Don’t get me wrong, I love biographies, particularly of historical figures. But there’s an inherent structural bias when writing them to make a subject the hinge point of a historical moment, downplaying certain institutional conditions that do as much or more to shape history than the ability of the Figure to impose her will on the world. (A great counterexample is HBO’s John Adams biopic, which went to great lengths to undersell Adams’ importance to the revolution and the early republic and still elevate Adams-the-historical figure.) Then there are other biographies that attempt to be so scrupulously fair to a subject that they strain credulity.

I’m 100 pages into Bradley Graham’s enormous biography of Donald Rumsfeld. That’s way, way too early to render a judgment about the book, which so far is diligent and appears comprehensive. But I just can’t get past this moment in the introduction:

Hubris and miscalculation, obstinacy and mismanagement, bad advice and bad luck all played a part in bringing Rumsfeld down. Given his leading roles in two wars that have become national sinkhles, his association with some of the most shameful incidents in modern U.S. military history, and his personification of the arrogance and misjudgments of the Bush administration, Rumsfeld is likely to remain a deeply controversial figure for many years, easy to caricature and easy to loathe.

But he is more complicated than the common image of him as a pugnacious, inflexible villain. Quiet trips to visit the war wounded at Walter Reed Army Medical Center belied his public stoicism and suggested anguish and pain that few saw. Gruff and imperious in formal settings, he could, in more casual surroundings, be disarmingly genial and fun-loving. 

I can’t tell whether that’s equivocation or condemnation through faint praise. Obviously I don’t know the first thing about what it’s like to be a wounded soldier, but I find it baffling that an observer would consider it even mildly exculpatory that a massively incompetent and detached defense secretary visited the soldiers his mistakes helped maim. I almost find it passive-aggressive. And it should be clear that very few people are actually "pugnacious, inflexible villains." But it seems comically absurd to write, He was among history’s greatest mistakes, except in the realm of remembering birthdays and anniversaries, where he excelled like few others…

Now, again, maybe Graham is demonstrating that Rumsfeld is fairly close to the caricature if this is the best he can do to complicate the popular perception of the man. I’ll need to read the remaining 450-odd pages to know for certain. But still: biography, your perils are on display here.

Spencer Ackerman

Spencer Ackerman

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