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Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld. (Photo: Gage Skidmore).

Donald Rumsfeld’s New Jersey connection

Former Defense Secretary dies at 88

By David Wildstein, June 30 2021 6:04 pm

Donald Rumsfeld, the former U.S. Secretary of Defense who died today at age 88, played a key role in torpedoing New Jersey Rep. Peter H.B. Frelinghuysen’s bid for House Minority Whip in 1966.

The same campaign put Gerald R. Ford on a career trajectory that would land him in the White House ten years later.

After Republicans lost 36 House seats in the 1964 Lyndon Johnson landslide against Barry Goldwater, a group of moderates who called themselves the “Young Turks” decided to mount a challenge to the incumbent House GOP leadership.

Rumsfeld, who had won a congressional seat from Illinois in 1962, was a leader of the Young Turks and helped to recruit Ford, an eight-term congressman from Michigan, to seek the post.

Charles Halleck, a sixteen-term Indiana congressman, had served as House Majority Leader twice and had been Minority Leader for six years.

Ford beat Halleck, 73-67.

New Jersey Republicans lost four House seats in the LBJ landslide and was now down to four seats.  All four – William Cahill (R-Collingswood), Florence Dwyer (R-Elizabeth), William Widnall (R-Ridgewood) and Frelinghuysen – reportedly voted for Ford.

Frelinghuysen, then a 48-year-old six-term congressman and the Ranking Minority Member of the House Education and Labor Committee, became a last-minute candidate for House Republican Conference Chairman.  Frelinghuysen was a member of a group of liberal Republicans called the “Wednesday Club,” coined after their meeting time.

Ford had been Conference Chairman before running for Minority Leader.

He faced Melvin Laird, a Wisconsin Republican who later served as Richard Nixon’s U.S. Secretary of Defense.  Laird was also a Ford ally but had angered liberal and moderate Republicans after pushing a pro-Goldwater agenda as chairman of the Platform Committee at the 1964 Republican National Convention.

Laird, also a Ford ally, defeated Frelinghuysen by 13 votes, 75-62.

The race was considered a victory for Frelinghuysen.  Laird has been in the race for several weeks with only minor opposition and Frelinghuysen came relatively close to winning.

In that race, Rumsfeld was one of Frelinghuysen’s top strategists.

A week later, Ford endorsed Frelinghuysen to run for House Minority Whip – the number two House Republican leadership position – against incumbent Leslie Arends.  Ford picked Frelinghuysen over Reps. Robert Stafford (R-Vermont) and Charles Goodell (R-New York), both of whom would eventually serve in the United States Senate.

Arends, 69, had been a congressman from Illinois since 1935 and had been the Republican Whip for 21 years – including time as Majority Whip from 1947 to 1949 and again from 1953 to 1955.  He had endorsed Goldwater early in the 1964 presidential race.

Rumsfeld backed Arends, a fellow Illinoisan, in what became a vote in keeping the Ford coalition together.

In what was viewed as a setback to Ford’s fledgling leadership role, Arends beat Frelinghuysen by 11 votes, 70-59.

Among his miscalculations was that Arends had developed his own independent relationships that prevented Ford from transferring his own support to Frelinghuysen.

After the election, Frelinghuysen gave up his ranking post on Education and Labor.

Ford would never have become Richard Nixon’s pick for Vice President after Spiro Agnew resigned in 1973 had he lost the Minority Leader race nine years earlier.

Had the Ford coalition held for Frelinghuysen, it’s possible that the Morris County Republican would have become House Minority Leader after Ford became Vice President.

Frelinghuysen did not seek re-election to a 12th term in Congress in 1974, choosing to walk away at age 58 and as the number two Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Rumsfeld had another tie to New Jersey: he was a 1954 graduate of Princeton University, where he was captain of the wrestling team.  He was three years ahead of Thomas H. Kean, a future New Jersey Governor who had come within 83 votes of capturing the GOP nomination to succeed Frelinghuysen in Congress.

In 1969, Rumsfeld left Congress to join President Richard Nixon’s White House staff as director of the Office of Economic Opportunity.  He later served as Ford’s White House Chief of Staff and was Defense Secretary form 1975 to 1977.  He returned to the Pentagon for six years under President George W. Bush.

In September 2006, Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-Harding), who followed his father to Congress in 1994, said he supported Rumsfeld.  But Thomas Kean, Jr., who was running for the U.S. Senate, criticized Rumsfeld’s decisions in Iraq and called for his resignation.

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