Jason Smith’s wife, Kimberly Smith, gave birth to their first child on November 12, 1999, and the couple named their son Jacob Michael Smith. According to the Social Security Administration, Jacob and Michael were the first and second most popular American male baby names of 1999. Jason and Kimberly had no way of knowing those would be the year’s two most popular baby names; the list obviously was not published until 2000, and even if the information had been available, Jason and Kimberly would not have checked anyway.
“So what do you think would be a good boy’s name?”
“Jacob. I like Jacob.”
“I like Michael.”
Jason and Kimberly’s eyes met the moment the words “Jacob Michael” left Jason’s lips. It was settled. Jason and Kimberly put little thought, reason, or research into their selection, but quick decisions are often good decisions, and during his first six years of life, Jacob Michael Smith has never once found fault with his name.
“Jacob Michael Smith” felt more than comfortable; Jason and Kimberly were reassured by the name. Perhaps that’s why those two names were so popular during the year 1999. For some unknowable reason, parents trusted the names Jacob and Michael would give their sons a solid first step into an uncertain world.
Jason and Kimberly never could have anticipated how much Jacob Michael would change their lives. After years of vague resentments and intermittent, unfocused rebellion, Jason and Kimberly’s parents were suddenly friendlier and less nonsensical. Apparently, some of the harping Jason and Kimberly had endured was rooted in parental reality. Jason and Kimberly once again looked to their parents for advice and they also appreciated the babysitting assistance.
And Jacob Michael brought his parents closer to more than just family. Jason and Kimberly had grown up as part of communities—they attended public schools, played sports, took dance lessons, ran through their neighbors’ backyards, appeared in boring talent contests, and met ever-increasing numbers of people as they grew older.
But this trend eventually reversed itself. Jason and Kimberly gradually drifted away from their school friends, mostly due to job-related relocations, and as they drifted away from their friends, they drifted away from a connection to their community. After a few moves, Jason and Kimberly didn’t bother to engage their new neighbors in conversation, nor did they take much of an interest in any local events beyond what was playing at the movies. But after the birth of Jacob, Jason and Kimberly steadily met numerous new friends from all income groups and walks of life—people they met at the playground, at the pediatrician’s, or even at the supermarket or at Baby Gap. These new acquaintances shared Jason and Kimberly’s community and they shared the experience of being a young parent. Jason and Kimberly referred to these new acquaintances as “kid friends.” Some of these new friends were insane. But none of these new connections shook Jason or Kimberly out of their long-held political apathy.
Both Jason and Kimberly were instinctively apolitical. Politics was never among Jason and Kimberly’s concerns as they grew up; they worried about buying the right clothes, which teams were winning, avoiding unnecessary complications, and staying away from the small embarrassments young people spend so much time worrying about.
Kimberly was especially apolitical. No one had ever expected her to be aware of world affairs—her mother hassled her about her appearance and boyfriends and her father questioned her grades and the time she spent on the phone, but neither her elders nor her peers expected her to express informed opinions about the world around her. The birth of Jacob pulled Kimberly even further away from news and opinions. Kimberly did not even have the time or the energy for the political discoveries available on Oprah, although she would occasionally listen to and agree with her kid friends’ comments on political issues. For example, Kimberly did not support Gary Condit.
Jason was less apolitical than his wife, because he had two strong influences pulling him towards a worldview. Jason’s father was an active and staunch Republican
who periodically lectured his son on politics since Jason turned two. Jason’s most frequent and instinctive response to his father’s lectures was to tune out,
but Jason would openly resist his father when he felt his father was using politics to encourage him to join the Marines, discontinue smoking pot, or mow the lawn. But on
occasion, Jason’s father’s words would resonate. Jason hated arrogant know-it-alls, the classmates who drew attention to themselves while Jason carefully
avoided any controversies unrelated to sports. Jason never was able to shake the memory of condescending lectures from teenagers who must have spent their Saturday nights
reading encyclopedias. Why did they get so worked up about the death penalty, abortion, or guns, when normal kids just wanted to get the school day over with? Jason couldn’t watch a liberal pundit without his thoughts drifting back to the annoyances of high school history class, so he avoided televised politics as best he could.
Even the September 11th attacks could not bring Jason to think of politics as anything other than an opportunity to absorb condescension. Jason was frequently told, “9/11 changed everything,” and he himself used the phrase when talking to co-workers and his father, although he never pinpointed how his own life changed.
9/11 may not have changed everything for Jason, but his life was undeniably changed by an event of September 2001, as shortly thereafter Kimberly informed Jason of her second pregnancy. Forgetting the hardships he had endured through Jacob’s first twenty-two months of life, Jason was overwhelmed by the thought of his two children playing together for years to come, and he joyously hugged his wife.
It’s easy to understand why Jason and Kimberly did not strike up an interest in politics during their first few years as parents. Jason and Kimberly may not even remember what it was like to reconnect with their parents or re-engage with their community, because both Jason and Kimberly will mostly remember how exhausted they were during those years. There never seemed to be enough hours in the day for Kimberly, who juggled a part-time job, Jacob’s constant needs, and all the day-to-day chores of keeping house. Nor was life easy for Jason, who took on as many overtime hours as he could get at work, and even took on a second, even less interesting holiday job at the mall to help cover the mortgage payments, car payments, credit card payments, co-payments, etc. But something happened, and it was Jason’s fault. Jason made an uncharacteristic mistake, it was not at all like the mistakes he routinely made out of apathy, but it was his mistake.
Five months into Kimberly’s second pregnancy, Jason was far away from the joy he felt when he learned of his second child. Jason’s job was stressful, Jacob remained a handful, and worst of all, Jason was missing work due to a miserable head cold. Jason hated being sick—no one enjoys the physical effects and Jason unfortunately had a lifelong habit of dwelling upon petty annoyances during sick days. Kimberly was well aware of this habit, so she kept little Jacob in his room and left her ill husband alone in the living room with the television.
Jason disinterestedly flipped channels, from sports to re-runs to game shows to reality shows and back to sports. Jason struggled but he could not find any programs capable of freeing his mind from the memory of suspicious charges on his last auto repair bill. And then Jason entered the digits for CNN and came across a press conference:
“Amidst all the clutter, beyond all the obstacles, aside from all the static, are the goals set. Put your head down, do the best job possible, let the flak pass, and work towards those goals.”
Jason remembered talking to his father after the shock and mourning of 9/11 had been replaced by the euphoria of shared purpose. Jason remembered his father remarking,
“And another thing, now we can handle it. Now we’ve got guys who know how to manage, guys like Rumsfeld.” Jason confirmed his positive impression of
Rumsfeld through the memory of a respected co-worker saying, “Rumsfeld’s steady, it reassures me that he’s the guy in charge of this fight. He’s
not going to waste his time on bullshit, he’s going to get straight to the point.”
“Beware when any idea is promoted primarily because it is ‘bold, exciting, innovative, and new.’ There are many ideas that are ‘bold, exciting, innovative, and new’ but also foolish.”
Rumsfeld. Jason stared at Rumsfeld, noted his every mannerism and habit of speech, and allowed the words to wash over him. Rumsfeld wasn’t like Jason’s bosses.
Rumsfeld possessed a firm, measured calm. Jason looked at Rumsfeld and thought, “respect.” Jason routinely described his bosses as “inconsistent,”
“indecisive,” and “stupid.” Rumsfeld didn’t stand in front of reporters and run through a laundry list of logistical problems and institutional limitations. Rumsfeld didn’t turn on a dime the moment he was challenged. Rumsfeld had an answer for everything, and his answers were confident answers.
“If you try to please everybody, somebody’s not going to like it.”
Kimberly, one room away in the kitchen, expertly noticed as her husband’s usual channel flipping pattern came to an end. Assuming her husband had fallen asleep, Kimberly entered the living room to turn off the television. She was startled to see Jason not only awake, but attentive, leaning forward from the couch to get a better look at CNN, a channel he rarely watched.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m watching a briefing on…how things are going in Afghanistan, it’s interesting to watch Rumsfeld talk about Afghanistan, to see uhhhh…”
“Well, I hope everything’s okay.”
“I think it is, I think he’s got it under control.”
Jason returned to work before his cold had subsided, and he was greeted by a 4 pm cafeteria meeting where the third reorganization of his division in the last thirteen months was announced and outlined. Jason struggled through the meeting, sniffling into a tissue and shaking his head as he pondered the memorization of a new set of acronyms that would inevitably be replaced in only a few months’ time.
“Why? They re-organized to make us more customer-focused, and then they wanted us divided on a more functional/cross-client basis, and now we’re hearing about client sub-groups, which sounds like we’re creeping back to a client model. Why? Why can’t they make up their minds and tell us what they want us to do and let us do it?”
It was a fair, if convoluted, question. All of the office speak was rubbing off on Jason, and he cursed as he realized he was thinking with the same phrases his bosses tripped over.
“I don’t want to be that way. I don’t want my life to be all twisted up. And I don’t want my kids to be that way.”
Another illness followed. Jason was enraged. The only solace Jason ever took from illness was the thought, “At least I won’t have another one of these for at least a year.” But after only three months of health, Jason had another illness, and it wasn’t much different from his previous illness, and the obvious unfairness of having two colds in three months so angered Jason that he nearly visited a doctor to protest. And in the spirit of protest, Jason wrapped himself in a blanket, sat on his couch, ate Oreos, and flipped channels. Kimberly did not enter the room this time. She was only days away from birth and she did not have the energy to check on her husband. But Rumsfeld was back in the room. Rumsfeld gave another press conference, and provided more confident, straightforward reassurance to Jason.
“Rumsfeld. If I could think of anyone more unlike that moron J.T. who somehow made manager even though he insists on continuing to customize a database scheduled for upgrade… Or anyone more unlike that prick Arie who could never make it through one high school history class without accusing us of being insensitive to… Doesn’t anyone get things done anymore? Isn’t there one guy who just pushes all the bullshit aside and gets on with it?” Jason continued to hemorrhage scorn and ill will as he sniffled through the most unpleasant stage of his cold. Rumsfeld. Jason kept coming back to Rumsfeld. “I didn’t want to watch SportsCenter over
and over again, or watch game shows or the Discovery Channel, and I see Rumsfeld again. Why is it so hard to make sense? Just watch him.”
Jason’s thoughts turned to his unborn son. “I don’t want my son to sit in an office and listen to idiots change his job title over and over again. I don’t want my son to go through school like I went through school, just another guy, decent grades, never embarrassed himself, no, he kept quiet, but he should have stood up, and told those idiots that no matter how smart they think they are… No, my son won’t waste his breath on put-downs, he’ll just bring proof.
He’ll let bosses, or know-it-alls, or whatever fools cross his path have their say, and then he’ll calmly reply, and when he does they won’t even answer back. When he’s in the schoolyard and the kids start a game and one kid starts in on the details and another kid starts arguing with him, the other kids will look to Rumsfeld, and he won’t waste a word, and they’ll play and they’ll get the job done. Maybe the kids will even call him Rummy.”
Why argue when you can avoid it and still get your way? Rumsfeld wouldn’t be caught up in the nonsense; he’d cut right to the quick. This is what happened, and this is how it’s going to be. No ambiguity, no endless debates, just strength, and firm, measured, calm.
“Don’t necessarily avoid sharp edges. Occasionally they are necessary to leadership.”
“Dad, I’m thinking of naming my son Rumsfeld.”
“That’s a solid name, a fine name.” Jason’s dad did not want his grandson to be named Rumsfeld, and he assumed his son and daughter-in-law would think better of it, but he wanted to encourage his son’s heretofore dormant interest in Republican politics, so he made no mention for his preference for the name Raymond.
The second birth could never feel as momentous as the first. Many of Jason’s work and out-of-town friends did not even know that Kimberly was pregnant, because Jason
and Kimberly had been through the experience once, and they didn’t find as many surprises to talk about the second time around. Jason and Kimberly received few name
suggestions and they didn’t discuss the subject much. After the amniocentesis revealed a second son, Jason and Kimberly had thrown around names, but neither felt any
urgency to pick one. Kimberly was leaning towards Joshua Matthew, which were the third and fourth most popular baby names of 2002 (Jacob and Michael were still holding down the first two slots). Kimberly found Joshua Matthew to be another reassuring combination. But Kimberly wasn’t thinking about baby names once the pain started.
“Kimberly, I want to name my son Rumsfeld Jason Smith.” He would be named Rumsfeld for the leader, and Jason for his father.
“It’s a strong name.”
Was it the pain that pushed Kimberly to indulge her husband? No, she liked the reassuring ring of the third and forth most popular baby names of 2002, but she didn’t feel strongly about it. She saw how serious Jason was, and the only reason she had ever gone out with him was because he looked so intent on taking her to a chain Mexican restaurant. As her husband spoke, Kimberly saw firmness instead of his day-to-day apathy. Kimberly’s life was not easy, but it was not complicated and Kimberly valued the freedom of simplicity. The decision to acquiesce on her second son’s name became as easy as all of her decisions.
“RUMSFELD JASON SMITH,” Jason proudly announced to the attending nurse on May 17, 2002.
The nurse, a regular Paul Krugman reader, made no attempt to hide her disgust. “Why don’t you just name him Wolfowitz? He’s the one who came up with this insane Iraq idea.”
Jason didn’t understand. He didn’t know who Paul Wolfowitz was, and the only war America was fighting was in Afghanistan. Jason had heard a few news reports
about possible military actions against Iraq, and he did not think much about them. Jason knew he disliked Saddam Hussein, and he was confident Rumsfeld could replace the
Iraqi government as smoothly and assertively as he ran his press conferences.
“I can’t tell you if the use of force in Iraq will last five days, five weeks, five months, but it won’t last longer than that.”
“I’m not into this detail stuff. I’m more concepty.”
“Arguments of convenience lack integrity and inevitably trip you up.”
We all know the next few years did not go so well for Rumsfeld. Not little Rumsfeld Jason Smith; during the first few months of his life, Rumsfeld happily ate his mashed
vegetables and looked eagerly down at the fun he and Jacob would have once Rumsfeld was old enough to rampage around the house with his older brother. Rumsfeld was right;
before long, he and his brother were sharing the joys of playgrounds, shiny toys, and cardboard boxes. But our elder Rumsfeld had troubles. Our Defense Secretary struggled
to recapture the magic of his post-9/11 press conferences during the ugly realities of a long war in Iraq. The elder Rumsfeld refused to show any hint of his obvious
weaknesses. He had no need to, since he had the President’s confidence and the fall-back option of a lucrative semi-retirement in the defense industry, but many
others discussed his shortcomings, and a few of these critics spoke as boldly and smoothly as the Defense Secretary spoke of triumph in Iraq, the triumph requiring a patient wait through a bloody, expensive, and indefinite time period.
“Death has a tendency to encourage a depressing view of war.”
Jason Smith could not hide his misgivings as smoothly as our Defense Secretary. A former high school football teammate of Kimberly’s brother had been killed in Iraq, and he left behind two children not much older than Jacob and Rumsfeld. A 19-year-old boy from Jason and Kimberly’s hometown had returned home permanently crippled by shrapnel that could not be entirely removed during his first eight surgeries. Jason could not ignore these losses, nor could he ignore the shrugs, head shakes, and concerned comments that came from his co-workers whenever some fresh and disturbing piece of war news made its way onto their office computers.
And then one Tuesday, as Jason and a co-worker continued a discussion while walking back to Jason’s cubicle from a dull morning meeting, Jason’s co-worker politely asked the names of the children in the family photograph on Jason’s desk. Upon hearing Jason’s answer, the co-worker’s eyes bulged and he politely excused himself to find a more appropriately colored pen. Jason was troubled by his co-worker’s reaction, so during his lunch hour he escaped to his gray sedan and called his father to discuss the situation-“Dad, what do you think of Defense Secretary Rumsfeld.”
“I think Bush should have gotten rid of him a long time ago. He’s had his chance and we need someone with some fresh ideas. There’s probably not one person in either party who would prefer him to Lindsay Graham. Bush just doesn’t want people to think he’s admitting a mistake.” Catching himself, Jason’s father followed with, “But he is an honorable man, and a tough son of a bitch, I wouldn’t worry too much about Rumsfeld…” And with that over with, Jason’s father again tried to encourage his son’s interest in Republican politics with praise of Brent Scowcroft.
“It is easier to get into something than get out of it.”
Jason ate his sandwich in the car, returned to his cubicle, and placed his family photo in a drawer. How would Jason explain this all to Kimberly? He didn’t know if she was aware of the downward spiral of Defense Secretary Rumsfeld’s reputation, but Jason was pondering the idea of R. Jason Smith, or R.J. Smith. Jason hated the idea of answering the phone, hearing the call was for Jason, and being forced to say “Big Jason or little Jason?” But R.J., that was an awful idea. Jason remembered growing up with children known only by their initials, but he did not remember any of them graduating from high school, never mind asserting themselves as respected, strong-willed leaders. It would probably have to be R. Jason, which might not be a problem, as in a few years most 8-year-olds would probably have their own cell phones anyway.
Rumsfeld was a mistake, the name, not the boy. Jason didn’t want to think about it anymore, and he didn’t want to think about how he would explain his mistake to his wife. Jason looked down at his email, noticed the arrival of a mass message written by one of his hated bosses, and saw other nonsense requests he could neither fulfill nor completely ignore. Jason got up from his desk, walked to the candy machine, and purchased a roll of Sweet Tarts, a candy Jason normally avoided due to the acidic damage it caused his mouth. Jason devoured the entire roll before leaving work, and on the drive home he thought about his wife, his sons, his job, his co-workers, and his hometown.
ContributorDavid H. Montgomery
Montgomery works in an office, reads on the subway ride home, and then writes until bedtime.