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My Train Ride with Donald Rumsfeld

A vignette

As the President addressed the nation about the crisis in Syria, I sat waiting for the Acela to Washington at Philadelphia's 30th Street Station when an old man walked past me, trailed by an entourage from the K-9 unit. The hard, squinting eyes behind the glasses, the pinched brow, and the pencil-line lips were unmistakable: It was Donald Rumsfeld, just shrunken and more frail. He bounced around the platform and laughed and chatted with his guards. 

Finally, I decided to approach him, and broke the ice by identifying myself as fellow Princeton alum.

"It's so hard to get in these days!" he exclaimed after the initial pleasantries. "How do people get in? No one I recommend gets in anymore!"

He asked me what I did, and I told him I was a reporter covering foreign policy for The New Republic.

"Can I ask you about Syria?" I tried. 

"Oh, you can, but, golly, I dont know what he said tonight," Rumsfeld demurred, referring to the President's speech.

"I don't either," I said. "I was waiting for the train."

"And I don't know what it'll look like after people will analyze it," he said. "I mean, Putin's very clever."

I asked him if Vladimir Putin was taking the U.S. for a ride. 

"One of the rules in Rumsfeld's rules is 'Never assume the other guy won't do something you wouldn't do.' So reverse that double negative and you can assume they would do something we wouldn't do."

Given Rumsfeld's experience both with Putin and battling Cold War Moscow in the 1970s, I asked him what he thought of the cipher of the Kremlin. Over the din of the train pulling into the station, he said something both salty and artful, and I asked if I could quote him on it. "No!" he exclaimed. "I'm just an old man!"

We boarded the train, he into first class, me into plebian business. I snuck into his compartment to follow up with him.

"Well, hello!" he said warmly. "This man also went to Princeton!" He pointed to an African-American man in his early sixties. We shook hands, exchanged class years. The man said his nephew was in the class of 2014. I expressed mock shock that people were still graduating after I left.

"Well, I didn't know they took women!" Rumsfeld chimed in and laughed loudly at his own joke. Then he unraveled a long tale about a one-legged wrestler who became a national champion. "He wrestled people with two legs his whole life, but they never wrestled a guy with one leg!" He guffawed and threw up his hands as if to say, "Life!" 

Finally, after more wrestling stories, I asked if we could continue the conversation about Russia and Putin. 

Rumsfeld narrowed his eyes. He had a glass of white wine in front of him and some crudités. 

"I'm 81 years old," he said. "I've been under the weather for two to three months, and I'm only now coming back. I may be spry, but I'm not stupid. I'm not going to give you a single thing."

Just then, a conductor came by and asked me to leave the first class cabin. The other Princeton alum tried to intercede on my behalf. Rumsfeld just sat there and smiled at me. 

"It was nice to meet you," he said.