Thursday, September 11, 2014

Liking Donald Rumsfeld

I'm a good liberal. Let's get that out of the way right at the start.

And let's also draw a distinction between liberal with a lower-case L and Liberal, which is the name of a political party in Australia -- a political party that is, paradoxically, conservative in nature. If you want the liberal (lower-case L) belief system in Australia, your party is called Labor.

So I'm a liberal and a Labor and yet I still found myself drawn in by the version of Donald Rumsfeld I saw in Errol Morris' The Unknown Known.

I kind of think Morris did too.

Rumsfeld is supposed to be the epitome of the Republican boogeyman, the insidious heart of George W. Bush's administration, sharing blame pretty much evenly with Dick Cheney for a bunch of nasty acts committed under the name of American patriotism.

And darn it if I didn't really like watching him in this documentary.

I guess Rumsfeld was initially known as a bit of a media sensation, a guy who had a knack for memorable, if frequently illogical and self-deceptive, quotations. I guess I wasn't following press conferences too closely in 2003 and 2004, because my impression of the man was of a buffoon who had blundered his way out of office. He may have been that, too, but seeing him in this movie, I was fascinated by how intelligent the man seems -- specifically, what a gift he has with language.

The title The Unknown Known is supposed to be a bit of mockery of a famous speech Rumsfeld gave that, I think, was supposed to illustrate his buffoonery. It did the opposite for me here. There's something very pleasurable about the semantic reasoning in the following four phrases:

Known knowns = things you know you know

Known unknowns = things you know you don't know

Unknown unknowns = things you don't know that you don't know

Unknown knowns = things you thought you knew, that it turns out you did not know

I kind of love this.

And as we see a flurry of memoranda from Rumsfeld in this movie -- which he called "snowflakes," and many of which he reads aloud -- we also see a number of other ways the man was interested in linguistics. We see him frequently asking his staff to get him dictionary definitions of various words, which was his attempt to spin doctor himself out of some recent or would-be blunder. It kind of reminds me of Bill Clinton's classic "It depends on what your definition of 'is' is."

Clearly, it's the height of insidiousness to try to talk your way out of legitimately poor decisions or actions taken in bad faith, by throwing the literal meanings of words back at people. But then there's a part of me, a part I'm not necessarily proud of, that devotes a certain percentage of listening to what anyone's saying to me to picking out double entendres and making jokes. That part of me kind of loves Donald Rumsfeld's gleeful relationship with the English language.

There's also something undeniably cuddly about the retired Republican politician. We've seen it before. You didn't like Bob Dole when he was running against Bill Clinton, but the retired Bob Dole? Who doesn't love that guy? I even think W himself seems like a harmless old coot these days, even though he's probably not that old. Once I thought he was the devil.

I doubt Dick Cheney would do that for me, but Donald Rumsfeld? Why not?

There's something about him that seems sincere. He seems like he believed what he was trying to do for this country, and has the reasoning to back it up. But really, it's just that he's that good of a politician. (Did you know he was considered a strong vice presidential candidate when Reagan ran for office? That was an unknown unknown for me.) The leer we see in the poster above is supposed to be Morris reminding us who this guy is -- even though he comes off very well in this movie, and Morris himself seems to have been seduced by him.

And let's get to that part now. Morris is also a liberal, and would call himself a Labor party member if he lived in Australia. So why did he even want to make a movie about Donald Rumsfeld, one in which the intimate participation of Rumsfeld himself would virtually guarantee it being a whitewash job on some level?

I think he too was a bit seduced by how interesting Rumsfeld is as an interview candidate -- that same quality that seduced the media back in the early days of the Bush administration. I certainly wouldn't say he lets Rumsfeld off the hook, as he includes newspaper clippings and news footage that directly contradict some of the things Rumsfeld is saying now. However, if he wanted simply to "get" Rumsfeld, he wouldn't have agreed to a format in which Rumsfeld's interview is basically the spine of the whole movie, knowing that Rumsfeld was shrewd enough to come across well even in the face of pointed and uncomfortable questions.

The irony of the fact that I'm writing this on September 11th -- September 11th in Australia, anyway -- hasn't escaped me. That was the event that pretty much gave birth to the Rumsfeld that we now know -- that gave him a reason for being, a reason for asserting his influence on American foreign policy, and ultimately, a reason for his downfall.

The difference in my perspective on Rumsfeld before seeing this movie, and now, is that I think he may have had genuine care in his heart when he made even some of his worst decisions. And I think that's the problem most liberals have with this movie, if they have one -- they don't think Rumsfeld is a person who deserves to get humanized. He shouldn't get to "win" in any way, shape or form.

Morris' last question of the film -- and you can consider this a spoiler alert if you want -- is "Why are you even talking to me right now?"

Some might ask that same question of Morris, but those are not necessarily the liberals I want to associate with. Morris may have a political agenda on some level, but first and foremost he wants to make an interesting, entertaining film. And he has done that.

And if Donald Rumsfeld had the skills to humanize himself, and the shrewdness to get Morris to give him the opportunity to do that, then more power to him and his ability to cleverly manipulate the semantics of our world.

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