former defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld.

"He is going to be a great secretary of defense," Bush announced Thursday at a Washington press conference. "Again."

It had been a tough job to fill, what with Dick Cheney and Colin Powell looming over the foreign-policy team. Former Indiana Senator Dan Coats, the early favorite, was thought to be either unwilling or unable to deal with the two heavyweights as equals. Tom Ridge was too moderate. And the nominee himself had been the leading contender for CIA director, not top man at the Pentagon.

Morale booster

But Rumsfeld, 68, had the stature — he ran the Defense Department for Gerald Ford a quarter-century ago, and he's served four Republican administrations going back to Nixon. And he's got the pedigree. He dealt with low military morale in the wake of Vietnam, has held posts up and down the military and economic policy chains, and sees eye to eye with Bush on a missile defense. He even signed a letter in November criticizing Vice President Al Gore for agreeing in 1995 to Russia's sale of military equipment to Iran.

He's been Ronald Reagan's Middle East envoy and Nixon's ambassador to NATO, and he studied deficit reduction under Bush's father. Heck, Cheney was Rumsfeld's deputy when Rumsfeld was Ford's chief of staff.

How much sway will Powell and Cheney have over this guy when it comes to military policy? "Little," Bush replied. "Colin Powell is a strong figure and Dick Cheney is no shrinking violet. But neither is Don Rumsfeld." Nor should confirmation be a problem — it's not as if he lacks for a resume.

Another old hand

Bush seems to be very serious about keeping his promises on the military. Thursday he promised a billion-dollar pay raise for service members, talked at length about remaking the military with modern technology, and promised Rumsfeld would "challenge the status quo at the Pentagon." And he's not interested in grandstanders or hot-button types, just old hands who can get the job done. Even if he risks looking like the only kid at the grown-up table.

Bush is more than half-done himself, and he predicted he'd have a full complement of Cabinet members and appointees by the end of next week. ("Don't hold me to it, though," he said hastily.) And he's starting to look comfortable talking like a president — taking questions sure doesn't scare him like it used to, and the buzzwords don't jar the ears like they used to. The mantle may be growing on him.

Wanted: Democrats

Now if he could just find a few Democrats. Bush noted that while the other party was taking his calls, he wasn't getting any takers either. Well, as Rumsfeld himself noted with what might have been a tinge of regret, the CIA job is wide open again.

"I guess we can confirm, Mr. President-elect, that it's not me."