My Dinner With Rummy

Politics -- and proximity -- make strange embedfellows.

"We have seen mood swings in the media from highs to lows to highs and back again, sometimes in a single 24-hour period," said Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld last Friday, doing a mean imitation of Dr. Phil as he kicked off that morning's press briefing before a roomful of obviously schizoid reporters. "For some, the massive TV, the massive volume of television -- and it is massive -- and the breathless reports can seem to be somewhat disorienting. Fortunately, my sense is that the American people have a very good center of gravity and can absorb and balance what they see and hear."

Fortunately, the American people can absorb massive amounts of information from many different sources these days -- not just from Bush administration briefings, but also from al-Jazeera; from both Peter Arnett (for now, at least) and MSNBC, his former employer; from sources on the left, from sources on the right, from sources in the center. Very front and center, in the case of journalists now embedded with the American troops fighting in Iraq, sending back real-time reports from the battle zone. Reports that weren't sounding nearly as positive as they had a week before.

Rumsfeld was clearly wishing those "breathless" media types would take a breather, get off the air and off their laptops until they realigned their planets, and in the meantime let the military return to the business of waging war in secret, as it had been able to do for so many previous engagements. Engagements like that ugly skirmish in Vietnam, which seemed to turn into a full-blown war only once we could watch it in our living rooms.

Rumsfeld has never been fond of journalists. But they're a necessary evil -- and a constitutionally protected one -- in a democracy, a governmental form for which he's professed a particular fondness since he was first elected to Congress at the age of thirty, representing a suburban Chicago district that happened to include my home town.

In the summer of 1974, a lot of Washington insiders were wishing journalists straight to hell. Bedeviled by the media for years over Vietnam, they were now in the waning days of the Watergate investigation -- the Woodward/Bernstein journalistic coup that had inspired a whole new generation of moody reporters (myself included).

That July, Richard Nixon was still hanging on to his presidency, still staunchly supported -- at least publicly -- by members of his administration. Including Rumsfeld, who'd joined Nixon's cabinet in 1969 as director of the Office of Economic Opportunity, then was appointed in 1973 to serve as U.S. Ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Brussels.

Which is where I had my dinner with Rummy.

A college friend and I were traveling around Europe that summer, doing your basic dollar-a-day tour of seven countries. By the time we reached Brussels, we were hungry for a real meal -- we'd been subsisting largely on pommes frites (a Belgian specialty no matter what those culinary warmongers may try to tell you about France) and beers bought for us by guys who were on the advance team for Henry Kissinger. Or so they said. Yeah, we were hungry for a real meal, but more than that, we hungered for political news from home. Before the Internet, before cable TV, before phone cards, the media volume was far from massive. For our daily briefings, we relied on college kids we met in the American Express office, cashing their first traveler's checks, and copies of the International Herald Tribuneleft behind at cafes.

So when an invitation came to have dinner chez Rumsfeld, we ditched our backpacks, cleaned up to a semblance of respectability (hot showers cost extra at the hostels), and blew our budget on a cab to the NATO ambassador's home. These days, you probably can't get within a mile of the place without the proper credentials. But we walked right in with nothing more than a tenuous family connection, the proper Republican pedigree (although that, too, was becoming history, thanks to Vietnam and Watergate) and enough residual manners to know that we should keep our mouths shut.

We opened them only long enough to stick in forks loaded with what appeared to be Dinty Moore beef stew (apparently the troops in Iraq are eating better, at least for now) and canned cling peaches. No frites, no beer, no dishing of dirt on the Nixon White House. Rumsfeld -- or Rummy, as he said his friends called him -- looked at us through his aviator glasses (the only person more devoted to that style is Gloria Steinem), his hair straighter, if possible, than the rest of him -- and delivered a monologue on life at NATO, thousands of miles removed from the hotter-than-hot scandals in D.C., even then burning though a presidency. "The media" was all he would say about that.

For an evening, we were embedded in a situation as intimate, yet as removed, from the big picture as are those journalists now embedded with the troops. We could see what was before us, hear what we were being told, but knew that there was much, much more to the story. We'd gotten better scoop from the supposed Kissinger aides.

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