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Rumsfeld and Blunkett: the Agony at Christmas
Last uploaded : Thursday 30th Dec 2004 at 01:16
Contributed by : Carol Gould


22 will always be a significant number for what remains of my lifetime. On December 22nd, 2003, just over a year ago, I was sitting in the waiting room of the breast cancer consultant at St Thomas? Hospital in Hammersmith, London, in mortal terror of the results of seven biopsies on my right breast.

A week before I had been called in after an abnormal mammogram and had been rushed in straightaway for a series of ?needle biopsies? (it sounds worse than it is). Because the abnormality was widespread seven samples had to be taken from different areas.

A week later the consultant called me in and to my utter joy told me the entire set of extensive samples had been benign.

I vowed that every year on 22 December I would celebrate. The intervening week from biopsy to result was one of the worst of my life. Every imaginable thought had gone through my head: what would my executors make of my massively over-filled flat, stacked with twenty-seven years of my fertile life as a drama executive, writer and photojournalist? What would chemotherapy be like? I had watched so many friends waste away and go bald. How would I pay my bills?

One year later, I have been watching two men go through another, vastly different kind of agony as the year 2004 draws to a close. One of the men is blind, of humble beginnings, softly-spoken and generally loved and respected by the nation he serves, and the other is supremely rich and fit, a former wrestler and -- well, not very loved at present...

In Great Britain, the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, blind since birth, has had to resign in the wake of a spectacular scandal involving his paternity of a baby boy with his lover, Kimberley Quinn, the married publisher of ?The Spectator? magazine. Blunkett, whose disability had never hindered him from becoming a learned and articulate public servant, had been a much-admired and respected leader but as the story of Kimberley, the ?little lad?, and now a second lover was emerging, the public torment of Blunkett was almost too painful to watch. In the past few days it has come to light that whilst Ms Quinn was in a passionate relationship with Blunkett, she had also been carrying on an affair with journalist Simon Hoggart.

To make matters worse for the Home Secretary, Stephen Pollard?s biography contained remarks by Blunkett that have enraged various members of the Blair government and inner circle.What has been painful has been the sight of the torment etched on the face of the Home Secretary. In an ill-advised caper that made the entire episode even more bizarre to behold, he appeared at a pre-Christmas Cabinet drinks party with a guitar accompanist and launched into a rendition of ?I?m dustin? meself off and startin? all over again.?

Now, things are getting worse all the time: Blunkett is likely to incur official censure for having allegedly pushed through the ordinarily lengthy bureaucratic channels the visas for Ms Quinn?s nannies. It is even being reported in some quarters that the investigator of this alleged impropriety has himself become mesmerised by the femme fatale Ms Quinn. She, pregnant again, has been taken ill but seems well enough to have been reported to have extensive -- perhaps explicit -- diaries about her long affair with the British Home Secretary.

In the United States, the once-adored Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, has come under scrutiny once more -- the most devastating having been during the Abu Ghraib prison revelations last May -- because of comments made to disaffected troops at a Town Hall meeting in Kuwait on 8th December (?You go to war with the Army you have? not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time." ) and because of a revelation that he had not personally signed all of the 1,000 letters of condolence sent out to the bereaved families of soldiers who have fallen in Iraq. On ?The Tonight Show? this week Jay Leno joked that the President would be giving Rumsfeld a pen for Christmas.

During the past week various senior journalists have written scathing attacks on Rumsfeld, including a devastating piece by William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, the conservative magazine that had supported the Iraq war. Maureen Dowd in ?The New York Times? wrote a parody, ?On the twelve days of Christmas Rummy gave to me..? and a rather cruel fantasy essay about the state of the world if Rumsfeld had never been born. At the end Dowd fantasises Rumsfeld wanting to know if his wife had lived out her life an old maid, and he is assured that she did not, and is in fact married to the French ambassador in the house across the street where the Rumsfelds live today.

The Defence Secretary called a press conference two days ago on 22 December at short notice -- otherwise we would have reported on it -- and was visibly shaken by the cumulative effect of the relentless public barrage of criticism and satire. This was not the Rummy of past appearances and seemed more like a dead man walking. It is always intriguing to watch immensely successful and powerful people dealing with disaster. Nothing could have been more wrenching to Martha Stewart fans than the effect her trial and conviction had on her appearance. She must have aged ten years during that ordeal. Although Donald Rumsfeld has not been charged with a crime nor has his behaviour in any way resembled that of David Blunkett, he has been at the receiving end of fierce censure from every corner of the political spectrum.

In 'The Fog of War' Robert McNamara recounted the effect his job had had on his wife and son. On a segment of ?Larry King Live? in December 2002 Rumsfeld was asked about the effect the job was having on him. He paused and seemed shaken. ?It isn?t fun? he replied. When King went further and asked about the effect on his home life, Rumsfeld could not speak and was clearly holding back tears. He needed to reach for a drink and then composed himself. ?My wife is a trouper? he managed to murmur.

This is the same man who could barely hold back tears on the rounds of the talk shows after 9/11 and who was the only senior government official to roll up his sleeves and rescue people when his employees at the Pentagon were burning to death on that September morning; later on he called Sens Carl Levin and John Warner to the Pentagon and held a briefing whilst the building still smouldered. Various web-based groups like to lump Rumsfeld with the ?chicken hawks? in the Administration who never served in combat. He was Navy pilot who stayed in the Reserves until the final year of eligibility. None of this takes way the anger felt by those who found his manner brusque at the Army Base in Kuwait two weeks ago not does it assuage the hurt felt by those military bereaved who expected a ?live? Rumsfeld signature on their letters of condolence. Even the staunchest Rummy- fans think their hero messed up on this one.

Watching him hold back tears as he addressed the troops on a surprise visit to Iraq this Christmas Eve, one wonders if this man is as tough as he tries to project. He has had some bad advice and is known for his obstinacy, and one hopes the fighting men and women in Iraq will receive every bit of armour they require. Rumsfeld now has some twenty or more letters of condolence to sign after the horrific suicide bombing at the mess tent in Mosul ( the tent should have been reinforced, and one hopes these shortcomings will be addressed without delay) and a press still seething. Maureen Dowd?s latest column refers to his ?disgraceful? admission to the military magazine ?Stars and Stripes? that he did not personally sign the letters of condolence and one wonders when the vitriol will cease. With his departure?

Watching both Blunkett and Rumsfeld age and wither before one?s eyes during their respective December crises one is reminded of the film ?The Fog of War? in which former Defence Secretary Robert McNamara is moved to tears so much that one leaves the cinema feeling compassion for the architect of the Vietnam quagmire. Even more disturbing is the story of James Forrestal, the FDR-Truman-era Defence Secretary who ended up mentally ill and who, according to official reports, committed suicide.

The assumption of immense power and wealth does strange things to the most decent of people. Blunkett, despite his disability, was one of the most powerful men in the British government and yet his heart destroyed his career. Rumsfeld is cut of a different cloth: everything he has ever touched seems to have turned to gold and yet on this day before Christmas he looks as sad and riven with torment as does Blunkett. The American has the advantage, unlike the benighted Blunkett of a fifty-year marriage and immense personal wealth and physical fitness. However, one cannot help being drawn into the drama of the past few weeks as one watches two men who deeply love their respective countries being pilloried by their own political party and by former friends and allies.

Seymour Hersh likes to talk about having known Don Rumsfeld for forty years or more. He exposed the Abu Ghraib story, as did Dan Rather, also known to be a friend of Rumsfeld. To an outsider looking in like myself, Washington seems an extraordinarily vicious and back-stabbing town. By the same token back-stabbing does not enter the equation when bereaved parents of a slain only son do not receive a personal -- even hand-written -- letter from the head of the Pentagon or from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

When all is said and done ( and I really wish Rummy had had a caring someone in his PR department to nip the awful auto-pen practice in the bud) Americans at this time of the year should throw their minds back to September 2001 and remember the reason why Rumsfeld became a hero. One suspects he is and aging man overwhelmed with responsibility. Recently he told an interviewer that he was reading the McCullogh biography of John Adams and that he also likes to read poetry and chop wood. At the time I was rather taken with this, considering how the media in the UK, where I live, like to portray Rumsfeld as an evil, bumbling idiot. His diverse extra-curricular activity -- reading poetry and biographies -- was then used as the prime source of outrage when it was revealed that he did not have time to sign letters of condolence to bereaved military families.

Lest we forget the line from ?Julius Caesar:? ?The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.?

And getting back to my original theme: a year after my breast biopsies my own life is not as satisfactory as I would like it to be, but I hope never to have to live through the torment of that endless week between biopsy and result again. The difference between me and the men in this article is that I had done nothing to bring on my torment. However, anguish is anguish and I could not help but feel a twinge of sorrow for Blunkett and Rumsfeld, whose very public predicaments -- as vastly different as they may be -- brought them into the realm of anguish and sleepless nights.

I am not rich or powerful and can only observe from afar. My own week of stress was reported only in these columns. Maureen Dowd, who writes with relentless, almost obsessive fury about Rumsfeld, would not know me if she fell over me. Anguish, however, is a human frailty and at this emotionally driven time of year my thoughts go out to those in torment -- most particularly the families of those serving in Iraq -- and even to the rich and powerful men of whom I have written.

May 2005 bring inner peace to us all and tranquillity to the world.

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