By REG HENRY
When it comes to pomp and circumstance, my appreciation of the formalities always depends upon the circumstances. As it was, the farewell to outgoing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon the other day, complete with 19-gun salute, marching bands and glowing speeches, left me unseasonably gloomy.
Of course, who am I to criticize the great Rumsfeld? He served so long he knew George Washington personally. In my own eccentric military service, I was a nobody who never rose beyond the rank of corporal (although I did enjoy being called Cpl. Nobody).
Still, I dare to think I speak for everybody who wasn’t forced to be at the Pentagon last Friday and make a show of clapping, all of us nobodies who voted for something different back in November.
We were the forgotten legion, uninvited to Rumsfeld’s sendoff. Still, this bizarre occasion provided another reminder of what a fine sense of duty the members of our armed forces possess. It must have taken tremendous self-discipline to sit in their seats or stand at attention without bursting out laughing. Members of al Qaeda should quake at the sight of such fortitude.
In watching a replay of the ceremony on C-SPAN at home, I particularly marveled at Vice President Cheney, who was in vintage form.
Admittedly, the vice president is a longtime friend of Rumsfeld, and a certain amount of hyperbole when talking about old buddies is understandable. But hyperbole is one thing and mutterings from the mothership are another.
Dick “The Insurgency Is in the Last Throes” Cheney clearly lives on his own topsy-turvy planet, where, as he observed, “Don Rumsfeld is the finest secretary of defense this nation has ever had.”
Well, the commander in chief wasn’t going to sit there on the dais and let his vice president upstage him in the matter of other-worldly remarks.
When it came his turn to praise the outgoing secretary, President Bush said: “On his watch, the United States military helped the Iraqi people establish a constitutional democracy in the heart of the Middle East, a watershed event in the story of freedom.”
Actually, I think Bush meant to say a waterfall event, in which we are all tumbling down and drowning. No matter. From Bush and the other speakers, we can take as gospel that Rumsfeld was beloved by the troops and was a sort of warrior Mother Teresa.
The longer I listened to all of this, the more I couldn’t understand why the greatest defense secretary in history was leaving. Surely it was some mistake. Surely Bush would declare the joke over and command the drum-and-fife band to strike up with a rousing rendition of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”
I found myself thinking that, despite past reports of restive generals and Rumsfeld’s reputation for arrogance and brashness, it may be that he was popular with the troops. Hey, you go to war with the character you have. And if all our troops had gotten sufficient body armor and weren’t going back for multiple tours, there’s no telling how popular he might be.
I also thought that Rumsfeld might deserve accolades for reforming the military into a leaner, more nimble fighting machine. Then I woke up and I realized what troubled me.
I have nothing personal against Rumsfeld. I am not for hauling him before a war-crimes tribunal. I accept that he is a patriot who did his best. But he was one of the principal architects of the fiasco in Iraq and that trumps everything.
A parting parade held in defiance of reality is not what was needed. Whatever happened to a sense of shame? Rumsfeld needed to accept personal responsibility for every bit of his record and to leave quietly, as tradition and good form dictate.
Why, if I left my job having made journalism a wreck, I would have a small gathering with friends — and some alcoholic beverages might be involved. And it would be said of me, “Yes, he was a grand screw-up, but he had the decency to skulk off at the end.”
What’s next? Are we going to dig up Gen. Custer and give him a parade? How about the captain of Titanic or the fellow that triggered the Charge of the Light Brigade?
Merry Christmas and, to Mr. Rumsfeld, good night.
(Reg Henry is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. E-mail rhenry(at)post-gazette.com.)