NEW YORK – It may be the most popular thing on television these days, and has nothing to do with eating grubs or neurotic singles.
It's The Rummy Show, live from the Pentagon nearly every day.
Quick-witted and acid-tongued, refreshingly straightforward yet not really saying that much, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld seemed like no one's idea of a television star until the U.S. began its airstrikes in Afghanistan.
From that point on, the crusty former Navy wrestler — once derided as a throwback to the Ford administration — became a daytime television fixture whose popularity has rivaled that of other cable TV staples like Neil Cavuto and Chris Matthews.
"Whenever you've got big national stories, all of a sudden the news can be big daytime TV, like in Watergate, O.J., the Army-McCarthy hearings," said Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. "But with these press conferences, it's like The Donald Rumsfeld Show starring Donald Rumsfeld. He comes up and he does a little bit and he plays a podium very well."
So well, in fact, that his press conferences are scoring respectable figures in the Nielsen Media Research ratings, the standard for determining how many people are tuning in to what television programs. From Sept. 11 to Nov. 25, Rumsfeld's televised press conferences averaged about 802,000 viewers on CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC.
Those are formidable numbers compared to other popular cable programs. From Sept. 11 to Nov. 21, Hardball With Chris Matthews only boasted an average of about 774,000 viewers; Fox and Friends 706,000; and Lou Dobbs Moneyline not much more than The Rummy Show, at an average of 1,058,000 viewers.
Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clark said last week the secretary's pressers have become so popular his office regularly gets calls from around the country asking what time they can catch his next briefing on TV.
The kind of verbal treats viewers are tuning in for could be one-liners from sass-heavy sitcoms like Friends, with the Pentagon's cast of reporters playing the role of hapless straight man. Like during the Nov. 1 briefing, when a dogged television journalist repeatedly tries to get through a question about how many military liaisons the U.S. is sending to the Northern Alliance:
"So you plan to put them in as soon as you can. And in what numbers, could you tell us ..."
"No," Rumsfeld says.
"... in round figures?" the reporter continues.
"I could, but I won't," Rumsfeld shoots back.
He takes a reporter to task for asking a question that relies on "anonymous analysts," then another for "beginning with an illogical premise and proceeding perfectly logically to an illogical conclusion" — all to the laughter of those present.
In the same conference, Rumsfeld answers a question about why the U.S. is using cluster bombs with a few direct and seemingly obvious words:
"They are being used on front-line Al Qaeda and Taliban troops to try to kill them, is why we're using them, to be perfectly blunt."
It's a startling statement to a press corps used to the vagaries of military operations. Just before, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Richard B. Myers had tried to answer the same question with more than five times as many words — and less than half as much actual information.
Rumsfeld's verbal battering of the Pentagon press corps has been lampooned on Saturday Night Live, where comedian Darrell Hammond tongue-lashes one reporter into admitting: "I am an embarrassment to both myself and my newspaper."
More down-to-earth Rumsfeld witticisms sound like an exasperated schoolteacher instructing an especially slow student. Together, they could form a Book of Collected War Wisdom by Donald H. Rumsfeld:
On civilian casualties:
"There has never been a war where people have not been killed, and this is the case here. There is ordnance flying around … that lands somewhere and kills somebody when it hits." (Oct. 29)
On a question about how long the war on terrorism will take:
"There is a slight geographic distinction between [Afghanistan and the globe]. One is somewhat larger and more difficult and complex and, therefore might require more time." (Nov. 6)
On an unconfirmed report of four U.S. soldiers killed in Afghanistan:
"Could it have been another Taliban report? They are very busy, those folks. They must have a hotline right into the media all across the globe." (Nov. 6)
On appeasing terrorists:
"It's kind of like feeding an alligator, hoping it eats you last." (Nov. 13)
Rumsfeld's quips fly faster than cruise missiles in Kandahar — forcing transcripts of his briefings to make distinctions among the "laughter," "light laughter" and "soft laughter" that invariably accompanies each punch line.
By making what used to be dry, boring military briefings less a chore than a joy to watch, Rumsfeld has not only established himself as a key character in post-Sept. 11 America — after thumbs-up New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and evil-hating President Bush — he's also taken the press conference to a whole new level, Thompson said.
"I think there's a certain sense that he's not only doing a press conference, but he's borrowing a little bit from the traditions of really, really subtle stand-up comedians," he said. "He's not telling jokes, but he's even a little bit like Dennis Miller's rants."
There is no word whether Rumsfeld is planning to become a commentator for ABC's Monday Night Football, however.