How Donald Rumsfeld Became an App Developer

Let’s play cards. Photo: Heidi Gutman/ABC

Donald Rumsfeld is sitting in his downtown Washington, D.C., office, reached via an unmarked door, pondering his proximity to the Kardashians and Kate Upton. All three, you see, are currently sitting on Apple’s top app-download charts, the Kardashians by virtue of their lifestyle apps, Upton as spokesmodel for Game of War, and the 83-year-old former Defense secretary for his newly released game, Churchill Solitaire.

People tease me, saying, ‘What the hell are you doing with an app?’” he said. Demonstrating his prowess at the game on an iPad, playing with the pinkie finger of his right hand, he added, “That’s just wonderful! I love it. Oh, it’s so much fun.”

I am not sure that fun is quite the right word to describe it, though addictive might be. The game is Solitaire for lunatics, sadists, and obsessives. It is played with two decks feeding ten rows, rather than one deck feeding seven. Six of the 104 cards are withheld, and must be cleared directly to the “foundation piles” in the order they are drawn. Some hands are simply unwinnable.

The game’s original brainchild was none other than Churchill himself, or at least so the legend goes. Knowledge of it crossed the pond via a Belgian diplomat named André de Staercke, who taught it to Rumsfeld when he was serving as the ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization during the Nixon administration. De Staercke “could sit across from me on an airplane and tell me what I wasn’t seeing” on the card table, Rumsfeld said, reminiscing about his gaming mentor.

The app is more hands-off, nudging you with prompts and, as part of its freemium model, letting you pay for 99-cent packages of hints and redos. And you need them — or at least I did. Sure, the game looks easy at the outset. You expect victory to be quick and decisive. But soon it becomes clear you have overestimated your intelligence. The battle becomes protracted, moving forward becomes costly, hands become seemingly endless quagmires. “It is wicked,” Rumsfeld said, wearing green corduroys and a Heritage Foundation fleece vest, and lounging in a conference room overseen by a bust of Churchill wearing a bow tie and smoking a cigar. (No profiteering here, though: Rumsfeld’s take is going to charity.)

Knowns and known unknowns.

Over the years, through his jobs in multiple administrations, Rumsfeld would play the prime minister’s Solitaire with two decks of mini-cards whenever he had a quiet moment, often with a baseball or football game on in the background. “If you’re on a train or an airplane and you’re footloose and not having meetings,” it is good for keeping you engaged and relaxed, he said. “I love it because it is complicated and it’s strategic,” he said. “You really have to think ahead a number of steps. And it’s competitive.” Or at least it is for him: It is a solitary pursuit, but he has a long-running rivalry with his wife, Joyce. “Don’t write this, but at the moment, I’m ahead,” he said, chuckling.

It was Keith Urbahn, Rumsfeld’s onetime chief of staff at the Pentagon, who suggested that they turn the game into an app. After months of development, it is a glossy piece of work with tense, martial music; dark-wood-and-leather styling; and ranks from Sandhurst Cadet all the way up to Prime Minister. (Rumsfeld is of Prime Minister rank, of course, though Joyce has only made it up to Brigadier-General.) Urbahn took care of the technicals, Rumsfeld said, explaining that though he has an iPad and an iPhone, he remains something of a Luddite — the kind of guy who pecks out four- or five-word emails. “I’m not an easy typer,” he said. “Thanks. Good Point. That kind of thing.”

That might be because for years he could not use a computer or email, given security concerns at the Pentagon. As such, he would talk his memos into a Dictaphone and have an assistant transcribe them. Once on paper, those Pentagon memos became known as “snowflakes.” For this project, he kept that communications channel going, talking out his thoughts, having an assistant type them, and then sending snowflakes to the development team. “I was the beta-tester, is that what you call it?” he said. “I would play and tell them what the problem was, what the glitch was.”

Did he learn anything about coding while it was in development? “More than I wanted to, at my age.”

Would I like to see the Dictaphone, he asked? Very much, I replied, so we took a break from the game — Rumsfeld generally polishes hands off in a matter of minutes, and is canny enough to pass on tough hands. “They’ve eliminated a lot of them” in the app, he told me, to avoid people getting discouraged. “But I don’t play them. If I see one I can’t win, why play it?”

With that, and with far more energy than most 83-year-olds summon, we toured his office, filled with assistants, cubicles, the gentle sound of typing, and enough objets de guerre to fill a military museum. A small sample: a scrap of American Airlines Flight 77, which hit the Pentagon on September 11. Official papers signed by presidents George W. Bush, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Ronald Reagan. A piece of the Oval Office floor. A photograph of Adolph Hitler’s rocketeer, Wernher von Braun, signed to Rumsfeld “with esteem and affection.” A photo of the moment when Squeaky Fromme tried to assassinate Ford, with Rumsfeld standing right by him.

In Rumsfeld’s cubicle sat a shell from the 21-gun salute at Ford’s burial. “Betty Ford gave that to me,” he said before grabbing the Dictaphone, which he keeps on a lectern he uses as a standing desk.

How old is this thing?” I asked, looking at the mini-cassette contraption.

Not as old as I am!” Rumsfeld hooted.

And why the standing desk? “Shorter meetings,” he said, expressing some surprise that they were in vogue for health reasons. “People come in while you’re standing, and you talk to them. Otherwise they sit down and you give them a cup of coffee.”

Not that Rumsfeld has time for any of that. Along with the app, he is currently working on getting his archive ready for the Library of Congress, writing a book on Ford — “Just a wonderful human being. He was the only president of all of them that I worked with who was a personal friend” — and continuing with his charity work. He’s also a voracious reader, currently working on a history of the Barbary pirates, having just finished Jay Winik’s April 1865 and Newt Gingrich’s novel Duplicity. “He’s brilliant,” Rumsfeld said of Gingrich. “He’s volcanic with ideas!”

This week, he is reveling in his Kardashian moment, doing a blitz of media and seemingly loving it — Charlie Rose, the Today show, Morning Joe, and The Colbert Report, among others. He’s happy to talk a defense policy and politics. “It’s not complicated. If you want more of it, you reward it. If you want less of it, you penalize it,” he told me of ISIS. He even caused a stir talking about the now-infamous intelligence that led to the Iraq War with Colbert. “If it were a fact, it wouldn’t be called intelligence,” Rumsfeld quipped.

But mostly, he wants to talk games. Would he ever make another one? “I don’t know,” he said, while admitting that the name Gin Rummy suggests itself.

How Donald Rumsfeld Became an App Developer