Errol Morris on Rumsfeld, the truth and "The Unknown Known"

Our greatest interviewer meets the Bush era's great bullshit artist, who has no doubts, no regrets and no questions

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published April 2, 2014 11:00PM (EDT)

“I think Mark Twain was wrong: History does not rhyme,” Errol Morris said, after I had switched off my recorder and we were having coffee. “It’s all just smugness, self-justification and self-satisfaction.” We were sitting in a crowded, noisy New York restaurant trying to make sense of the philosophical universe of Donald Rumsfeld, which could put anyone in a dark mood. If there’s a lesson in Morris’ new interview film “The Unknown Known,” which is both a twist on Rumsfeld’s most famous phrase and a description of its subject, it might be this: We’ve convinced ourselves we won’t make the same mistake and believe a self-convinced con artist like Rumsfeld again. But we haven’t actually learned anything from his example.

The great subject of Morris’ filmmaking career is people’s “unrestrained enthusiasm for bullshit,” as he said near the end of our conversation. He means that most of us, most of the time, are delighted to believe stories about ourselves or other people or the world that are powerful or convenient but do not happen to be true. Morris is an Enlightenment thinker, an empiricist, and an anti-postmodernist. We may not always be able to find or recognize the truth, he would admit, but it exists, and can be discovered much oftener than it is. Whether the subject is a man wrongfully convicted of murder, the Abu Ghraib scandal, Stephen Hawking’s ideas about the universe or the foreign policy disasters of the Vietnam War, Morris is always looking for those areas where we embrace myth and mystification rather than the tougher subject of what actually happened.

Donald Rumsfeld, then, is almost the perfect foil or adversary to Morris, and part of the absurd magic of Morris’ extended interviews with Rumsfeld is that they almost never feel adversarial. Rumsfeld comes off as a contented and cheerful senior statesman, a dozen years after pushing the United States into a disastrous war with Iraq in search of weapons of mass destruction that did not exist. “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” the then-secretary of defense assured us. He became a media star for his suave and cryptic Pentagon press briefings -- “Stuff happens,” he said, after the priceless antiquities of Baghdad were looted – and at one point he polled an 80 percent approval rating.

In power, Rumsfeld exuded an odd combination of American machismo and philosophical profundity, producing his famous maxim about the “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns” that sounded vaguely like the output of some graduate seminar at Berkeley. As I observed to Morris, it was as if Rumsfeld had halfway digested the critical theory that dominates certain kinds of academic discourse, even though such language is routinely mocked by conservatives and seen as the province of sandal-wearing, left-of-Marxist radicals.

A two-time defense secretary and onetime White House chief of staff, Rumsfeld documented his career of neoconservative fear-mongering and shameless advocacy for the defense industry with thousands of memos he called “snowflakes,” which he spoke into a tape recorder and then compulsively edited into terse, quasi-Confucian documents. The guy genuinely has a way with words. Here he is, talking not just about 9/11 but also Pearl Harbor: “We didn’t know we didn’t know that they could do what they did the way they did it.”

Rumsfeld eagerly read 50 or so of these bewildering snowflakes out loud during his 30 hours of interviews with Morris (we don’t hear quite that many in the movie) and shared many reminiscences from his career, even when they might be construed as making him look less than terrific. We hear about his infamous handshake with Saddam Hussein in 1983, his arguments against foreign intervention and nation-building (applied only to the Clinton administration), his blithe unconcern with the Bush administration’s legal memos justifying torture. (“Never read ‘em. I'm not a lawyer.”) There are also his protestations, in the spring of 2001, that he didn’t want to end up testifying to Congress how the United States had missed some apocalyptic Pearl Harbor-type attack.

I see “The Unknown Known” as a story about the decay of public life, and as the tragic-farcical second act to Morris’ Oscar-winning 2003 “The Fog of War.” In that film, Robert S. McNamara, another former defense secretary who drove a war that went bad, sincerely tries to wrestle with his historical legacy. There’s considerable obfuscation and self-justification in McNamara’s conversations with Morris, but if LBJ’s onetime strategic genius also retails bullshit, it’s on a much higher intellectual plane. McNamara, who died in 2009, was deeply troubled by the moral questions of the Vietnam era, and was too intelligent to pretend that nothing had gone wrong. For Rumsfeld to ask himself questions he couldn’t answer – to admit that his conduct was driven by “unknown knowns,” or entirely wrongheaded assumptions -- would be an unacceptable admission of weakness. He may look like yesterday’s man from the perspective of 2014, but that’s just the hair. In our age of political bluster, bogus certainty and gobbledygook, they should build him a monument on the National Mall.

Errol, have other people told you that this film is funny?

Yes! I guess so, I don’t know – not many! You would be in the minority.

To some extent, I found an element of human comedy to it. I mean, it would be a lot funnier if that guy hadn’t been so powerful for so long. But I found myself very torn about how to respond to him.

You and me both.

Was there anything that surprised you about Donald Rumsfeld?

Yes. His total lack of remorse. His inability to reflect deeply on anything.

Not to be snide, but were you expecting something else?

I wasn’t expecting remorse or regret, but I was expecting something like -- I don’t know. I have this principle, if you know what you’re going to hear in an interview, why bother doing it? But his answers to so many, many, many things are -- I would use the word "shocking."

“What did you learn from the war in Vietnam?” From a man who was sitting in the Oval Office, while the United States pulled out of Saigon: “Some things work out, some things don’t. That didn’t.”

It’s a peculiar interview, in many ways. when you say “funny,” I would say “funny/absurd.” Really absurd. I have a piece in the New York Times, four installments on essentially the philosophy of Donald Rumsfeld. I changed the title at the last minute to “The Certainty of Donald Rumsfeld,” because I didn’t want to put philosophy in italics or quotes.

Right. Philosophy implies some consciousness of ambiguity or doubt, I suppose. Or at least some thoughtfulness.

It’s the slogans, the epithets, the principles, the rules, whatever you want to call them. So I go through, you know, the concatenations of knowns and unknowns. I do “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” the most pernicious of them all. Pearl Harbor was a failure of the imagination. Weakness is provocative.

What does Rumsfeld even mean by saying Pearl Harbor was a failure of the imagination? I don’t understand that.

Well you might ask! Good god, all of it. What does he mean? Well, his life kind of bookended by these two surprise attacks. Pearl Harbor 1941, and then something that happened 60 years later.

Is he old enough to have personal memories of Pearl Harbor?

Oh, yes. He’s 82. My question is: If Pearl Harbor is a failure of the imagination, would an excess of imagination have prevented Pearl Harbor? And in my Times essay, I give the example of Chicken Little. Chicken Little is sitting in the barnyard, and an acorn falls on his head, obviously evidence of some kind. A provocation! [Laughter.]

Chicken Little concludes the sky is falling. No one would accuse Chicken Little of a lack of imagination. Like, way to go, Chicken Little! From scant evidence you have predicted a major catastrophe. It’s not even a prediction. It’s happening. As we speak, the sky is falling.

Well, it’s an apocalyptic imagination. Isn’t that one of the problems of our time, in a way? On Fox News, just a day or two before they determined that the missing Malaysian plane had gone down in the Indian Ocean, they had some retired general say that the plane was in Pakistan, that it had been hijacked by terrorists who were gonna pack it with nukes or something. It was exactly what you’re talking about: An airplane had gone missing, so the sky was falling. The only sensible conclusion to draw was that terrorists were going to blow us up.

In this essay, I call Rumsfeld the boy who cried Armageddon. Evidently, he’s not the only one. Armageddon is always popular. There’s a line that I love from “Julius Caesar”: “The affairs of men being most incertain, let us reason now with the worst that may befall.”

Well, let’s play devil’s advocate. Or Rumsfeld’s advocate: What’s wrong with that? Isn’t there some value in preparing for the worst? It would have been better if the U.S. had been prepared for Pearl Harbor, presumably.

Were we unprepared for Pearl Harbor? Yes and no. Pearl Harbor was not a failure of imagination. Rumsfeld endlessly cites this two and half page foreword to Roberta Wohlstetter’s book “Pearl Harbor,” written by future Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling. And he cites that line about “failure of imagination” as though it appears in Schelling’s foreword. It does not.

There was a glut of information. I suppose you could say it about anything, the failure of imagination. The failure to be clairvoyant. But there was intelligence that was ignored, misinterpreted, overlooked, the usual concatenation of garden variety American error, or human error. Let’s not make it American; garden variety human error. OK, failure of imagination. So let’s imagine anything! If absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence, and Pearl Harbor is a failure of the imagination, well let’s just get down on the floor. Originally “absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence” was used by Martin Rhys and then by Carl Sagan to apply to extraterrestrial intelligence. The universe is a big place, or so they say. Just because we haven’t found direct evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence doesn’t mean it isn’t there. The stronger argument can be made about the existence of terrestrial intelligence!

OK, so Donald Rumsfeld applies this principle to -- guess what -- Iraq! Just because we haven’t found evidence of WMDs doesn’t mean they aren’t there.

So what you’ve identified here is the application of a potentially valid philosophical premise, that being the idea that we don’t know everything, and using that for political ends. Throughout his career, that’s what Rumsfeld has been about. Let’s ramp up the defense budget, because the Russians might be coming! Let’s go to war with Iraq, because Saddam might have weapons we can’t see.

I would be more severe. Ultimately to me it’s an excursion into gobbledygook. The known knowns, the known unknowns. How many people have come to me and said, “This is brilliant!”

In my New York Times essay, I track down the origins of those phrases. First use of the “unknown unknown” goes back to Romantic poetry, to Keats. It was used at the end of the 19th century by John Wesley Powell, the first explorer of the Grand Canyon. He contrasted the known unknown with the unknown known, calling the known unknown the “language of civilization,” and the unknown known the “language of savagery.”

What I believe is that all these expressions that seem to be profound, when you look at them are much, much less so. They’re vague, they’re confusing, they’re all subject to multiple interpretations. The real issue is between truth and falsity. I believe something. Is it a true belief or a false belief? What are my justifications for what I believe? It’s separating knowledge from nonsense. But whenever Rumsfeld is asked to do that, he retreats into some kind of meta-talk, some kind of pseudo-sophisticated, philosophical babble.

Here’s what I find interesting. He’s, like, the Republican cognate to the discourse of contemporary philosophy, to postmodernism and post-structuralism, where there’s a rejection of any ontological or epistemological certainty. It’s almost like he’s parodying that without realizing it. Or that he’s imbibed it without understanding it.

He’s imbibed something. I mean, he takes a little bit here, a little bit there, he modifies it. I mean, I see Bush reading this memo, “absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence.” This is our justification for going to war in Iraq? The flip side of it, of course, is that if someone tells you there’s an elephant in the room, you open the door, you look around for the elephant, you open the cupboards, you get down, you look under the bed, no elephant. Absence of evidence, or evidence of absence?

You could also frame his approach, more basically, as a rejection of common sense. Not a very philosophical concept, I suppose. But everybody that went along with the WMD argument, including most mainstream journalists, were completely abdicating common sense.

I would put it differently. I would say it’s a rejection of an evidence-based or empirical idea about knowledge. It’s going back to pre-Enlightenment thinking.

Right. So is this something that is specifically endemic to Rumsfeld’s ideological caste, or is it a more general problem than that? Because when you interviewed Robert McNamara in “Fog of War,” the difference was really dramatic. McNamara was trying to justify his actions, but he was also trying to think things through, trying to be intellectually honest.

He was struggling. And you don’t feel that Rumsfeld is ever struggling. It’s just not there. Avoiding, evading, obfuscating, yes. Struggling, no. But he was really nice to me! He gave me 30-plus hours of interviews. He came to Boston. He gave me his memos, he read his memos on camera. But, you know, there’s a but: The things that he said were not just unsatisfying, they were infuriating, and disturbing. Torture memos: “Never read ’em.” I sometimes call the movie, “Babbitt meets Beelzebub.”

Yeah. For a person who’s had such an extraordinary career, there seems to be something awfully ordinary about him. Whatever one makes of Robert McNamara, “ordinary” is not the word that I would use.

No. McNamara, for better or for worse, was extraordinary. Doesn’t mean that they both didn’t do incalculably bad things. To go back to your question, I’ve never had a character like this, I haven’t interviewed that many political figures. I’ve certainly interviewed a lot of clueless people over the years. People would say to me, “Is this ‘Fog of War 2’?” I’d say “No, it’s ‘Tabloid 2.’” He’s creating this world for himself, a world of words, definitions, dictionaries, the snow-globe world of snowflakes. To me it’s like a fable. A fable in which things have gone terribly, terribly wrong.

Well, part of the humor I was talking about comes from the fact that I could almost enjoy the absurdity of this guy, the clueless detached absurdity, if I didn’t understand on some level that it came with enormous human costs. There’s something essentially comic about that, my desire to empathize with this person or like him, coupled with what I actually know about what he has done.

There you go. He can be incredibly charming. He was entertaining. Not always, but at times. I’ll give you a couple of examples. We ended the second day of interviews, he’s describing his 1983 visit to Saddam Hussein. He sees Saddam Hussein: Hi there! And he says, “You know, Saddam is surrounded by statues of himself, people kowtow to him, he’s worshipped by schoolchildren, and in the end it became all pretend.” So he says this, at the end of the second day of interviews. I’m looking at him, for some sign of self-awareness, that he’s aware that what he said possibly could be interpreted in a somewhat different way. I believe it’s called irony. And there’s just nothing there. I kept thinking about irony, how when the Jews were building the pyramids, they really needed irony. The Pharaoh did not.

I’m sort of sorry that you didn’t get to do the Dick Cheney interview that R.J. Cutler did. Would you have been interested in talking to him?

Vaguely. I like Cutler’s film. It’s just that what he did and what I do are so utterly different. He did the standard model. The standard model is you interview whatever it is, 12 or 15 or 20 people, and you get the guy himself, and you slap it together. Was I interested in a whole lot of people expatiating on Dick Cheney? I was.

But say you want to do something non-standard? Maybe something that will piss people off, I don’t know. You want to do history from the inside out. It’s not about 12 or 15 people talking about Donald Rumsfeld. Scratch that off the list. It’s just Donald Rumsfeld talking about Donald Rumsfeld, a subject which of course interests him. And the idea is that somehow, 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. As I point out to people, I’m a Jew from Long Island, not a priest. Also, I was fascinated by the memos, the snowflakes.

Yes! Was he resistant to that approach at all?

No, he loved it! Loved it. He said he would read on camera anything that he himself had written. Because he taped over all of the memos. They were all transcribed but the original recordings are gone. He performed probably 40 or 50 snowflakes for the camera. What a trip.

Some of the comedy in this movie is just comedy! You have a montage of him sitting next to Condi Rice in the Oval Office, where they’re not looking at each other and the body language is incredibly awkward, at the same moment that he’s denying that there was personal tension. When he has written her this bitchy, highly personal memo, trying to undercut her. Which he reads out loud for you. It’s like a sitcom.

Yeah. He’s in denial about everything. He really is. According to him, politics isn’t really about personalities and animosities, politics is about a group of disappointed, rational people sitting down. He should become one of the writers of “House of Cards.”

There’s something strange in his smile, when you challenge him on that by talking about Shakespeare. His smile is nervous, maybe even guilty. Maybe I want him to have a moment of consciousness he doesn’t actually possess. But I felt as if he knew you had gotten him at that moment.

Donald Rumsfeld was extraordinarily ambitious. He could have been president, and in fact he was constantly maneuvering to be president. As early as the Ford administration, Cheney and Rumsfeld were trying to undermine evidence, scrap détente, oversell the threat of atomic war from the Soviet Union. Then there was a brief interregnum, and then they got back into power and started it up all over again. It’s a horror story. An absurd, crazy horror story.

There were more than 400 comments the first night my New York Times essay went up, and almost all of them were about how much people hated Rumsfeld. We forget, I believe, how incredibly charming he was. How he was the frontman for the Bush administration. How he sold us the war. He didn’t sell me, but I’m in the minority. Maybe the scary part of it is that people have this unrestrained enthusiasm for bullshit.

"The Unknown Known" is now playing in New York and Los Angeles. It opens this week in Atlanta, Boston, Dallas, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Washington, with wide national release to follow.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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