Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld faded away more quickly and more quietly than almost anyone who has been so prominent and so controversial for so many years.
What history will say of him we cannot know because most of us cannot today know all the things that were known within a small inner circle of those who had all the available facts — and all the weight of responsibility for decisions that had to be made under inescapable uncertainties and dangers.
It is hard to think of any Secretary of Defense who has ever been popular and Donald Rumsfeld certainly did not become a historic first in that department. He did not suffer fools gladly, even though they are a major constituency in Washington.
Whatever history’s verdict on the Iraq war and on Secretary Rumsfeld, both deserved to be discussed and debated on a far more serious and responsible level than the media sound bites, political spin and venomous cheap shots which have become all too common.
Whether Donald Rumsfeld’s policies were mistaken or not, that is no reason to accept superficial and even gutter-level discourse on momentous national issues. There was a time when even politicians understood that.
When British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain died early in the Second World War that his own blunders brought on and nearly lost, Winston Churchill delivered the eulogy — even though Churchill had more reason than anyone else to be bitter at Chamberlain, who had turned a deaf ear to all Churchill’s warnings for years.
"Neville Chamberlain acted with perfect sincerity," Churchill said. How many people would say that today about a political opponent on an issue as explosive as war and peace?
Churchill said more, that "we are so often mocked by the failure of our hopes and the upsetting of our calculations," but that "however the fates may play, we march always in the ranks of honor" when we have done our best.
Chamberlain’s best fell disastrously short but no one could accuse him of doing what he did for selfish or corrupt reasons — which has become standard operating procedure for many today. That was a different era but we need to become aware of what is possible and how much we have declined from those days.
In the United States, Wendell Wilkie received the largest vote of any Republican candidate for president when he ran against Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940. But, after the elections were over, he did not spend his time trashing President Roosevelt. He in fact became an emissary from FDR to Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
The issue is not whether people should be nice to Donald Rumsfeld or even whether history will vindicate him or condemn him. The real issue is whether we can have responsible adult discussions of issues at a time when the fate of this nation hangs in the balance in its most dangerous hour, with reckless and hate-filled leaders in Iran and North Korea about to become nuclear threats.
This country needs to be able to draw on its best people from every walk of life and from every part of the political spectrum. But the nation is not going to get them if going to Washington means seeing the honorable reputation of a lifetime dragged through the mud just because someone disagrees with you on a political issue.
Our confirmation hearings for federal judges have become a circus and a disgrace. Nominees who have fought for civil rights, even in the days when that was a risky thing to do in the South, have been pictured as "racists" just as a political ploy to keep them from being confirmed.
Washington has become a political meat grinder where character assassination is standard procedure. Clever and glib people say "If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen." But the far larger question is whether the country can afford to repel people who are desperately needed but who may have too much self-respect to let political pygmies smear their character.
We need to attract allies abroad as well as Americans at home. Yet too many in the media are as ready to trash our allies as they are to trash Americans whose politics they don’t like. It is a great game to some. But it is a dangerous game to play when the country is facing unprecedented threats.