WASHINGTON (AP) Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, the public face of an unpopular war, bid farewell to the Pentagon on Friday in a splashy sendoff featuring lavish praise from President Bush. Rumsfeld defended to the end the mission that led to his ouster.
Combative to the last, Rumsfeld took a slap at advocates of withdrawing U.S. troops from the war, now in its fourth year with more than 2,900 Americans dead.
"It may well be comforting to some to consider graceful exits from the agonies and, indeed, the ugliness of combat," Rumsfeld said, choking up slightly as he capped a roster of speakers at his pomp-filled goodbye ceremony. "But the enemy thinks differently."
Rumsfeld's service to the country over five decades and for four presidents was saluted in an hourlong honor review.
A drum roll marked the ceremonial entrance of Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Rumsfeld to a grassy field outside the Pentagon. Troops fired a cannon salute of 19 rounds.
On Monday, Robert Gates takes over from Rumsfeld, who will be just 10 days shy of surpassing Vietnam-era Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara as the longest-serving Pentagon chief ever.
Far from apologizing for the Iraq war that was the undoing of Rumsfeld, as well as Republican control of Congress and Bush's approval ratings, speakers heralded both the war and the secretary's leadership.
Bush applauded Rumsfeld for the invasion that drove Saddam Hussein from power in just 21 days and for seeing the Iraqi people through the resumption of sovereignty, two elections, the adoption of a constitution and the seating of a new government. There was no mention of the potent anti-American insurgency that arose after the invasion, nor of the spiraling sectarian fighting that has more recently brought increased bloodshed.
"On his watch, the United States military helped the Iraqi people establish a constitutional democracy in the heart of the Middle East, a watershed event in the story of freedom," said Bush, who hugged Rumsfeld. "This man knows how to lead, and he did. And the country is better off for it."
Cheney, close to Rumsfeld in a nearly 40-year friendship, was even more effusive.
"I've never worked harder for a boss, and I've never learned more from one either," said the vice president, hired by Rumsfeld in 1969 into the Nixon White House. "I believe the record speaks for itself: Don Rumsfeld is the finest secretary of defense this nation has ever had."
A former Navy aviator, the 74-year-old Rumsfeld is the only person to hold Pentagon position twice, serving as the nation's 21st defense secretary and its 13th. Under President Ford, he was the youngest Pentagon chief in U.S. history. He now leaves having been its oldest as well.
After three terms in Congress from Illinois, Rumsfeld became a high-level official and NATO ambassador under President Nixon. He was Ford's chief of staff before leading the Defense Department from 1975 to 1977. He served briefly as a special ambassador to the Middle East for President Reagan. In between government stints, he made millions in the private sector.
This time around, the nation didn't know quite what to do with the square-jawed, squint-eyed and acid-tongued man who became known as "Rummy."
In the days after the September 11th attacks, when the U.S. military was racking up successes against the al-Qaida-harboring Taliban in Afghanistan, Rumsfeld's daily press briefings, by turns combative and courtly, fascinated and entertained the nation. His frank assessments, peppered with "by gollys" and "my goodnesses," were a refreshing alternative to bureaucrat-ese.
But as Iraq grew messier and deadlier, Republicans began signing on to the persistent Democratic calls for Rumsfeld to lose his job. A group of ex-generals went public with their assertion Rumsfeld was a failure. Prominent voices inside the administration wondered quietly why Rumsfeld wasn't being held accountable.
On Iraq, the complaint list was long: He resisted sending enough troops to Iraq in the beginning; he remained in denial about the insurgency even after its deadly consequences were clear and he failed to properly equip American troops.
Rumsfeld's style earned him few friends. His demands had alienated the officer corps and his dismissiveness rankled members of Congress. His outsize ambition for a radically transformed U.S. armed forces, particularly the Army, unnerved some traditionalists.
Rumsfeld twice offered Bush his resignation, once during the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal in spring 2004 and again shortly after that.
All along, Bush insisted he was happy with his Pentagon chief.
The president pivoted, however, the day after midterm elections that handed Democrats control of the House and the Senate in voting largely viewed as a message of discontent about the war. Bush, a fidgeting Rumsfeld standing beside him in the Oval Office, announced his departure and the choice of Gates, a mild-mannered CIA director from his father's administration, as Rumsfeld's replacement.
In his parting advice, Rumsfeld said America must increase investment in its military.
"Ours is a world of unstable dictators, weapon proliferators and rogue regimes, and each of these enemies seeks out our vulnerabilities," he said. "Ours is also a world of many friends and allies, but sadly, realistically, friends and allies with declining defense investment and declining capabilities and, I would add, as a result, with increasing vulnerabilities. All of which requires that the United States of America invest more."