The Forgotten History of "Rumsfeld the Stud"

The consequences of the media, both mainstream and rightwing, praising Donald Rumsfeld as a sex god

Donald Rumsfeld died in disgrace, deservedly so. The New York Times, as is its wont, ran a euphemistic obituary that skirted over the Iraqi war death toll. But even the Times couldn’t hide the fact that Rumsfeld was one of the chief architects of a war now almost universally regarded as a disaster—even within the Bush administration. Rumsfeld was cashiered in 2006, after Republicans lost congress and Bush lost his stomach for defending his beleaguered Secretary of Defense.

The ignominy attached to Rumsfeld’s name is all the more striking given how ludicrously he had been praised in the two years after the attacks of September 11, 2001. Before the Iraq War went bad, Rumsfeld was often celebrated as both a managerial genius who was remaking the military into a more nimble fighting machine and also, strange to say, as a sex symbol, an emblem of vigorous, assured masculinity.

Susan Faludi has an astute account of the curious sexual lionization of Rumsfeld in her 2007 book, The Terror Dream: fear and fantasy in post-9/11 America, a work of cultural criticism which deserves as much fame as better-known study Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women (1991).

In The Terror Dream, Faludi writes:

“America will need more ‘heroes,” Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told the Armed Forces one day after 9/11, and however reliable his intelligence on matters of actual defense, on this point he proved prescient. The press, for its part, heeded Rumsfeld’s pronouncement by nominating him to the role, in the process dressing him up in some curious costumes. National Review’s December 31, 2001, cover story featured a drawing of Rumsfeld in Betty Grable pose, beside the headline “The Stud: Don Rumsfeld, America’s New Pin-Up.” “Reports have it that people gather round to watch Rumsfeld press conferences the way they do Oprah,” the story claimed. “Women confide that they have . . . well, un-defense-policy-like thoughts about the secretary of defense.” Fox called Rumsfeld a “babe magnet,” and People named him one of the “sexiest men alive.” Conservative doyenne Midge Decter penned a book- length valentine, Rumsfeld: A Personal Portrait, which included beefcake shots of the young “Rumstud” as a bicep-bulging wrestler and a socialite’s breathy confession that she kept his photo tacked to her dressing-room wall. “He works standing up at a tall writing table,” Decter wrote, “as if energy, or perhaps determination, might begin to leak away from too much sitting down.” His secret, she said, was “manliness.”

Faludi connects the brief-lived but intense adoration of Rumsfeld with a cultural need for heroes, indeed superheroes, in a time of crisis. (It’s worth reflecting that the current cultural domination of superheroes dates to the Bush era, with the first big MCU hit, Iron Man, coming out in 2008.) This fed into a resurgence of reactionary gender norms celebrating a form of masculinity defined by toughness, assertiveness and belligerence. 

Faludi notes the same language used for Rumsfeld was also lavished on George W. Bush:

The president’s vows to get the “evildoers” won him media praise because it sounded cartoonish. Wall Street Journal columnist and former Republican speechwriter Peggy Noonan exulted that she half expected Bush to "tear open his shirt and reveal the big ‘S’ on his chest.” UPI’s national political analyst, Peter Roff, said Bush's post-9/11 rhetoric reminded him of the “‘Whams,’ ‘Tows,’ ‘Biffs,’ and Whaps’” of Batman, Bulletman, and the Shadow—a resemblance he applauded. “This is just the kind of hero America needs right now,” Roff wrote, because comic book language “rallies the nation to even greater accomplishments and sacrifice, bringing forth great leaders to rescue the country.” Time dubbed Bush, approvingly, our “Lone Ranger.” Newsweek called him America’s “dragon slayer” and “a boyish knight in a helmet of graying hair.”

This discourse of manly sexiness and superheroics was pervasive in both right-wing media (National Review) and the mainstream press, but perhaps for different ends. For the right, celebrating he-men like Rumsfeld and Bush was surely a way to litigate the gender wars, to use 9/11 not just to push for a new war in the Middle East but also as an opportunity to fight feminism and LGBTQ normalization. Bush’s opposition to marriage equality is usually treated as distinct from his foreign policy, but there is an underlying connection.

For the mainstream media, I think the post 9/11 impulse was to identify heroic figures in a time of crisis, a narrative strategy that spans the political spectrum. Consider the cult of Dr. Anthony Fauci during the pandemic. It’s an instinct to find a comforting paterfamilias, a daddy-figure who exudes authority and confidence. (Of course, this daddy-hunger is rife with political implications even if it doesn’t formally align with the right wing political movements).

Midge Decter, whose 2003 book Rumsfeld is quoted by Faludi, is a telling figure. Since the 1960s, Decter has been a leading neo-conservative, known for her books lambasting feminism and LGBTQ rights. In a notorious 1980 essay titled “The Boys on the Beach” Decter dismissed the idea that homosexuals were discriminated against. She claimed they were a privileged group that discriminated against straight people:

The idea of homosexuals as discriminated against in housing and employment, then, must have taken a little getting used to by my former neighbors in the Pines. Nor, for those who lived and who worked anywhere within, or even just near to, the precincts of high-fashion society, would this idea have seemed any less bewildering in the city. Just to name the professions and industries in which they had, and still have, a significant presence is to define the boundaries of a certain kind of privilege: theater, music, letters, dance, design, architecture, the visual arts, fashion at every level—from head, as it were, to foot, and from inception to retail—advertising, journalism, interior decoration, antique dealing, publishing, . . . the list could go on.

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Moreover, not only are they solidly ensconced in these after all interesting, and far from low-paid, areas of making a livelihood, but here again, anyone who has known them as a group cannot but be mindful of the fact that where so ensconced, they themselves have engaged in a good deal of discriminatory practice against others. There are businesses and professions in which it is less than easy for a straight, unless he make the requisite gestures of propitiation to the homosexuals in power, to get ahead.

Decter’s essay ended by rejecting gay rights:

To become homosexual is a weighty act. Taking oneself out of the tides of ordinary mortal existence is not something one does from any longing to think oneself ordinary (but only following a different “lifestyle”). Gay Lib has been an effort to set the weight of that act at naught, to define homosexuality as nothing more than a casual option among options. In accepting the movement’s terms, heterosexuals have only raised to a nearly intolerable height the costs of the homosexual’s flight from normality. Faced with the accelerating round of drugs, S-M, and suicide, can either the movement or its heterosexual sympathizers imagine that they have done anyone a kindness?

It’s not surprising that a gender reactionary like Decter would glom on Donald Rumsfeld and use him to re-assert the need for manly men. The swooning over Rumsfeld in Decter’s book is much worse than Faludi’s account hints at. Here is how Decter’s book opens:

It was a warm autumn evening in 2001, and we were dining alfresco on a terrace overlooking New York’s Central Park. A woman I had known for many years—a handsome, elegant, and well-connected member of the city’s cultural and artistic community—was seated across from me, and as dinner wore on, the name of Donald Rumsfeld came up in the conversation. As it would, from then on, so many times. “Oh, Rumsfeld,” she practically cooed, “I just love the man! To tell you the truth, I have his picture hanging in my dressing room.” I was startled. In what was clearly a most interesting life, this very clever woman had known many famous and important men, and the idea that so cool and worldly a denizen of New York society had hung Donald Rumsfeld’s picture in her dressing room as a smitten girl might do (assuming that a smitten girl even had a dressing room) left me in a state of wonderment.

The Donald-Rumsfeld-as-Stud moment has long been relegated to the special memory hole reserved for cultural embarrassments. Yet it would be a mistake to think the moment had no legacy. The period immediately after 9/11 saw a re-energizing of belligerent masculinity, now given new legitimacy as absolutely essential for national defense. Donald Trump reaped the benefits of this new mood by cleverly realizing that manly aggressiveness could sell if it were directed not to fighting unwinnable wars (as Bush and Rumsfeld had done) but to insulting political rivals. The pseudo-he-man who can own the libs is a role Trump fulfilled and lesser politicians (Tom Cotton, Ted Cruz) haplessly try to mimic it. 

(Edited by Emily M. Keeler)

Housekeeping

For more thoughts by me on Rumsfeld, you can listen to this podcast. Also, yesterday’s newsletter didn’t go to all subscribers, so you can read it here.

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