WASHINGTON - "I've stopped reading the newspapers. You've got to keep your sanity somehow," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said on a surprise trip to Baghdad to boost the morale of the troops - and his own.
He added, with a sly grin, "I'm a survivor."
The soldiers cheered.
Of course they did. They're too disciplined not to. They were glad to be told by the head Pentagon honcho that they're doing a good job far from home, in Iraq's hostile sands and treacherous towns.
If Mr. Rumsfeld were forced out of office, it would be an admission of failure in Iraq. Because he's the major architect of the war, his ouster would hold up to question much of what the soldiers have been doing in the Middle East. That could make them question why their friends have been dying, or maimed for life. It would mean this country might lose confidence in the justness and morality of the war.
True, the United States as a whole is not ready to say the war and its aftermath were badly planned. There's no demand that American troops come home. To leave now would be to cut and run, a blight on the nation's reputation and future aspirations.
But when Mr. Rumsfeld, the survivor, says it's easier just to ignore the bad news and the criticism, he is sending a dangerous signal - even if it's one his boss also sends. President Bush, too, says that he avoids bad news in the media.
This is not a question of bad journalism or biased journalism. This is a question of not wanting your policy criticized, not wanting the public to know your mistakes, not wanting to have to admit having made those mistakes, not wanting to correct them.
Especially not in an election year.
Officials under pressure to explain bad policy don't want the public to know what's really going on. But democracy works only when people freely are able to know everything - good and bad - about their government. And that goes for the stewards of government.
Mr. Rumsfeld told the troops in Iraq that they are young - while he took pains to point out he is not - and promised them that they someday will look back and be proud.
Maybe. But maybe they will look back and say that if things had been done right from the beginning, there would be far fewer American deaths and injuries and far less hostility to the United States - ill will that could last for generations.
Mr. Rumsfeld has made many mistakes in this war in Iraq - his war. He's guilty of poor planning; thinking he could subdue Iraq without enough soldiers; miscalculating that the Iraqi people wouldn't mind having their country occupied; shrugging that it wasn't necessary to get other countries on board; overlooking the fact that soldiers needed proper equipment such as tanks and body armor for urban warfare, and failing to realize that, if it all went wrong, this war would be seen in many tinderboxes in the world as a war for oil and against Arabs.
His arrogance in assuming that only he can be at the helm is disturbing. His pettiness in seeking cheap cheers for saying he won't pay attention to his critics is chilling - this, after it's becoming clear that some American soldiers were all but ordered to use criminal means to interrogate prisoners.
The soldiers in Baghdad, who braved Mr. Rumsfeld's silly attempts at humor and milking a captive audience for laughs, did not shrink from asking tough questions. They wanted to know about poor equipment, inadequate security, unkept promises about rotations, lack of airplane tickets for brief home leaves, lack of manpower from other countries.
The soldiers got few answers. Mr. Rumsfeld joked. He pretended to squirm. He parried.
He also relaxed. The steam has gone from the brief "Begone, Rumsfeld" movement. The unassailable loyalty of the Bush men has come to his rescue.
Mr. Rumsfeld has proven, as CEOs have for years, that with enough chutzpah and bravado, if you royally botch the job, you can get away with it.
We support our troops. That doesn't mean we must support the handling of the war or its justification.
In a democracy - something that is costing us hundreds of billions of dollars and hundreds of lives to try to plant in Iraq - it's a civic duty to question policy, especially when old men ask young men and women to die for that policy.
If Mr. Rumsfeld, the survivor, weren't so insecure, he'd know that. He wouldn't avoid reading the criticism.
He wouldn't flinch from reminders that Osama bin Laden has not been caught, al-Qaeda is flourishing again, no weapons of mass destruction have been found, Iraq is now a far more fertile ground for terrorists - and that millions, perhaps billions of people who used to admire us now hate us.
Ann McFeatters is chief of The Blade's Washington bureau.