The Caucus Blog of the Illinois House Republicans: Mr. Rumsfeld of Illinois

The Caucus Blog of the Illinois House Republicans: Mr. Rumsfeld of Illinois

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Mr. Rumsfeld of Illinois

Earlier this summer the nation learned of the death of the controversial former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld who became the public face of the war in Iraq from 2003 until his resignation in 2006.

At that time Rumsfeld was serving his second term as Secretary of Defense, having first held the post during the 1970s (making him both the youngest and oldest Secretary of Defense in American history). He was also the White House Chief of Staff under President Gerald Ford and held positions in the Nixon and Reagan administrations as well.

Before all of that, however, Rumsfeld’s first foray into politics came here in Illinois, where he was elected to four terms in Congress in the 1960s.

Donald Henry Rumsfeld was born at St. Luke’s Hospital in Chicago on the same day in 1932 on which the stock market closed at its lowest point of the Great Depression. In his early years his parents and older sister moved first to Evanston and then Winnetka.

When his father, George, joined the Navy after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Rumsfelds moved to California, but returned to the Land of Lincoln after the war. In 1949 Rumsfeld graduated from New Trier High School where he was a member of the state champion wrestling team in his senior year.

While at New Trier he met Marion Joyce Pierson. The two were married in 1954, the year Rumsfeld graduated from Princeton University. They were together for 67 years, having two daughters and a son.

Rumsfeld was a somewhat reluctant groom, according to an account he gave CBS in 2011, but he had an even bigger fear pushing him toward the altar.

“I just simply didn’t want to get married, but I didn’t want her to marry someone else! It was one of those things. And so I caved in and asked her to marry me. And fortunately she said yes.”

1954 Princeton yearbook photo of Rumsfeld. 

In order to make ends meet while studying at Princeton, Rumsfeld signed up for the Navy ROTC program. After graduating he served as a naval aviator, flying anti-submarine patrol aircraft. He held onto his Navy commission through his years in Congress and even as Secretary of Defense, finally retiring from the Naval Reserve in 1989 as a captain.

While trying to choose a path for life after college, Rumsfeld found inspiration from a speech delivered to his senior class banquet by former Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson, himself a Princeton alum. “If those young Americans who have the advantage of education, perspective and self-discipline do not participate to the fullest extent of their ability America will stumble, and if America stumbles, the world falls,” Stevenson said.

Upon leaving active duty with the Navy Rumsfeld got his first job in politics when he worked as an aide for a member of Congress from Ohio and later another from Michigan. In 1960 he returned home to Illinois where he worked as an investment banker at A.G. Becker and Company in Chicago, but he opted to follow Stevenson’s call and decided to return to politics. When the incumbent Marguerite Stitt Church announced that she would not seek re-election to Congress in 1962, Rumsfeld threw his hat in the ring.

The district stretched from the northern edge of Chicago through such communities as Schaumburg, Wheeling, Elk Grove, Evanston and on up the lakeshore. It was the most highly-educated and highest-earning district in the nation. In a field of seven well-qualified candidates Rumsfeld described himself as “the longest of long shots.” A Chicago political reporter predicted that the 29-year-old would come in dead last in the field.

His first campaign strategy session consisted of a group of high school and college friends sitting around the Rumsfeld kitchen table discussing the race. At the end of the meeting someone thought to bring up the question of money. Each person there threw in $50, and thus began the campaign treasury.

Rumsfeld ran on six key points: “firm foreign policy, strong defense and freer trade policy, effective civil rights measures, reduction of the debt, incentives for increasing economic growth.”

He quickly learned that he was a terrible public speaker. Joyce and his campaign manager Ned Jannotta booked an empty banquet hall to give Rumsfeld the chance to practice his stump speech while they offered critiques.

“I found public speaking was like anything else: unless you have some remarkable natural talent – which I didn’t – when you’re starting out, you don’t do it very well,” Rumsfeld recalled. “But if you work on it and work on it, you can get better.”

Rumsfeld relentlessly courted local business and community leaders, asking for their support. He gradually put together a first-rate team of local leaders for his committee. He even managed to win the endorsement of the paper which had earlier predicted that he would finish last.

In the primary on April 10, Rumsfeld took 67 percent of the vote and secured the Republican nomination for Congress. The next day’s Chicago Daily News headline read, “Recent political unknown in sweeping win.”

He was victorious in the fall, defeating a candidate named John A. Kennedy.

1963-1964 Illinois Blue Book page.

“It was quite a night for our entire family,” Rumsfeld wrote years later, “but most of all I remember the expression of amazement on the faces of my parents. Something had happened in the life of their son and in their lives that was beyond anything they had imagined.”

In Congress Rumsfeld earned a reputation as a moderate. He quickly befriended Gerald Ford; who represented the congressional district surrounding Grand Rapids, Michigan; and supported his drive to become the House Republican Leader in 1965, replacing the more conservative Charles Halleck.

Rumsfeld’s rebelliousness in backing a challenger to one of the House’s ranking “old bulls” earned him the enmity of several more senior members, including the leading Illinois Republican in the House, Les Arends. Arends used his influence to steer Rumsfeld away from high-profile committee assignments like Appropriations or Foreign Affairs and onto what he thought was a less important body: the House Committee on Space and Astronautics. As America raced for the moon in the 1960s, this committee would come to be known as the “Space Committee.”

“The committee turned out to be more interesting than I had expected,” Rumsfeld recalled, putting matters lightly.

Sworn in in January 1963, Rumsfeld met President Kennedy only once, at a reception for members of Congress. Both Donald and Joyce Rumsfeld remembered being awed by meeting the President and the Secretary of State that day. That fall Rumsfeld was about to give a speech at a luncheon in Chicago when the event was interrupted by the terrible news of the President’s assassination.

As a freshman representative, Rumsfeld joined 23 of Illinois’ 24 representatives in supporting the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He would later vote in favor of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which the Illinois delegation supported unanimously. He joined 21 of his Illinois colleagues in backing the Voting Rights Act in 1965. He also supported creating the Peace Corps and early legislation for environmental protection, as well as co-sponsoring the legislation creating the Freedom of Information Act.

Though he supported the Tonkin Gulf Resolution in his first term and voted for military appropriations in later years, Rumsfeld was an early skeptic of the Vietnam War, something which to many would seem ironic four decades later. He doubted the rosy reports about the war flowing from President Lyndon Johnson’s administration, describing a February 1966 White House briefing as a 90-minute “barrage of confident-sounding words” which was “thin on new information and heavy on upbeat platitudes.”

He joined a congressional delegation which visited South Vietnam in May 1966 to see matters for themselves. He came home with deep reservations about the Johnson administration’s policy for winning the support of the Vietnamese people.

“Unquestionably, the people of Vietnam would have been vastly better off free of a repressive Communist regime and with freer political and economic systems,” he recalled. “But neither we nor the Vietnamese we were supporting had developed an ability to communicate that truth persuasively.”

In September 1967 Rumsfeld called for Congress to become more involved in the management of the war. He introduced a resolution to study whether “further Congressional action is desirable in respect to policies in Southeast Asia.” It was blocked under pressure from President Johnson.

Rumsfeld was among a group who sought to change the House rules to enact needed reforms. They pointed out that the House had been operating under the same rules since 1909, what Rumsfeld called “horse and buggy rules.”

They made constant parliamentary motions to try and enact some of their changes like the creation of an ethics committee, open committee hearings and recorded votes on spending bills instead of less-accountable voice votes. Supporters of these measures came to be known as “Rumsfeld’s Raiders,” and while they did not succeed in the mid-1960s, their reforms were eventually included in the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970.

But by then Rumsfeld had left Congress.

Donald Rumsfeld sworn in as Secretary
of Defense in 1975 and 2001

With the inauguration of Richard Nixon to the presidency in 1969, Rumsfeld’s congressional career came to an end. He was chosen to head the Office of Economic Opportunity, and resigned from Congress on May 25, 1969, to be succeeded by Phil Crane. He went on to serve as ambassador to NATO before being tabbed as White House Chief of Staff and Secretary of Defense.

Rumsfeld’s last dalliance with Illinois politics came in 1987 when he was briefly mentioned as a candidate for mayor of Chicago, though he ultimately chose not to enter the race.

Donald Rumsfeld died June 29 at his home in Taos, New Mexico. He was 88.

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