Four or five years ago, I was riding my bike home from work one afternoon when I ran into former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. At the time, I was waiting tables at this restaurant on East 60th Street in New York. As a bike commuter, I had to do this weird loop few blocks out of my way to make it to the bicycle entrance for the Queensboro Bridge. It was annoying, because the restaurant was only like one block away. But it was against traffic, and at around five or so in the afternoon, trying to swim upstream like that is suicidal.
And so I was heading north on Third Avenue when I saw him, Donald Rumsfeld. It was definitely Donald Rumsfeld. It had to be. It was maybe a month or so after he left the Bush administration, right around when Dick Cheney was talking about how he was the greatest Secretary of Defense that had ever lived.
You think about the George W. Bush presidency, and again, I don’t want to get too political here, but those are the years that I came of age. I was a junior in high school when W got elected, I was a senior during 9/11, and I remember it was in the middle of our spring break during my freshman year of college when the President got on TV and gave Saddam Hussein that twenty-four hour ultimatum.
I had no idea what was going on back then. I didn’t read any papers or watch the news. But I remember seeing that speech and watching people’s reactions to Operation Iraqi Freedom. There were a few dissenting opinions here and there, but mostly it was stuff like, yeah, let’s get them. Let’s get those assholes. Nobody fucks with us. Stuff like that. Remember, it was like a year after 9/11. I still remembered being that senior in high school and watching the Vice President on TV telling us that it wasn’t a matter of if there’d be another attack, but when. So this stuff, to me anyway, it wasn’t anything that I thought of as being outside the realms of how the world was supposed to operate.
And then throughout the course of college, I started keeping up with current events. We weren’t out of Iraq in six months. I thought for sure, I just knew it, that Kerry was going to win the 2004 election. He didn’t. We’d be in Iraq for a while. I graduated college. I started watching documentaries about the Iraq war and what was happening overseas, why we were doing what we were doing.
A big moment that I’ll remember, something that, I hate to say cemented, because I want to have this idea of myself as being open to change, but something was firmly planted in my mind when Saddam Hussein was captured, when we handed him over to the new Iraqi government, and he was executed. Someone present at the event managed to record the act via cellphone, and for a whole weekend in February, this grainy footage was playing on repeat over every news channel.
I remember thinking, this is the culmination of American justice? This is why we went in there, we insisted that this guy get out, all so we could hand him over to his own political enemies for a good old fashioned hanging? A hanging, with a noose. It’s medieval. And we enabled that. We went over there and this big result was a hanging. It was crazy.
And throughout everything, as things got bad, then better, then bad again, as civilians got massacred, as it came to light that the administration had all but lied to the world regarding the justification of the invasion, everybody in charge, all of the real key players, every weekend they’d run around to all of these interview shows and double down on their arrogance. Even now, these idiots are still parading around the country, giving lame speeches in a pathetic attempt to defend their actions, belittling their opponents as they try to carve out a legacy that doesn’t involve the words war criminals.
Toward the end of his presidency, even Bush knew that he’d given too much power to the wrong group of people. It was too little, too late, unfortunately, but Rumsfeld resigned in disgrace, Alberto Gonzalez as well. Even Cheney’s grip on executive authority was curtailed significantly, leaving relations between the former President and his VP strained to this day. But in thinking about everything that went down, all of the lives lost and reputation squandered, yeah, these guys might have lost their jobs, but they got off easy. They’re still greeted as champions by certain sectors of the political spectrum. Their agenda, their worldview, while maybe it’s in remission, it’s hardly been defeated. It’s all a waiting game, they just bide their time utnil another like-minded President is elected, the right environment to carry out their goals. To borrow from a popular TV show, all of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again.
But back to me, riding my bike on Third Avenue, it was definitely Donald Rumsfeld. He was at the head of his pack, surrounded by an entourage of old men in suits. I was going pretty fast, but I knew that this was a unique encounter, for me anyway. I wanted to say something. But what? I couldn’t think of anything, so I wound up shouting, “Hey Donald Rumsfeld!” and he kind of looked up, that Rumsfeld scowl, and I yelled, “You’re an asshole!” and that was it. I turned onto East 62nd, made the right onto Second Avenue, and I was over the bridge pedaling away back home.
Every once in a while I’ll think about what went down. It was a very minor interaction that I’m sure I’ve unconsciously embellished in my head over the years. Like, did he really look up at me? Was I really yelling in as strong a voice as I think I was? And I was so certain that it was him at the time, but thinking about it from four year’s distance, what was he doing over by that part of the city? Why was he in New York? Was it really him?
I’m sure it was him. And I’m pretty sure that, even though I didn’t really have anything to say, I think I said exactly what I should have said. Because seriously, what hasn’t this guy heard before? He goes to Washington, he sits at the head of whatever think-tanks and conferences, and he probably hears arguments from both side of the coin, from people more educated and up-to-date with what’s going on than I could ever hope to be. What was I going to do, stop my bike and get into a policy argument with the former Secretary of Defense?
No, a guy like Rumsfeld, I felt that it was important for him to be faced with his legacy as it is, not as how he and his buddies planned it out before they ever sent the first troops overseas. And maybe he can dismiss opposing arguments from the highest levels of government officials. Maybe he can listen to professional journalists and analysts rebuke his decisions and dismiss everything as something fundamentally flawed.
And probably, my comment didn’t register at all. I’m nobody. I’m some dude on a bike screaming out an insult. Maybe he didn’t even hear me. But that was my moment. For just a second, I had this guy’s attention, I think, and I wanted to let him know, one guy to another, hey Donald Rumsfeld, I think you’re an asshole.