In a tearful resignation speech from the Oval Office, Donald Rumsfeld acknowledged the intense bipartisan criticism of his conduct of the war in Iraq.
Standing next to President Bush and his replacement, Robert Gates, the embattled defense secretary quoted Winston Churchill by saying, "I have benefited greatly from criticism and at no time have I suffered from a lack thereof."
Bush called Rumsfeld a "tough act to follow" and used one of the defense chief's infamous quotes to praise his service to the country. Bush turned slightly to address Rumsfeld and said, "Here is a known known: Your service has made America stronger."
Watch an interview with Speaker-in-waiting Nancy Pelosi tonight on "Nightline"
The resignation was a stunning consequence of yesterday's midterm election results, which demonstrated American dissatisfaction with the war in Iraq, and was welcomed by the Democratic leadership.
In an interview today, ABC News' Terry Moran asked Speaker-in-waiting Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) whether the resignation was the price for the the Democrats doing business with President Bush. "No, that was the president's decision," said Pelosi. "I've been asking for Rumsfeld to go for three years. I thought that the conduct of the war was incompetent for a long time now, regardless of what you think of the policy, which I opposed."
Gates, president of Texas A&M and former director of the CIA, represents a change in direction for the Pentagon. He has a reputation for a pragmatic approach to foreign policy. In George H. W. Bush's administration, Gates served as deputy to National Security Council director Brent Scowcroft, who has been a sharp critic of the current President Bush's Iraq policy. Gates's nomination must be confirmed by the Senate.
Earlier in the afternoon, in his announcement of the resignation, Bush called Rumsfeld a "superb leader" but emphasizing that a "fresh perspective" was needed and that "the timing is right for new leadership" at the Pentagon. He called Rumsfeld a "trusted adviser and friend," and that he's "deeply grateful" for his service to the country.
Bush has long defended Rumsfeld from bipartisan criticism of his conduct of the war in Iraq, calling him a "smart, tough capable administrator" just two weeks ago. But his hand was forced by the outcome of the midterm elections which swept the Democrats back into control of the House for the first time in 12 years. Many voters cited the war in Iraq as one of the reasons that they were rejecting Republican candidates at the polls.
Last month, 55 percent of Americans disapproved of how Rumsfeld was handling his job and 48 percent said that he should resign, according to a Newsweek poll.
Republican leaders were similarly optimistic about the change in direction. "I hope that this change will bring a fresh perspective to our fight on the global war on terror and help build a bipartisan defense policy in the months ahead," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist.
Gates certainly represents a new direction for the Pentagon judging by his views on Iran, which are at odds with the administration.
In a 2004 report he co-authored with former NSC advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, Gates asserted that "the only viable US approach to current concerns over nuclear development and terrorism in Iran is to deal directly with the current regime ..." The administration has repeatedly rejected direct talks with Iran about their nuclear program.
This morning, Pentagon officials said that Rumsfeld gave no indication that he was stepping down. The defense chief "hit the ground running" with a series of meetings, including a teleconference with General George Casey, the top US commander in Iraq.
Rumsfeld was on track to be the longest-serving Defense Secretary in history, overtaking Robert McNamara who served under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. This is Rumsfeld's second tenure as Defense Secretary, in the 1970's he served as Defense Secretary for a year during the Ford Administration.