April 19, 2006
Here's Donny! In His Defense, a Show Is Born

WASHINGTON, April 18 — It has become a daily ritual, the defense of the defense secretary, complete with praise from serving generals, tributes from the president and, from the man on the spot, doses of charm, combativeness and even some humility.

A session on Tuesday was the third time in five days that Donald H. Rumsfeld had sought to make a public case to remain as defense secretary.

"There are no indispensable men," Mr. Rumsfeld told reporters at the Pentagon.

But the Bush administration sought to drive home the message that Mr. Rumsfeld was not going anywhere, no matter what critics might desire.

Again, Gen. Peter Pace of the Marines, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was at Mr. Rumsfeld's side, a visual prop to counter the message from a half-dozen or so retired generals that Mr. Rumsfeld should step down.

President Bush, having defended Mr. Rumsfeld on Friday from Camp David, had appeared before the cameras hours earlier, to make the case in person.

"I'm the decider, and I decide what's best," Mr. Bush said in the Rose Garden. "And what's best is for Don Rumsfeld to remain as the secretary of defense."

Such extended repeated public displays of self-defense are not the norm in Washington, where beleaguered officeholders usually seek to maintain the pretense that criticism does not matter. Those who do respond most often use surrogates to extol their virtues.

But the extraordinary parade of generals who have stepped forward to defend Mr. Rumsfeld includes a bevy of retired officers, including Gen. Richard B. Myers of the Air Force, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and Gen. Tommy R. Franks of the Army, who commanded American troops in the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts.

On Tuesday, Mr. Rumsfeld summoned another group of retired officers for a closed meeting, ostensibly to brief them on Iraq, but clearly also to enlist their support when they appear on television.

Perhaps the most notable examples of damage control since the retired generals' complaints gathered force have come from Mr. Rumsfeld, who has appeared on Al Arabiya television, the Rush Limbaugh radio program and, twice, before television cameras at the Pentagon.

The appearances have been layered with the verbal flair, acerbic wit and defiant touches that Mr. Rumsfeld has made his trademark. But on Tuesday, there was also an uncharacteristic flash of humility — an olive twig, if not a branch — from a man better known for his combativeness.

Mr. Rumsfeld, who has said he offered to resign two times after the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, said he was "not inclined to be instantaneously judgmental" about what his critics were now saying, a message that has included complaints that his headstrong style causes him to disregard much of what anyone in a uniform tells him.

"Because of the importance of these matters being discussed, I'd like to reflect on them a bit," Mr. Rumsfeld said.

Within minutes, though, he said the views of the six generals who had called for his resignation were hardly representative, noting that the nation's 6,000 or 7,000 retired generals and admirals were not "unanimous on anything."

At Mr. Rumsfeld's side, General Pace added that soldiers in Iraq showed no discernible dissatisfaction with Mr. Rumsfeld. General Pace said Gen. Michael W. Hagee, Marine Corps commandant, had just been there and reported that he "got exactly zero questions about the leadership in the department."

The calls for Mr. Rumsfeld's resignation have abated since last week, when Mr. Bush asserted his authority as commander in chief to declare that Mr. Rumsfeld "has my full support and deepest appreciation."

The group that has called for the resignation includes two retired major generals who commanded troops in Iraq and a retired three-star general who was director of operations on the Joint Staff. Their comments have been criticized by other retired generals, who have said the group risks politicizing the armed forces.

A danger for Mr. Rumsfeld is that Republicans running in the November election will decide that his continued presence in the cabinet could drag down their prospects and urge Mr. Bush to dump him.

A Senate Republican aide said that despite expressions of support for Mr. Rumsfeld by some Republican senators, many other members expressed deep concern privately.

"The nervousness here is with a figure as controversial as Rumsfeld at the head of a war that's declining in popularity, that becomes a real political problem for members who are up for re-election this fall," said the aide, who insisted on anonymity because he had been told not to discuss senators' private conversations.

With Congress in recess, the aide said, he knew of no organized effort among Senate Republicans to make their concerns public or to take them to the White House. But the aide said he expected discussions to intensify when senators returned next week.

There are signs that the efforts to keep Republicans from defecting are working. On Tuesday, Representative Duncan Hunter, the California Republican who is chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, issued a news release taking on Mr. Rumsfeld's critics point by point. The statement notes that the secretary had 273 meetings with senior commanders last year, illustrating "that Secretary Rumsfeld respects and relies on the judgment of the Pentagon's uniformed leadership."

After taking questions for a half-hour, Mr. Rumsfeld went to meet the retired military officers and civilian analysts. Many of those invited comment regularly on CNN, Fox News and other television and radio outlets and are part of the same community that is proving a problem for the secretary.

In past meetings with the group, Mr. Rumsfeld has opened with lengthy statements. This time he said he would go straight to questions, participants said. He was asked about the criticism, said Maj. Gen. Thomas L. Wilkerson, who retired from the Marines and who attended the meeting.

"He said it's a diversion, and that it's taken him away from the full-time focus on things he needs to do," he said. Mr. Rumsfeld "was not chastened. If anything, he looked like he was energized by it."

Eric Schmitt contributed reporting for this article.