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May 15, 2014 7:13 am

LAWRENCE AT LARGE: Known and unknown about Donald Rumsfeld

Written by Tom Lawrence

Donald Rumsfeld isn’t known as a buddy-buddy, friendly kind of guy.

Rumsfeld, the controversial two-time Defense secretary, has a reputation as a prickly, commanding figure, someone that even friends and allies like Dick Cheney and George W. Bush found difficult to be around.

I am sure that perception, based on his long political career, is likely very accurate. But that wasn’t the Rumseld I met in Glacier National Park.

I was covering an interesting ceremony that Saturday afternoon in September 1997. The Blackfoot Tribe was adopting then-Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt into the tribe and Chief Earl Old Person was doing the honors, placing an ornate headdress atop Babbitt’s sandy hair.

A man seated a few feet away seemed familiar. I turned to my then-wife: “Isn’t that Donald Rumsfeld?”

“Who’s Donald Rumsfeld?” Jill replied.

I waited until the ceremony was completed and then approached the table and asked him. He smiled brightly, offered his hand and said, Yes, that’s me.

Rumsfeld was 65 at the time and largely removed from politics. The boy wonder, elected at 30, had served four terms in the House from Illinois. He had worked in the Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Bush Sr. administrations and was now a member of the National Park Foundation board, among other assignments and duties.

Rumsfeld said he was moving on with his life and glad to be involved with something nonpartisan like parks. But he was clearly appreciative of the attention, and willing to answer questions and pose for pictures.

We went outside to use the magnificent Rocky Mountains as a backdrop. I took several photos. Rumsfeld posed for me alone, with Babbitt, and with Jill, whom he clearly enjoyed chatting with. They chatted like old friends while I snapped away.

While Rumsfeld and Babbitt, a Democrat who served the entire eight years of the Clinton administration, were on the opposite extremes of the political debate, they seemed friendly as they talked about their shared passion for national parks.

Always looking for an angle, I asked them if they would consider runs for the White House. Both demurred.

I asked Babbitt about his failed 1988 campaign, when he ran short of both votes and money. In an effort to garner some attention, he appeared on “Saturday Night Live” in a skit poking fun at his less-than-controversial image.

He was depicted trying to go through a supermarket express lines with too many items in an attempt to generate some controversy. It was a funny scene, and Rumsfeld loved the story, grinning broadly and asking for details. He said he couldn’t imagine doing something like that.

Rumsfeld, clad in jeans and a casual shirt and looking as robust as a former star wrestler would, said he was too old for elective office and weary of the grind. He had pondered runs for the White House in both 1988 and 1996.

Nope, he said, I am done with public life. His wife, Joyce, seemed pleased.

But as we know, that was not the case.

Rumsfeld was asked to lead the Defense Department in 2001 and was in charge of it as the nation fought wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Some praised him for his tough-as-nails approach and disdain for the media; others loathed him for the same two reasons.

Documentary filmmaker Errol Morris grilled Rumsfeld for his new movie, “The Unknown Known.” The title is based on Rumsfeld’s response when asked in 2002 if the U.S. knew enough before invading Iraq on the pretext that Saddam Hussein, whom he had met in 1983, had weapons of mass destruction.

“There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns,” he said. “That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.”

I don’t know what to make of Rumsfeld. In person, he was delightful. But history may not be as kind.

Mark it down as an unknown.

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