When Saturday Night Live ‘s mimicker in chief Darrell Hammond began working on an impression of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the first thing he did was grab John Ford’s 1940 movie version of The Grapes of Wrath , starring Henry Fonda as John Steinbeck’s agitated Depression-era itinerant, Tom Joad.
“Rumsfeld reminded me a little bit of Tom Joad,” Mr. Hammond said the other day. “There was a fair percentage of Henry Fonda’s accent and tonal quality in him. When I started with Rumsfeld, I started with about a 50 percent Henry Fonda voice. Then I put a little age on it.”
Next Mr. Hammond went to work on the Secretary’s body language. At times Mr. Rumsfeld can appear more tightly wound than Aaron Brown after 1,000 Red Bulls. He squints, he hunches his shoulders, he hikes his hands herky-jerky.
“There’s a muscularity and tautness to him,” Mr. Hammond said. “He’s coiled.”
Finally, there was what really made Mr. Rumsfeld a TV star : that attitude. This septuagenarian Secretary of Defense could be clever, cocky, curt and more than a little bit condescending. There were his Church Lady exclamations in press conferences-“Oh my goodness”-and the beady-eyed, what-are-you-asking-me incredulity those rimless glasses couldn’t disguise. (David Martin, the national-security correspondent for CBS News, called these reactions Mr. Rumsfeld’s “outrageous question mode.”)
People who didn’t watch press conferences loved watching those press conferences, and Mr. Hammond did, too. He still does.
“There’s a professorial thing, when he looks down on people as if to say, ‘You realize, of course, that I know hundreds and hundreds of hours more about what you are talking about,'” he said. “He’ll look at the floor, and then he’ll bring that head up and give the reporter that thousand yard stare of his with the squinted eyes. It’s almost as if to say, ‘I can’t believe it.’ We had a line the first time I did Rumsfeld where he said, ‘I’d like to give you a better answer to that question, but I fell asleep during the first part of it.'”
When Mr. Hammond did his Donald Rumsfeld, it was a hit. The live audience loved it, and a little while later, he heard Mr. Rumsfeld did, too, though when a reporter raised it with the Secretary, he shot back: “When I want to discuss Saturday Night Live , I’ll bring it up.” It was Rumsfeld doing a Rumsfeld on a Rumsfeld impersonator, very pomo.
But there was always a flip side to Mr. Rumsfeld’s raffish television stardom, as riveting as it could be. Even during his long, post-9/11 media honeymoon, there was a concurrent Scary Factor-what Mr. Hammond referred to as Mr. Rumsfeld’s “sense of menace”-a perception of a powerful man on the brink.
“There’s the sense he’s going to explode, ” Mr. Hammond said.
And lately, Mr. Rumsfeld, media master, has been exploding, live on television. Even as he continues his meet-and-beat-the-press campaign, his lo-cal, high-impact war plan is under siege from leaders in the field, leaders at home, and, least surprisingly, by ex-leaders sitting in ergonomic chairs on cable television. Reporters who once swooned for him are giving him fits. Mr. Rumsfeld’s lovable grizzly bear exterior is now looking just…grizzly. The March 30 New York Times included a piece by Todd S. Purdum headlined: “Rumsfeld’s Imperious Style Turns Combative.” “As the public face of a nation at war – and a war not progressing as smoothly as some had predicted – Mr. Rumsfeld…has assumed an even crustier, testier tone in defending his war plan from public criticism and second thoughts from even some of his own commanders,” Mr. Purdum wrote.
It’s a mighty reversal. Like a sitcom character who’s been on a season too long (remember Fish ?), people are getting tired of the Rumsfeld shtick. Everything’s up for reconsideration, from his decision-making (Old Rumventional Wisdom: He thinks out of the box! New Rumventional Wisdom: He thinks under the box! ) to his answers (Old Rumventional Wisdom: He’s a straight shooter! New Rumventional Wisdom: He’s ducking! ) to his much-celebrated, ruffling style (Old Rumventional Wisdom: He’s cranky! New Rumventional Wisdom: He’s a crank! ).
Even those who praise Mr. Rumsfeld’s media talent see him as losing his grip.
“He is gradually turning” said Jack Smith, a former ABC News correspondent-and son of Howard K. Smith, one of “Murrow’s Boys”-and now a media strategist. “His critics might say he’s another mealy-mouthed administrative official.”
A Rumsfeld gripefest has been brewing for ages, of course. He’d been thought a goner before, in trouble in the Pentagon right up until Sept. 11. Now the media intensity is finally catching up to the rest of the world’s. Donald Rumsfeld is like the pop singer Robbie Williams in reverse: loathed everywhere except here. When foreigners see Donald Rumsfeld on the BBC or Sky TV or Al-Jazeera, they don’t see a man in control. They see Stanley Kubrick.
Here’s a sampling from the international newsstand:
Columnist, South Africa Business Day: “The more I see Rumsfeld, the more I am reminded of the mad scientist character in Stanley Kubrick’s brilliant film, Dr. Strangelove .”
Columnist, Australian Financial Review: “U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld sounds more like Dr. Strangelove every day.”
Columnist, Nottingham Evening Post : “[Rumsfeld]…comes across like something out of Dr. Strangelove .”
It’s not just the foreign press. A while ago on Hardball, Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel called Mr. Rumsfeld ” Dr. Strangelove on testosterone.”
“He might as well be called Secretary of Offense or Secretary of War,” Ms. vanden Heuvel said. “This is a man who is bullying, arrogant, and it is a shame on America’s reputation as a great country that we have as a Secretary of Defense someone who acts like a kid in a sand box. He should resign.”
You’d think Mr. Rumsfeld could stop the deluge himself. He retains his media fans. His sharp if prickly interviews made him one of the most popular and prized interview “gets,” practically a Sandra Bernhard for the Sunday-morning couches. They still enjoy him very much there.
“I like the guy, I like jousting with him” said CBS’ Bob Schieffer, who moderates Face the Nation . Fox News Sunday’s Tony Snow, who, despite his general cordiality, did manage to earn an “Oh goodness” from Mr. Rumsfeld on Mar. 30, praised the Secretary’s “active and interesting mind” and defended him against the latest critical Scuds. Mr. Rumsfeld also won don’t-bite-the-hand plaudits from George Stephanopoulos, who squared off with the Secretary on March 30 on ABC’s This Week.
“I think Rumsfeld is an effective communicator for a number of reasons,” Mr. Stephanopoulos said. “One, he’s direct. Two, he uses distinctive language. Three, it’s really clear he’s thinking during the interviews, instead of communicating.”
“He doesn’t act like somebody who’s been trained to come on TV,” said Mr. Snow. “A guy who probably would shock and horrify every media trainer is a reporter’s dream.”
But even though Jack Smith wondered if the Secretary had become “intoxicated by his own media persona,” Mr. Rumsfeld impressed the media trainers, too. Mr. Smith praised his ability to “ad lib and be completely comfortable.” Mark Bernheimer, a former CNN correspondent turned media strategist, complimented the Secretary’s unencumbered use of emotion to support his points. He may have been watching on Sunday, when Mr. Rumsfeld told Mr. Snow about how Iraqi thugs “took a man in Baghdad recently, cut out his tongue, and left him in the public square to bleed to death.”
Mr. Bernheimer said he often uses Mr. Rumsfeld as an example for his clients as someone who was “especially effective” at public communication.
“He isn’t afraid to let reporters know when he thinks a question is unfair or redundant,” Mr. Bernheimer said, though he wondered if Mr. Rumsfeld went too far now and again. “Once in a while his conviction borders on arrogance.”
But that’s what people loved about the guy. Professor Cranky played well in the sanitized media era-a breath of fearless air among the script-shackled talking-pointers. Mr. Snow believes it still plays well.
“He’s got a wonderful way of just slicing right through them,” said Mr. Snow. “It’s one of those things where he fillets the reporter in a way that seems to be relatively painless for the victim-and highly entertaining to everybody standing by.”
Indeed, whether it’s with a tongue-lashing or a diversionary tactic, even an embattled Mr. Rumsfeld can still pull one off.
“I thought a perfect example was a couple days ago when the story first started setting in about a bog-down in the cities and we might have to stop our advance on Baghdad,” said CBS’s David Martin. “Rumsfeld comes down and he obviously knows all the questions will be about that. So what does he do? He comes down and in his opening statement, he talks about Syria giving night vision goggles to Iraq and that brigade of Iraqi exiles from Iran. Neither of which have any impact on the outcome of the war. But it was a good diversion. It took x number of questions, with follow-ups to that, and those were questions which might otherwise have been devoted to ‘Why are we bogged down in the cities?'”
“The guy understands power,” Mr. Martin said. “And public communication is one mechanism of power.”