Bradley Graham ’74 does not remember any Master’s Teas he attended when he was a student at Yale — he was too busy writing articles for the News.
More than 30 years later, his interests have not changed. The veteran Washington Post reporter spoke about his hopes for the future of journalism, as well as the process of writing his newly released book, a 832-page biography of former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, at a Davenport Master’s Tea on Wednesday afternoon.
“That was really the story of my life at Yale, putting out the YDN, and I think I’ve made the most of it,” Graham said at the start of his conversation with the 25 students and community members gathered at the Davenport Master’s house.
Graham, who has covered the military and foreign affairs for The Washington Post for more than 30 years, released his book “By His Own Rules: The Ambitions, Successes, and Ultimate Failures of Donald Rumsfeld” in June of last year. At Wednesday’s tea, Graham summarized the first 68 years of Rumsfeld’s life, calling them a “successive number of successes.” He cited Rumsfeld’s various accomplishments, from being named captain of the Princeton wrestling team to working as secretary of defense under President Gerald Ford. It was these achievements, Graham said, that prompted him to write about Rumsfeld.
“The puzzle for me was how a man so well prepared and so talented could have made such a mess of it,” Graham said.
Graham also spoke about the impact of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on Rumsfeld’s work as the secretary of defense. When Rumsfeld signed on for the job, he had been charged with transforming and modernizing the military, Graham said, but when the War on Terror and the Iraq War began, the nature of his work had to change.
“The challenge he faced in office wasn’t the one he’d signed up for,” Graham said.
Graham wrote the book over the course of three years, during which he met with Rumsfeld eight times. Though Graham said he often found Rumsfeld to be “cold” and “dismissive,” the two also shared some lighter moments, including an incident before the 2008 election when Graham joined Rumsfeld in his ranch in Taos, N.M. a local security guard drove up to the two men, Graham recounted, and handed Rumsfeld a T-shirt bearing the slogan “Cheney/Rumsfeld ’08.”
“I can’t believe you didn’t rig this,” Graham remembers saying to Rumsfeld. “You wanted to show me that you have at least one friend in Taos.”
Graham said Cheney was pleased with the shirt but thought it should have said “Rumsfeld/Cheney” instead.
In addition to his book, the journalist discussed his years at The Washington Post, which he said he thinks will adapt to the Internet age. While the Post has seen significant internal change, with the closing of domestic bureaus in several cities and older staffers taking retirement incentives, for example, additional efforts are being put towards the paper’s online edition.
“I’ve been encouraged by the progressing development on the Web,” Graham said. “I do think there’s hope ahead.”
Three students interviewed after the Tea said Graham’s ability to transition from discussing newspaper reporting to book writing impressed them.
Sam Dorward ’13 said he was encouraged by Graham’s optimism, which he thinks bodes well for other Yalies hoping to pursue a career in journalism.
“I think that’s what a lot of people here are looking to do, and the running theme is that it is impossible to do that these days,” Dorward said.
But Andrew Bell, an actor visiting New Haven, said Graham’s discussion of the former secretary of defense reinforced stereotypes of Rumsfeld that have been popularized by the media; Graham’s portrait of Rumsfeld did not shed light on the man behind the caricature, Bell said.
Graham, however, said during the Tea that his book emphasizes the human side of Rumsfeld’s story.
“I do see Rumsfeld really as a tragic figure,” he said. “His biggest failings were personal, and in that, I think, there’s an important lesson for all of us.”
Graham was a member of Davenport College as an undergraduate.