July 1, 2021 - 11:30am

Donald Rumsfeld, who served as secretary of defense under Presidents Gerald Ford and George W. Bush, died on Tuesday from multiple myeloma. Rumsfeld crammed decades of experience as a consummate Washington insider into those 88 years — as a congressman, White House staffer for Nixon, Chief of Staff and Secretary of Defence for Ford and then George W Bush, as well as manifold corporate roles — but less well known is his first career.

As a young man, Donald Rumsfeld was a blue-chip amateur wrestling recruit out of New Trier High School in Winnetka, Illinois. Heavily sought after by the powerhouse college wrestling programs of the Midwest, Rumsfeld instead accepted a partial scholarship to Princeton, where he would occupy a three-year starting slot at the 157-pound weight class during arguably the most competitive period in the history of the Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association — a time when conference powerhouses Penn State University and the University of Pittsburgh had arisen as serious contenders to the long-time NCAA tournament dominance of the state universities of Oklahoma and Iowa.

In his memoir Known and Unknown, Rumsfeld pushed back against commentators trying to extract deeper meaning from his wrestling experiences. “People have even tried to make it a metaphor for my approach to life,” Rumsfeld wrote, when “the fact is that wrestling was a sport I was suited for,” one in which he grew to “understand the direct link between effort and results.”  

In 1953, he lost an intense 9-5 match for the EIWA’s 157-pound championship against Penn State wrestler Reed Hunt, then one of the best men at the weight class in the entire world, and a year later, he finished fourth in the conference despite wrestling most of the season with complications arising from injuries. And even after he had graduated from Princeton and begun serving as a Naval aviator, he won the All-Navy wrestling championship in 1956, qualifying for the U.S. Olympic trials before again bowing out due to recurrent shoulder problems. “My Olympic hopes, such as they were, were over,” he wrote, with trademark self-deprecation offsetting any lingering disappointment.

In another, considerably lower-profile book than his own memoir, Elite Wrestling: Your Moves for Success on and Beyond the Mat, Rumsfeld spoke more candidly about his passion for the sport.  Wrestling, he noted, demanded “perseverance” and “was so complicated, nothing simple about it.” He explained that he had succeeded through the careful application of leverage — moves, counter-moves, and subtle adjustments to how one’s weight is distributed — combined with a willingness to strike preemptively.  Rumsfeld’s signature move, the fireman’s carry, was intended to end matches quickly and consisted of him dropping to one knee and shooting under an opponent’s leg, then throwing the opponent over his shoulders and depositing him on the mat. But he also recalled fondly how he separated his shoulder in an EIWA tournament match against a wrestler from Cornell, then endured the pain for seven minutes and won by points. 

Rumsfeld, in other words, could move quickly when needed  — he was the youngest Secretary of Defense, after all — but also proved as indestructible as the cockroach, serving in that same role at age 74. And he understood pain, evidenced both by his willingness to wrestle for several years with a shoulder that frequently popped out of joint as well as a handwritten comment from his time in the Bush administration in which he matter-of-factly inquired why Guantanamo prisoners were limited to four hours of standing per day during an interrogation, when he stood for eight to ten hours each day.  

For Rumsfeld, all means justified the end of preserving the Pax Americana he saw as commensurate with corporate flourishing and the continued expansion of the military-industrial complex: enhanced interrogation, expanded surveillance, global warfare against difficult-to-identify enemy combatants. He was, as sometime-adversary Henry Kissinger observed, “a special Washington phenomenon: the skilled full-time politician-bureaucrat in whom ambition, ability, and substance fuse seamlessly.”  

But before that, he was a bull-necked wrestler who learned from the sport that “it takes discipline to be persistent.” In wrestling as in life, to paraphrase the former Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo, a mere mediocrity would get nowhere, but a doggedly-determined mediocrity could go very far indeed, could in fact reach the mountaintop and sneer derisively at all those still beneath him. 

Oliver Bateman is a historian and journalist based in Pittsburgh. He blogs, vlogs, and podcasts at his Substack, Oliver Bateman Does the Work