The air in the Presidential boardroom crackles, with everyone doing their best to look like they belong. Around the long table are the lead members of Union’s SGA, and around the edges of the room stand the members of the media, assembling their cameras, tripods, and recording devices. A whispered conversation flits around the room, stopping at random pairs of individuals, all of them eager to make eye contact with one of the most influential political figures of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
One of the photographers standing near the entrance of the room loses the façade of bored professionalism that he had erected on his face, as he shushes the room and waves his hand in a manner which everyone knows means, “he’s coming!” Everyone checks their hair one last time, and wipes off the front of their suit jackets, their whispers fading to nothing.
Dub leads the way into the room, and Donald Rumsfeld follows.
“I’ll stand” says the 84-year-old, after being offered a seat. “Now, are there any questions?”
After a minute, someone has the guts to speak up and ask the first in a series of prepared questions, “What was your proudest accomplishment?”
Even if one completely disagrees with every single action Rumsfeld ever accomplished (difficult to do, considering how bipartisan he tried to be) then his speaking style can at least be appreciated. Weaving together Sun Tzu quotes, humorous anecdotes about his personal life, and striking political situations he found himself in, Rumsfeld has the ability to create fascinating rabbit trails. Does he always answer the questions proposed – no. But he always entertains the room, and teaches something valuable to those listening.
One of the more memorable anecdotes comes when Dr. Dub questions Rumsfeld’s tie.
“Oh,” says Rumsfeld, pointing at a golden silhouette which adorns his navy blue tie, “that’s Winston Churchill.”
Churchill was one of Rumsfeld’s favorite politicians of the 20th century, not only due to his amazing ability to lead in the executive position, but also due to a card game. In 1942 or 1943, a young Belgian diplomat named André de Staercke met with Winston Churchill. Churchill then taught André a form of solitaire played with two decks of cards, because apparently one pack of cards isn’t hard enough.
“Churchill taught it to André” says Rumsfeld, “and André taught it to me.”
The game has been released on IOS and Android under the name “Churchill Solitaire,” so in an indirect way, anyone can learn a card game from Winston Churchill himself.
One of the more human moments comes when Rumsfeld discusses his time as “White House Chief of Staff.”
“It was the hardest job I ever had,” remarks Rumsfeld, “and I was working with the nicest man I ever knew, Ford.”
Due to the increased access of the internet, the average American has the potential to learn about history from many sources. It is rare however, that one has the opportunity to learn about a President from his chief of staff.
Rumsfeld spends several minutes talking about Ford, discussing his strengths and weaknesses.
“It was very difficult to help Ford, as he was a legislator, not an executive.”
Ford was the only president who was never elected president or vice-president, and that was because Ford was never meant to be the president or vice-president. This lack of knowledge led to some problems.
“I think he should have put together a new staff” says Rumsfeld. “He kept most members of the Nixon administration, which made him appear weak to the American public.”
Overall, Rumsfeld has nothing but the greatest respect for Ford, but it is incredibly enlightening to hear of American history from someone who experienced it up close and personal.
One of the members of SGA asks Rumsfeld what he thinks of the conflict in the Middle East.
“Is it where we want it to be?” responds Rumsfeld, specifically referring to ISIS and the unstable nature of the Middle East. “No. Is it unexpected? No.”
In closing, Rumsfeld chuckles and looks over at Dr. Dub.
“I’m afraid Mr. President won’t like this next bit,” says Rumsfeld, smiling to himself. “I don’t think I learned a dadburn thing in college from my professors. I learned the most from my friends, and studying at the library.”
With these words, Rumsfeld encourages everyone to cultivate friendships, especially those with roommates, as the deep conversations there will often affect the way students think more than assignments will.
At the Carl Perkins Civic Center, the smooth jazz band plays “Desperado,” by the Eagles, the piano leading the way. The donors are all on the floor level, shaking hands with each other, already forming their own little community apart from the students in the balcony seats far above. After a few minutes, Kaylee Gibson, the President of SGA, prays over the evening’s procedures, and then a band comprised of Union students plays a compilation of a dozen or so patriotic songs, prepping the audience for the second public appearance of Rumsfeld in a day. Several of the same Union students who had the privilege of attending the first meet and greet with Rumsfeld are in the audience, eager to hear him speak once more. Dub opens the evening up with a word of thanks to the donors, and then a familiar figure strides across stage. As he is applauded, he smiles, and adjusts his navy blue tie.
Interestingly, as Rumsfeld makes his way through yellow notebook paper, it becomes clear that the majority of the answers he gives are directly from the Q&A session earlier in the afternoon. This time, however, Rumsfeld includes a thesis among all the answers.
“What is the gravest threat facing our country?” asks Rumsfeld. “Well, it’s a hard question to answer.”
Over the next ten minutes, Rumsfeld talks about nuclear weaponry, the problems in Iran, China, Global warming, debt etc. etc. The same exact major issues that the Cable news networks cover 24/7.
“What we don’t see,” continues Rumsfeld, “are the actions and reactions to these major issues. When I was a kid, we didn’t have television, or iPhones or iPads or any of these things. We had marbles and magnets. You’d take a magnet, and you’d move it. Then all the particles would be attracted or repelled. My thought to what might be the greatest threat, are the micro threats that no one sees.”
Small issues that no one will ever see vastly influence the world, says Rumsfeld, and when the magnet (the big issue) is used “there is a magnetic particle that doesn’t follow the other ones, and goes the wrong way.” If enough small magnetic particles go the wrong way, they will change the way the world works.
After his speech, there is another question and answer segment, led by Dr. Dub Oliver. “Is there any particular memory from 9/11 that sticks out to you?” asks Dr. Dub, his bowtie looking perfect as always.
“Well, there’s a lot of things I can remember from that day,” says Rumsfeld, getting very somber. “I remember the Pentagon was burning. Smoke was being moved through the air conditioning system, and they were starting to announce that the building needed to be evacuated. I said ‘no, we’re not going to evacuate the building.’ They had attacked the seat of economic power in New York, they attacked the seat of military power in the Pentagon, and they had a plane up whose purpose was undoubtedly to attack the political center of the United States, either the Capitol or the White House. I did not want to see the United State evacuate the department of defense building.”
After this, a hush falls over the room, as the amount of courage that this man had becomes clear.
The purpose of having a figure like Donald Rumsfeld speak at the scholarship banquet shouldn’t be to inform the public of his stances. After all, those are all online, easily accessible by anyone. Whether or not it was on purpose, hearing Rumsfeld speak filled people with a new respect for the man. He had done what he thought was right, and he had stuck to his guns. Twelve years on, Rumsfeld admits that he has made mistakes, but looking back never stopped him. His tales of 9/11, Gerald Ford and learning solitaire indirectly from Winston Churchill humanized him to crowds of people, and gave them a little bit of empathy, understanding more the responsibilities that this man had, and the enormous courage his positions took.