CAREERS: WHY IS HE STILL SMILING?

You might think that the home of Benjamin Bradlee, former editor of The Washington Post, and his wife, Sally Quinn, was the last place Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld wanted to be last Thursday night. Washington was engaged in one of its periodic head hunts, and the local jungle drums, the news columns and op-ed page of The Washington Post were beating loudly for Rumsfeld's head. Prominent pundits and senators from Rumsfeld's own party had declared on the pages of the Post that it was time for Rummy to go. Bradlee's house is a kind of headquarters of the Washington permanent-media establishment. The reputations of once powerful government servants are buried there, between the dessert course and the toasts.

There was some tension this evening between the reporters and their targets, er, subjects. The day before, former CIA director George Tenet had been awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Bush. In that morning's Post, columnist Richard Cohen had suggested that Tenet was "incompetent" and a "failure." In the Bradlee-Quinn living room, Tenet collided with Cohen over hors d'oeuvres. "Hey, what did I ever do to you?" asked Tenet of the columnist. "Want to step outside?" Just kidding. Rummy, on the other hand, looked about as edgy as if he were attending a Princeton reunion. He laughed and joked and showed a lot of teeth. It was almost his 50th wedding anniversary, and he reminisced about one of his first dates with Joy (they went to see "Mr. Roberts"). There was no talk of Iraq.

The Washington punditocracy circled about with their drinks, taking mental notes. There were, among others, Bob Woodward of the Post and Tim Russert of "Meet the Press" and Al Hunt of The Wall Street Journal and Maureen Dowd of The New York Times. They were pretending not to watch as Rumsfeld showed how he was not at all concerned. Stephen Smith, an old Washington press hand who has just taken a new job running the Houston Chronicle's Washington bureau, remarked that Rummy was getting pounded in the press, and suggested that he would like to go over to Rumsfeld's house one morning to have breakfast and watch him read the morning papers. "Nah," said Rummy. "Wouldn't be worth it. I spend four minutes reading those things." He made a show of hastily, and dismissively, ruffling through the pages.

During the Afghanistan war, President Bush nicknamed Rumsfeld "Matinee Idol." Women of a certain age swooned over the Defense secretary's wartime, tough-guy insouciance. Rummy looks a little older and wearier now, and he may be running out his string. It's one thing for Sen. John McCain to say that he has "lost confidence" in Rumsfeld. McCain is a maverick who enjoys tilting at the administration. But on Capitol Hill and at the Pentagon, eyebrows raised when former Republican leader Sen. Trent Lott began criticizing Rumsfeld last week. Lott's home state of Mississippi is deeply dependent on military contracts (like Navy shipbuilding at Pascagoula). Apparently Lott doesn't expect Rumseld to last long enough to take those contracts away.

Firing Rumsfeld would be a concession on the part of President Bush, who doesn't concede much, if anything. A more likely scenario is for Rumsfeld to declare victory sometime after the January elections in Iraq and retire. Don't expect him to express any regrets.

CORRECTION

Join the Discussion