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.

Nixon resigned the day we returned to the United States. We caught his speech on television -- the first TV we'd seen in two months. Three years later, two other college friends and I started Westword.

Rumsfeld's resumé is much longer, of course. That August, he was called back to Washington, D.C., to serve as transition chairman for Gerald Ford's presidency. He went on to become Ford's chief of staff, and then, in 1975, the youngest-ever Secretary of Defense.

Today, at seventy, he holds that position again, after a very successful stint in the private sector -- where the public doesn't have the right to know.

And so he's irritated by the moody press. And by a story that, like the war, doesn't always know its place.


You'll Get a Boot Out of This

LoDo residents and businesses hot over the parking fiasco in lower downtown were all set to blast the city's parking management division when -- sadly -- cooler heads prevailed. Yes, parking's still screwy -- rates are higher, hours longer and spaces fewer, since the Union Station project has gobbled up even more spots along Wynkoop Street -- but LoDo District Inc., the group that represents the historic neighborhood, decided not to humiliate the parking division publicly at its thirteenth annual meeting last week.

The division had been the proposed target of a Flying Brick, the dark side of the prestigious Brick awards given to local do-gooders, but LDDI didn't lob the missile.

"The door with the city is cracked open," LoDo president Barbara Gibson explains diplomatically. "Do we want to have it slammed in our face?"

Fair warning to whoever replaces John Oglesby, Denver's last parking czar, however: Denizens of LoDo are ready to let fly -- and the brick is ready.

Deep in the heart of Texas:The Dallas Observer, Westword's sibling weekly in Dallas, took deep offense at a recent statement by Denver mayoral candidate Susan Casey, who'd called a press conference to say that this city should sell Cableland, the 24,000-square-foot mansion in Hilltop donated for a mayoral residence by the late cable magnate Bill Daniels. "Denver doesn't need a mansion for its mayor," Casey said. "Denver isn't Dallas. It's Denver."

But even Dallas doesn't have a mansion for its mayor, who happens to be Laura Miller, former columnist for the Observer. When I pointed out Dallas's lack of a mayoral manse, the Casey campaign responded that the candidate was referring to the TV show Dallas, not the city of the same name. Of course, Dallasdidn't have a mayor in residence, either; in fact, that prime-time soap's only tenuous tie to Denver was inspiring Dynasty, a copycat soap starring John Forsytheand Linda Evans that was allegedly set in Denver, but filmed in California.

Still, Dallas -- the real one -- does have designs on one Denver project: Miller is pushing for a tax-subsidized convention hotel that would be built downtown, next to the city's convention center. Sound familiar? (If you need a refresher, see the big hole in the ground by Stout Street.) That proposal has become an issue in Miller's re-election campaign, in which she faces only one major opponent.

Casey is one of seven candidates fighting for your vote on May 5.

"For the record," the Observer concludes, "Dallas doesn't have a mayoral mansion, most likely because our extravagantly wealthy folk don't generally donate ostentatious, underutilized structures to the city. They just ask Dallasites to help pay for building them."

Sounds like Denver after all.

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