Editor's Note: (David Gergen has been a White House adviser to four presidents of both parties and is a senior political analyst at CNN. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he is a professor of public service at the Harvard Kennedy School and co-founded its Center for Public Leadership. The views expressed in this commentary belong to the author. View more opinion at CNN.)
(CNN) On Wednesday, America learned of the death of Donald Rumsfeld. Though he was one man, it's hard not to think of him as two distinct political figures: one who helped to save a presidency and was widely seen as a brilliant newcomer, the other whose later misjudgments helped to lose a presidency as well as his own reputation.
In both instances, Rumsfeld proved to be one of the most consequential figures in the second half of the 20th century.
Rumsfeld was born in Illinois, went to Princeton on a ROTC scholarship, served as a Navy pilot before landing a staff job on Capitol Hill, and then at 30, was elected to Congress, elbowing aside a Republican incumbent.
That Rumsfeld was one of the nation's rising stars, winning four straight congressional elections before deciding that life in the congressional lane was too slow. President Richard Nixon offered a faster-paced job, heading up anti-poverty programs. There Rumsfeld hired Dick Cheney as his top aide and the two forged a close partnership that shaped the rest of their lives. Strikingly, they were stalwarts in trying to lift more Americans out of poverty.
Politically, both were also on a fast track. When Republicans were sinking under the scandal of Watergate, Nixon's newly installed successor, President Gerald Ford, called Rumsfeld back from an ambassadorship to NATO in order to serve as his chief of staff. Rummy, as he was called, whipped the White House into working order and was then dispatched to the Pentagon where he was the youngest defense chief ever -- and was again effective. (I should note that I was among those Ford and Cheney recruited to the White House staff.) In the rear-view mirror, Ford looks better and better as one of our most honest presidents. Rumsfeld deserves some of that credit, too.
Had Rumsfeld continued on that track, he would likely have become president himself one day. But there were a few cracks already surfacing. For example, he persuaded Ford to bring home George H.W. Bush from a high-level post in China and assign him to run the CIA. Lots of Bush fans saw that as a cunning play by Rummy to prevent Bush from successfully running for president after Ford. CIA directors have never made it straight to the White House. Bush didn't either.
But after Democrats regained the White House under Bill Clinton in 1992, Rumsfeld went into the private sector where he made beaucoup money as a CEO of various ventures. He was apparently biding his time, eager for one more run at national leadership. Interestingly, Cheney also took time out of his political climb to serve as CEO of a big company -- and they had similar reactions to life in the corporate lane: their friends speculated that each had become more rigid, more hardline and more regal.
When George W. Bush won the presidency in 2000, fellow Republicans sensed there were once again some shenanigans in the appointments process. It appeared that in naming Cheney as his vice president and Colin Powell as his secretary of state, Powell would emerge as the strongest member of the national security team. Instead, in a surprise, Bush added Rumsfeld to his team (the oldest defense secretary ever) and Powell suddenly found that huge chunks of power fell into the hands of the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld alliance. Those were hard days for Powell.
It is interesting to speculate whether the US after 9/11 would have launched invasions of both Afghanistan and Iraq and taken such a hard line against Iran if Bush had chosen a different secretary of defense. We will never know for sure, but historians have generally treated Rumsfeld as the father of both the Afghan and Iraqi conflicts.
Perhaps one day the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld triumvirate will receive more credit, but at the moment, the "forever wars" are seen as a disaster. It has not escaped notice that this very week, just as the US is pulling out of Afghanistan, our top brass are warning of a civil war there; incredibly, it is not yet clear whether our government will evacuate the 18,000 Afghan interpreters and helpmates for the US in time, leaving them vulnerable to being slaughtered by the Taliban. That would be a moral catastrophe.
One final point should be made: the evolution of Rumsfeld over the years in a more conservative, rigid direction is not unique. Over time, I have seen an array of young players evolve in disappointing ways and I imagine there are many who believe that as years have passed, I have gone off the tracks, too. But in the case of Rumsfeld, as with Cheney, I also believe that they remained steadfast in their commitment to what they believe is in the best interests of the country. As Donald Rumsfeld heads to the grave, we should remember the blunders of recent wars, but let us also remember the Rumsfeld of those early years.
As President Bill Clinton said at the memorial service of President Richard Nixon, we should judge our leaders on the totality of their lives.