Monday, May 22, 2017


Donald Rumsfeld, 1954  Princeton Yearbook

Last night I watched “The Unknown Known,” a reflection on the life of Don Rumsfeld which is based on his famous quip about knowing things, which became particularly potent when it was revealed after the war on Iraq and Saddam Hussein was based on bad intel — no weapons of massive destruction were found, though they had been predicted.  Anyway, Hussein had nothing to do with Osama bin Laden, whose base of operations was in Afghanistan and whose nationality is Saudi.

This interview is just as riveting as a Congressional Hearing, maybe more so because of the illustrative clips and face closeups.  If he hoped to recover his credibility, he failed.  As he realizes at the very end, it was a malicious project.  Once again, his confidence that he knew all about what would happen, is simply wrong.  His reality is not real.   When asked why he thought George H.W. Bush voted for Hilary Clinton, he says, “Well, he’s up in years.”  The interviewer says, “So are you!”  With characteristic aplomb, Rumsfeld ignores her remark.  He voted for Trump.  One presumes he didn’t know that Trump was such a liar and a poker bluffer who had no good cards nor even the mental ability to concentrate on his hand.  Neither did the American public.

When this film called “The Unknown Known” begins, Rumsfeld is a young, handsome rising star in the Republican realm.  It’s not until the end when we see him walking with soldiers that we realize he’s short.  (5’7”) And the closeups reveal the face he’s earned.  Only one flicker of truth flashed through his bland face: the moment when the interviewer suggested if things had worked out a bit differently, he might have become the President of the United States.  He agrees.

Things are pretty good for a long time.  He’s a pet in the Oval Office and what seemed like a demotion at the time, being Special Envoy to the Middle East, luckily removed him from Nixon’s impeachment scandal.  Sent off to the Pentagon, he was in the building on 9/11, and shaken up but stands in his suit unsmudged.  Still, he was nimble enough to defend Guantanamo through the use of lawyer’s hair-splitting over definitions.  This is his core strategy: definitions and wry little word-play jokes.

But then came Abu Ghraib and there was no way to defend or even define the depravity — as he says, “once the photographs were released.”  His safety net was employment with Big Pharma and international corporations.  His core personality seems to be derived from his many years in Boy Scouts.  He’s a White Buffalo, a big Boy Scout honor, according to Wikipedia, which also claims that he attended two law schools but didn’t graduate.  

We don’t know whether he passed the bar exam in any state, though he tells a story in which he claims he’s a lawyer.  Someone says he won’t vote for Rumsfeld because he’s a lawyer, and R points out that so is his adversary.  He could have pointed to a Repub Congress almost entirely lawyers.  It appears he accepts the idea that the social group defines what is good and true, so he wouldn’t be surprised that Trump’s reaction to bad behavior (unjustified killing) by Russia is okay because we do that, too.  He has always been business-friendly with Russia, and was involved in the sale of nukes to North Korea.

The Wikipedia entry engages in sly accusations, as is usual for them, since the authors are never identified.  Rumsfeld emphasizes that he was Dick Cheney’s patron, as though that would reflect well on him.  “Eight retired generals and admirals called for Rumsfeld to resign in early 2006 in what was called the "Generals Revolt", accusing him of "abysmal" military planning and lack of strategic competence.”  “After his retirement from government, Rumsfeld criticized former fellow Cabinet member Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of State in his memoir, asserting that she was basically unfit for office. In 2011 she responded, saying that Rumsfeld "doesn't know what he's talking about. The reader may imagine what can be correct about the conflicted matter.”  Politics is a stone-throwing culture.

Turning now to the film-maker.  Errol Mark Morris (born February 5, 1948) is an American film director primarily of documentaries examining and investigating, among other things, authorities and eccentrics. He is perhaps best known and most revered for his 1988 documentary The Thin Blue Line, commonly cited among the best and most influential documentaries ever made. In 2003, his documentary film The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. “  (Still Wikipedia.)

“Morris was able to talk his way into Princeton University, where he began studying the history of science, a topic in which he had "absolutely no background." His concentration was in the history of physics, and he was bored and unsuccessful in the prerequisite physics classes he had to take. This, together with his antagonistic relationship with his advisor Thomas Kuhn ('You won't even look through my telescope.' And his response was 'Errol, it's not a telescope, it's a kaleidoscope.’) ensured that his stay at Princeton would be short.”  Thomas Kuhn is a hero of mine, often hard to understand but a trail-breaker.

There are other enlightenments:  in his youth Morris was a big fan of the Oz series as well as horror films.  His first big hit film was “Gates of Heaven” about the pet cemetery business.  Other big hits included “The Thin Blue Line” about killers and “The Fog of War” about Robert McNamara.  If Rumsfeld knew about Morris’ history, he was not just unknowing but stupid to agree to this film.  But he doesn’t know that he can look so bad, squinting and grinning into the camera. 

He doesn’t realize that perhaps his biggest blunder, something he thought he knew but didn’t, was that Trump was not competent, not on his side, not a Republican, and not sustainable as president.  Which raises the question of what unknowns lurk behind the known public persona of Rumsfeld.

Why do they always try to look like cowboys?
This is the cover of the CD version, read by himself.

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