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From the beginning, Rumsfeld's peers noticed that he was, as one puts it, "tough, competitive and transparently political." He was also better organized than anyone else. That's one reason that, after Nixon resigned in 1974, Ford brought Rumsfeld back from NATO to be his top White House aide and bring order to a West Wing in chaos. Rumsfeld proved himself handy with the knives: he maneuvered constantly against rivals while keeping his agenda a secret. "You'll never know what he is really thinking," says a colleague from the Ford years. Rumsfeld was not afraid of anyone, not even the greatest infighter of them all, then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. "Your wife was measuring my office the other day, Don," Kissinger once said to Rumsfeld, just to get a rise.
Many in Ford's inner circle believed that by 1975, Rumsfeld had designs on the presidency. Other top Republicans were poised to plunge in after Nixon exited the stage, but few moved as fearlessly as Rumsfeld. He began seeking ways to gain quick foreign policy experience. At his urging, Ford installed a fast-rising Rumsfeld protege named Dick Cheney in the chief of staff's job. Rumsfeld sent his rival for the Veepstakes, George Bush, to a politically toxic job at the CIA. And at age 43, Rumsfeld became the youngest Pentagon chief in history.
When Ford (teamed with Dole, as it turned out) lost to Jimmy Carter in 1976, Rumsfeld did something most Washington comers would rather die than try: he disappeared. For much of the next 25 years, he stayed out of the limelight, serving as CEO of GD Searle, the maker of NutraSweet, and then as chief of General Instrument Corp., a maker of cable-TV boxes that is now owned by Motorola. He was a huge success at business, though he missed politics--he once said he never should have left--but his attempts to stage a comeback always ran aground. He made a stab at the No. 2 spot on the Reagan ticket in 1980 (losing out to his old rival George H.W. Bush) and launched a brief run at the G.O.P. nomination in 1988 (losing out--once again--to Bush). By then the Rumsfeld-Bush rivalry was openly acidic: when Rumsfeld withdrew from the '88 race, he sent Bush a check for $100 or so, noting in an accompanying letter that he had sent the same amount to all Bush's rivals, thus hedging his bets.
Self-employed for most of the 1990s, Rumsfeld made a cameo appearance in the 1996 race when his old friend Dole took him on as a campaign chairman and even briefly considered him for the vice presidency. But Rumsfeld's political stars failed to align. Newt Gingrich asked him to run a commission on the missile threat in the final years of the Clinton era, a pulpit Rumsfeld used to warn Republican hopefuls of looming threats from Iraq, North Korea and China. Over the years, he became rich, bought a gigantic spread in Taos, N.M., and was living quietly with Joyce, his high school sweetheart and wife of 48 years, when his old charge Cheney asked him to come back and work for Bush's son.