Capturing Don Rumsfeld

Ace GQ magazine correspondent Lisa DePaulo this summer scored an exclusive close encounter with former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, a man of power not known for letting feature writers from New York or anywhere else invade his private life. DePaulo flew with “Rummy,” as she calls him, by private jet to Taos, N.M., where she spent a day observing and questioning him on his ranch. DePaulo’s entertaining, illuminating and politically neutral profile, which appears in the October GQ — under the headline “Off the Record With Don Rumsfeld" — hits newsstands next week but already is posted on GQ’s Web site. I debriefed DePaulo on Thursday, Sept.13 by telephone from her home in Manhattan:

Q:  How did you get this scoop — this first up-close-and-personal access with Donald Rumsfeld since he resigned?

A:  I’m still not quite sure. I think the little stars were in alignment. First of all, I’m not a Pentagon reporter; I’m not a war reporter. I don’t pretend to be. I think he may have been intrigued by that, because one of the things I made pretty clear from the beginning was that I wanted to capture "Rummy the Man" — what it’s like to be Donald Rumsfeld, especially today. I really didn’t want to go into it with just 20 questions on Iraq and nothing else. I wanted a sense of him.

I think the context of it was appealing to him. GQ is doing this huge, 50th anniversary issue and we wanted to focus on a handful of truly iconic men — people who have been incredibly influential for the last half century but are still incredibly relevant today. Rummy was obviously on that wish list, so I think he liked the context of that a lot. There was a lot of wooing involved, because this is not a guy who does this kind of thing. The first time I met him was at Dulles Airport that morning.

Q: They didn’t suspect that you were part of some sort of East Coast liberal conspiracy to trick or trash him?

A: I think one thing they were really clear about was that I do not have a political agenda when I write. I’m not on a side. I try to capture the personality regardless of the party. I’m not a crazy liberal; I’m not a crazy conservative. I’m a writer. And that was also somewhat in my favor.

Q: It’s not like you’re not a Bush-hater or -lover or an anti-war maniac?

A: I really, really try — because I write a lot of political features and political profiles — to just approach it like a writer. If you are a jerk, you’re going to come off as a jerk. If you’re fascinating, you’re going to come off — I hope — as fascinating.  I really don’t have a political agenda. It’s very funny. I remember once writing this piece (for Philadelphia magazine) on the mayor of Philadelphia, Ed Rendell, and getting all these e-mails from conservatives saying, “Hey, you’re one of us.” When I was writing I wasn’t thinking, “Wow, the liberals are going to hate this.” I never think that way.

Q: The piece you wrote about Rendell was unfavorable?

A:  It was a piece that was so long ago but every time I go back to Philadelphia I get a ration of crap from people — “How could you do that to our wonderful mayor?” But it was a story where he was sort of his bawdy — as he put it, “salty” — self. I wrote about it. I wrote everything he said. My big surprise was that so many reporters were hanging out with the guy for years and years and never wrote about the kind of things that came out of his mouth.

Of course, I was in a different position because I was a magazine writer, and when I’m done, I’m done. It was a big to-do. It tells you how little goes on in Philadelphia that I still get asked about that. It’s like, “Come on. Get over it.” But that’s still a thing there. That was very funny. I didn’t look at it as bashing a Democratic mayor. I just looked at it like a fun profile of the guy.

I think there are too many people right now who write about politics who have such a clear horse in the race. I love when people say, “What are your politics.” I love that they don’t know — and I hope that they continue to never to know.

Q: What did you think of Rumsfeld before you spent time with him?

A: That he’s just this absolutely fascinating American character. I was always totally intrigued by the man. I didn’t have a “Oooh, I don’t like him” or “I do like him.” I used to love to watch his press conferences because he had such a set of brass ones all the time. Whether you agreed with him or hated him or whatever, he was just fascinating. When you think of the influence he’s had in so many ways for such a long time. I guess my opinion of him at that time was, “I’d love to have this man as a subject.”

Q: So what do you think of him now that you’ve seen him outside of the Bush administration “bubble”?

A: He is a very complex, in some ways difficult, man. But also he has this part of him that is incredibly charming, incredibly witty and bright. You want to hang out with the guy. He’s fascinating to talk to, but he’s a tough guy. I always thought, “I’m dealing with a master strategist here.” He was difficult, and yet I like difficult people.

Q: Not nasty, not stuffy or aloof?

A: No. As I said in the piece, and I really felt it, he answered every question I asked of him, even when the answer was “I don’t want to talk about it.”  There was never anger. Impatience, yes. This is a guy who doesn’t suffer fools. He knows who he is. He’s very comfortable in his own skin. He gets very bored and impatient with things he doesn’t feel like talking about.

Q: What were some of the things he didn’t want to talk about?

A: Well, he made it pretty clear he was not going to Monday-morning-quarterback the war with me. He was not going to say, “This is what we should have done differently” and “This is what didn’t work.” He did make a few comments about what went wrong and what in his opinion hasn’t gone wrong. There was a very telling moment when I said, “You keep telling me you don’t do regret, you don’t look back, but surely when you look back on the past six years there must be some regrets?” He said, “Well, sure,” and he talked about a few specifics. But then I said, “But what about you — the mistakes you made?”   And he said, “I don’t want to get into that.”

There were a lot of things he didn’t want to talk about. I said to him at one point, “I’m so curious how you feel about social issues.” Because this is a man who has done fascinating things for half a century and been in powerful, powerful, powerful positions. Surely, he’s given some thought to things like gay marriage and abortion. I asked how did he feel about those issues and he said, “I’m not going to get into that.” I said, “Why?” He said because when you are part of an administration, there’s a policy in the administration and you have to stick by that. Then I said, “But you’re not in the administration anymore. You can say anything you want.” And he said, “I’m just not that kind of man.”

Q: Is there anything he did say to you that you think he might regret having said?

A: I don’t think so. I think he’s too smart a guy. Part of what’s so interesting about him is that he lives by a certain code. He’s kind of a throwback. There’s something quaint about Donald Rumsfeld. He is not part of our generation of, you know, open a vein, act like you’re on “Oprah,” spill your guts, show all kinds of emotion. That’s just not who he is.

Q: What should people know about him that they don’t know — and they couldn’t possibly know until they saw him in a way that you saw him?

A: One of the things I tried to get him to address was, like, “Come on, this has to bother you.” I asked him several times “Do you sleep well?” He said, “Yes. I sleep fine.” Then the next time I asked him, he said, “Yes. I sleep fine.” “No nightmares?” “No.” My sense of him is that, yeah, a lot of this does bother him. But being Donald Rumsfeld, he is never going to admit that. That’s part of the character, that’s part of the swagger, that’s part of who he is. But of course, it gets to him.

He told me a beautiful story off the record and I later called and asked “Could I please put it on the record?” — it’s in the piece. He replied with an on-the-record dictated memo and the topic — which I can tell you now, because he put it in the memo, which is on the record — was his hospital visits that he made to the wounded and maimed soldiers.
But the way he put it on the record was utterly devoid of all the emotion that I sensed when he first told me the story. I thought that was just so fascinating. It was like, here’s a guy who refuses to show that emotion and heart that I do think he has to feel on some level.

Q: Are you worried you are going to be accused by your East Coast liberal friends of being too nice to him?

A: You know what? I already am. But I’m also accused by my East Coast conservative friends for being too hard on him. It’s very funny. The blogs are just fascinating to me. I am getting both praise and crap from both sides. I’m thrilled. For me, that’s the goal in a story — that it’s being discussed. It hits people in different ways. I’ve got both love notes and hate notes from both sides — in equal proportion, by the way. It’s all how you read into it. I think the piece was very fair, but more importantly I think it captures him. That was what I was trying to do — capture him.

Q: Have you heard any reviews or complaints from your subject yet?

A: I spoke to his man, his guy, his "peeps." They had a few quibbles but overall thought it captured him. That’s what I want to hear. I don’t want to hear “good,” “bad “or “It was nice” or “It was mean.” I want to hear “You got him.” I haven’t heard from him directly and I take that as a good sign. I think Rummy is the kind of guy who if he was really ticked off, I’d hear. I would hope he thought I got him.