In Errol Morris’ new film, “The Unknown Known,” former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld spends 103 minutes not answering any questions directly, unless the answers portrayed Rumsfeld in positive, heroic light. Morris also made another film in 2003 called “The Fog of War,” featuring a former defense secretary, Robert S. McNamara. In contrast, McNamara answered all the questions – particularly about his role in the Vietnam War – in such a painfully honest manner that the movie became an instant hit.
In 1987, Rumsfeld visited the newspaper I worked at in Portland, Ore., when he was traveling around the country to assess his chances to secure the 1988 GOP presidential nomination. At that stage, even the most prominent candidates are reduced to begging contributors for attention and meeting with editorial boards and reporters from the local newspaper, if they’re lucky.
The thing that struck me about Rumsfeld was that his nascent campaign seemed to be more about preventing Vice President George H.W. Bush from getting the nomination. Although, in Rumsfeld’s mind, of course, he would be the best candidate of all. After all, Bush was his archrival.
Both were young congressmen elected in 1966; both served in the Nixon administration as midlevel appointees, and then got real power in the Ford years: Rumsfeld became the youngest defense secretary ever at age 37, and Bush became CIA director and ambassador to China. Both men were on a collision course for the presidency, and it must have driven him insane to see Bush and his son become president.
Never miss a local story.
Listening to Rumsfeld conclude his presentation, I was struck by what I would describe as parsing. Another way to describe it would be “cuteness.” This trait is heavily featured in “The Unknown Known.” Rumsfeld searched in dictionaries to define words as he hoped to define them, not as they are defined. It’s a rather chilling sequence in the film.
In the interview in 1987, Rumsfeld was very good at making you think he was answering questions. He was relaxed, amusing and didn’t seem to have much else to do. So little to do, in fact, that after the meeting, he drifted down to my little cartooning office and chatted. For a long time. You might say I was in a state of shock and awe. He was very interested in cartooning, and, later, I received a handwritten letter from Rumsfeld thanking me for the chance to meet with him.
One of my colleagues (a former Princetonian) who attended the meeting said, “Very Princeton. Doesn’t have a chance. Nice guy, though.”
He dropped out of the race soon after that.
Fast forward to Sept. 11, 2001. Rumsfeld is yet again defense secretary under his rival’s son. Whatever compelled George W. Bush to select Rumsfeld is beyond me, besides Dick Cheney’s say-so. It must have seemed to be a real slap to his father, who set him up as the 43rd president of the United States.
Oh, well. Thanks, Dad.
After the terrorist attack, I decided to volunteer for the U.S. Naval Reserve. It’s a very long story, but the short version was I needed an age waiver, as I was 13 months over the age limit. The Navy let me go all the way through the process, taking the physical, doing all the officer candidate interviews, a very extensive security check (name your neighbors from 1976), and all the other attendant tasks one must complete to get a direct commission in the Naval Reserve.
I got a letter prior to the commissioning board meeting from the Bureau of Naval Personnel. The letter, from a lieutenant commander, informed me I was out of the pile. Sorry. No age waiver.
I spent the next year trying to get a waiver. I asked my friend, former Sen. Mark Hatfield, to write Rumsfeld. Hatfield was the former chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. He was also a Navy LST driver in World War II, and a very cordial colleague of Rumsfeld.
Rumsfeld never bothered to respond to the senator.
This was, shall we say, kind of personally insulting to Hatfield. But, hey, Donald Rumsfeld is Donald Rumsfeld, right?
Unless he wanted something, as he did in 1987. Like an endorsement for the office of president of the United States.
As defense secretary under Bush, Rumsfeld was famous for his memos known as “snowflakes.” He wrote tens of thousands of them. Extremely prolific. Didn’t write back to a former U.S. senator, though.
When Rumsfeld parsed his way through 103 minutes of “The Unknown Known” by not offering many introspective responses, I wasn’t terribly surprised.
For example, in the film, he was asked about possible massive Iraqi retribution murders. His answer:
After I had tried to get into the Naval Reserve, Rumsfeld actually had someone call me to get an original cartoon. No letter, not even a snowflake.
Yeah. I know.
I saw this movie before.