Donald Rumsfeld: Master of Perception

By Siddhartha MahantaMay 22, 2014

Donald Rumsfeld: Master of Perception

July 30, 2002, Department of Defense News Briefing:

Donald Rumsfeld: [Iraqis] have chemical weapons and biological weapons and they have an appetite for nuclear weapons and have been working on them for a good many years, and that there’s an awful lot we don't know about their programs.

April 17, 2003, Department of Defense News Briefing:

Rumsfeld: I don’t think we’ll discover anything myself. I think what will happen is we’ll discover people who will tell us where to go find it. It is not like a treasure hunt where you just run around looking everywhere hoping you find something. I just don’t think that’s going to happen. The inspectors didn’t find anything, and I doubt that we will.


DONALD RUMSFELD believes he is a master of perception.

This we witnessed daily during his nearly six years as George Bush’s defense chief. With his dagger tongue and square-jawed old man-bro charm, he never doubted his control of the narrative of the Iraq War, even as its lies and catastrophic abuses of justice bubbled violently to the surface.

Since he stepped down in 2006, he has seemed to lack the propulsive venom of a Cheney, the relative quiet of a Bush, the polished humbleness of a Powell. There is still the bullshit, however. “The President did not lie. The Vice President did not lie. Tenet did not lie. Rice did not lie. I did not lie. The Congress did not lie. The far less dramatic truth is that we were wrong,” Rumsfeld writes in his 2011memoir, Known and Unknown.

In The Unknown Known, Errol Morris’s recent documentary about Rumsfeld, there is no depth to the man, no undercurrent of self-examination or indication of sleep lost over poor judgment. Rumsfeld would like to appear as a wizened septuagenarian, one who took his shots, made a few, saw some shit — of Vietnam, he tells Morris, “Some things work out, some things don’t” — and was gone. Rumsfeld “plays dumb,” my old boss David Corn wrote. “And, thus, nothing else he says in the documentary can be taken at face value. This is a fellow who either is not as smart as he thinks or not perceptive enough to handle the hard truths.”

Morris obsesses over the millions of “snowflakes” the secretary sprinkled across Washington over nearly five decades: memos both trivial and grave, ponderous and historic. In public, Rumsfeld would write and say that the evidence of WMDs in Iraq was strong, but then write in memos that the intelligence was suspect, “as if to demonstrate his prescience and open-mindedness,” as David and I wrote in 2011. “I don’t know where all these words came from,” he faux-bewilderingly confesses to Morris.

Rumsfeld seems to me like a man fully aware of the public’s short memory, affinity for second chances, and tender spot for the elderly. He plays up the things that make him seem old, puffing out the space above his upper lip and frequently contradicting Morris’s narration of recent history as if to say, No, no, that’s not quite right sonny.

His twinkly bearing reminded me of Julia Ioffe’s short classic from last September where she tried to glean his thoughts about President Obama’s pivotal speech on Syria, delivered the night she happened to ride the same train as Rumsfeld:

“Golly, I don’t know what he said tonight. […] One of the rules in Rumsfeld’s rules is ‘Never assume the other guy won’t do something you wouldn’t do.’ So reverse that double negative and you can assume they would do something we wouldn’t do.” […]

Over the din of the train pulling into the station, he said something both salty and artful, and I asked if I could quote him on it. “No!” he exclaimed. “I’m just an old man!”

Ioffe tried again:

Rumsfeld narrowed his eyes. He had a glass of white wine in front of him and some crudités.

“I’m 81 years old,” he said. “I’ve been under the weather for two to three months, and I’m only now coming back. I may be spry, but I’m not stupid. I’m not going to give you a single thing.”

In an interview with Marketplace’s Kai Ryssdal last year, Rumsfeld suggests that nation-building is, generally, a bad idea for the United States, and that this was the case all the way back in 2003. The problem wasn’t in the Bush administration. “When you do something, then someone wants you to do something else and then something else and over time, the mission, historically, creeps into something else than was initiated at the outset.” A simple catastrophe of mission creep.


Can documentary save our democratic soul?

Can it convince us that some shred of justice remains, or at least settle old scores? We seem to hope so. Or perhaps the medium merely “preach[es] to the saved,” lulling them into a sense of false confidence in the force of the fourth estate’s power, as David Thomson argues?

With The Unknown Known, the answer would seem to depend on what you assume Morris’s project to be. In much of the critical reaction, there is a sensethat we would all quite like Morris or another inquisitor of his weight class and prowess to nail Rumsfeld and rebalance the moral scales, if only slightly. Drawing on Morris’s film, Rumsfeld’s 2011 book, and Bradley Graham’s biography, Mark Danner’s compendious three-part series on Rumsfeld in The New York Review of Books expertly and powerfully litigates his legacy.

Morris’s interrogative design is to look “for those areas where we embrace myth and mystification rather than the tougher subject of what actually happened,” as Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir described it, to drown them in a pit of their own pseudo-philosophical word salad. In stripping out other voices — the Bushes, the Cheneys, the Rices, the Powells, the Wolfowitzes — we are left only with “Donald Rumsfeld, a subject which of course interests him,” as Morris tells O’Hehir.

The filmmaker seems to relish the opportunity to stage a “cat-and-mouse game in which each player thinks he’s the cat,” as A. O. Scott writes, “a nature documentary about behavior at the very top of the imperial food chain and a detective story about the search for a mystery that is hidden in plain sight.” At times, it does feel as if Morris’s method — his “love of talking and thinking and thinking while talking,” as Ann Hornaday calls it— is his chief concern, alongside Rumsfeld’s penchant for evasion. Interviewing Morris, she writes, “observing firsthand his intellectual curiosity, love of verbal precision and ability to control the table […] feels almost like talking with that master of the form: Rumsfeld himself.” As Morris tells O’Hehir: “if you let him talk, he’s gonna reveal something about himself and how he sees the world, and I would say he does. It’s not about mea culpas and confessions.” The film excels as a study of behavior.

But perhaps it should be about such things, Matthew Wolfson writes in The New Republic. Wolfson unfavorably likens Morris’s effort to the “watered-down” political analyses of a Bob Woodward or Rumsfeld’s own biographer Bradley Graham. In the film, Rumsfeld shows himself to be a “predictable” creature of Washington, whose “rise to power was not an aberration of personality” — there’s nothing remarkable about him, as Wolfson sees it. Rumsfeld, all ambition, bio, brawn, and bureaucratic savvy, is just the sort of man Washington is built to favor and reward. His story is no minor miracle; in fact, it is a supreme truth, and Morris would pretend otherwise, according to Wolfson.

There are men like Rumsfeld — unoriginal and pervasive across the political spectrum — and then there are the tools of rhetoric, self-delusion, and cunning that they wield. While the former set is well known, the latter still seems to mystify. And ultimately it is those tools that Morris is most troubled by, as his heavily footnoted four-part essay for The New York Times (a sort of bonus pack for his film) suggests:

The history of the Iraq war is replete with false assumptions, misinterpreted evidence, errors in judgment. Mistakes can be made. We all make them. But Rumsfeld created a climate where mistakes could be made with little or no way to correct them. Basic questions about evidence for W.M.D. were replaced with equivocations and obfuscations. A hall of mirrors. An infinite regress to nowhere. What do I know I know? What do I know I know I know? What do I know I don’t know I don’t know? Ad infinitum. Absence of evidence could be evidence of absence or evidence of presence. Take your pick. An obscurantist’s dream.

The Unknown Known is less a depiction of a man with power, as Wolfson suggests. Instead, it is a dissection of the process and debased language of power.


Unlike his predecessor Robert McNamara in Morris’s brilliant 2003 film The Fog of War, Rumsfeld doesn’t come across as a man scared of history’s long shadow. McNamara is aware, angry, and confused about the fate of his mortal soul. It is a brilliant, tortured performance:

“In that single night, we burned to death 100,000 Japanese civilians in Tokyo, men women and children,” McNamara says with awe, acknowledging he was part of a “mechanism” that conceived of the firebombing of Tokyo. Throughout the film, he is equal parts arrogantly proud and horrified and fascinated by the monstrously efficient algorithms of death by firebomb that he mastered. Morris points out that McNamara never spoke out against the war in Vietnam after leaving the Johnson administration. “Is it the feeling that you’re damned if you do, and if you don’t, no matter what?” “Yeah, that’s right. And I’d rather be damned if I don’t,” McNamara replies.

This was once an unimaginably powerful man, now accepting the possibility of doubt, a man whose “11 lessons” include things like empathy for your enemy, the realization that there is something beyond one’s self, and being prepared to reexamine one’s reasoning. Nothing in the film convinces me he didn’t believe in the merciless use of power; only that he had come to question his moral authority to wield it.

When Morris asked Rumsfeld about his earlier film, Rumsfeld reportedly told him, “that man had nothing to apologize for.” And Rumsfeld, too, “is a winner and winners don’t apologize, because they take care to guard their confidence,” as David Thomson wrote in The New Republic. Unlike McNamara, Rumsfeld appears possessed by the belief that history’s long shadow will extend and constrict on his command. He is amused. Doubt and confirm nothing, and deny that there is an objective reality that could allow for skepticism — these might be several of his rules. His power to command and dictate perception that makes his performance so compelling.

Gradually, it dawns on you: perhaps this man of Washington knew that, in the end, his accumulated notes, memos, letters, and emails would blizzard into a confoundingly over-complete catalog of power. All his deliberations, his back and forths, his self-contradictions, certainty devolving into uncertainty, then ballooning back out into conviction — on the existence of WMDs, on the torture memos (“I’m not a lawyer, what would I know?” he says in the film), the truth of sectarian civil war in Iraq — all those memos, with all their knowns and unknowns, all their evasions and revisions, would make it impossible to pin down what this man believed at any given moment in history.

He has made a bet that providing history with an exhaustive record will, in the end, make it impossible to judge his role in history. “Everything seems amazing in retrospect,” Rumsfeld muses.


Siddhartha Mahanta is a policy analyst and writer based in Washington, DC.

LARB Contributor

 Siddhartha Mahanta is a journalist in Washington, DC. He has also written for the New Republic, Mother Jones, Bookforum, and others.


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