Donald Rumsfeld as Performance Artist: A Conversation with Errol Morris

On February 26, 2014, the Ash Center hosted a screening of the new film The Unknown Known, followed by a spirited conversation with the filmmaker Errol Morris as part of its Challenges to Democracy public dialogue series. After the screening, Morris took questions from an engaged audience in a large classroom on the Harvard Kennedy School campus. Moderated by Archon Fung, the conversation shifted between the making of Morris’ film, his impressions of former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (the subject of the film), and dimensions of executive power. Below are three excerpts from the discussion. You can listen to the entire conversation by clicking on the SoundCloud link below.


The Unknown Known and a discussion with Oscar-winning filmmaker Errol Morris | AshCast

On the Film

QUESTION: Having used the Fog of War for teaching in my classes for about eight years now, I still regard that as your masterpiece. What intrigued me was with McNamara, you have a multidimensional character, and he exposed dimensions of himself which were really quite extraordinary. With Rumsfeld, I felt I got one, 1 ½ dimensions. And that might be the nature —

ERROL MORRIS: I think that’s being generous. [LAUGHTER]

It may be the nature of the man. But I also felt at points that he was toying with you. Was McNamara self-introspective and willing to expose things, and Rumsfeld really was toying with you the whole time through? How do you judge the two films?

ERROL MORRIS: Central to your question is this issue with Rumsfeld toying with me, quote unquote. To me it’s not clear that he is toying with me. I would have to say, it’s not clear to me what’s going on in this film. Still not clear to me. You call these non-answers. I think that is a correct way of describing most of his responses. McNamara at one point in the Fog of War, near the end of the Fog of War, he’s giving these lessons, and he talks about never answer the question that you have been asked. Always answer the question you wish had been asked. This is something very, very, very different. It’s not answer the question you wish you’d been asked. It’s say nothing. And it doesn’t just simply encompass, for example, the answer to the question, what did you learn from what is for me one of the worst debacles in American history, the Vietnam War, what did you learn from the Vietnam War?


Watch the trailer for The Unknown Known.


My wife has probably characterized the difference between these two men better than anybody. We knew McNamara, and McNamara came to our house in Cambridge several times for dinner. She called McNamara the Flying Dutchman, the man traveling the world searching for redemption and never finding it. To me it’s one of the most despairing lines in any film I’ve ever made, when McNamara says, rationality will not save us. Think of who’s saying that line, a person who based his entire life on rationality and the belief that there were rational solutions to political problems. Rumsfeld she called the Cheshire Cat. All you’re left with in the end is this infernal grin. [LAUGHTER] Alice is famous for saying in Alice in Wonderland, I’ve seen a cat without a grin, but I’ve never seen a grin without a cat. And it characterizes Donald Rumsfeld, this infernal smile.

I thought for a while he’s hiding something. And then there was a terrible thought. He’s hiding nothing. There’s nothing there to hide, simply because there’s nothing there. It’s all vanity. It’s all a kind of performance art. It’s all gobbledygook… And yet people fell for it.

People will always say they like the Fog of War, because people have this unfettered appetite for redemptive stories, even though Fog of War isn’t a redemptive story. They somehow think it is, because McNamara says that he made terrible mistakes. Rumsfeld will never, ever, ever, ever go there. And it’s not because he’s hiding something. It’s because he feels completely happy with the job he’s done. He’s delighted with himself. And probably always will be.



On the Man

QUESTION: I’m sure you’ve interviewed all kinds of people who are difficult to interview because they’re evasive and don’t answer your questions, that sort of thing. You said that he was particularly frustrating or difficult. Was there something distinctive about interviewing him and difficult that wasn’t apparent in the film itself?

ERROL MORRIS: I would say a number of things. He seemed totally unaware of himself, which I find strange. The second day he had come up to Boston. I filmed him here. He is telling a story about Saddam Hussein, it’s in the movie, how had become so used to being worshipped, statues everywhere, that he’d become, in Rumsfeld’s words, all pretend, quote unquote. When he says this, and I’m looking at him, and he’s looking at me, I wonder, I guess this goes back to the question of toying or not toying with me. I wonder, does he have any sense that what he just said could be applied to him? Is there any level of self-awareness or reflection?

You talked about McNamara as being a singularly reflective individual, which in fact he was. I would describe Rumsfeld as a singularly unreflective individual. I interviewed his wife, who is a really lovely, lovely person. And eloquent, honest, sympathetic. I never intended to use her in the film, but I wanted to interview her anyway, and clearly Donald Rumsfeld wanted me to interview her. And she talked for about two hours. It was really moving. She goes back to the dressing room. He’s seated in a folding chair just outside the dressing room. And she goes into the room, and he gets up to go back to continue the interview, and he tells me, it’s really nice to listen to someone who thinks before speaking. [LAUGHTER] I think, OK. I get it.

There’s a kind of, people always talk about poker tells, you know, that gesture that reveals what’s in the hand they’re holding. Is it the full house, the royal flush? Or is it nothing? And to me, the smile was the tell. It just, it’s a smile of self-satisfaction. And to say that it was used somewhat inappropriately is an understatement. Torture memos. I mean, it’s endless. Never read them. I think he’s telling me the truth. Why would I read those damned torture memos? I say, really? Really? Never read the torture memos? By the way, I have read them.




And then, you know, he’s so pleased, he says, well, chalk that one up. Well, it’s the infernal smile, again and again and again and again. I had him read the Haynes memo. By the way, none of these memos, or most of these memos are not public material. He gave us access to his snowflakes. And since he had recorded over most of them, if not all of them, he just had the transcripts, and he very kindly agreed to read them for me. Now, this is Donald Rumsfeld performing Donald Rumsfeld’s snowflakes for the camera. [LAUGHTER]

And he said he would read anything that he had written. He didn’t want to read anything that someone else had written. But we gave him the Haynes memo, which of course wasn’t written by Donald Rumsfeld. It was written by Haynes. Although it’s infamous for the notation on the memo, where he says he stands for hours every day. Why can’t the detainees stand for hours as well? And he started reading it. I don’t know why he read it. I have a theory why he started reading it. He maybe never had read it before, carefully. And he started reading it, and in the end of it he sort of stops for a moment, and says, good grief. That’s a pile of stuff. As if he’s shocked. Oh. You know, all of that enhanced interrogation, that seems maybe a little nasty.

Or the response to being told that the Schlesinger Report says that these techniques migrated from Guantanamo to Iraq into Afghanistan. After saying that they did not, then he hears the paragraph from the Schlesinger Report, and he says, I would agree with that. Is that toying? I would say, no. I think there’s this idea that he was so gifted in these press conferences that he, the word that someone used just a moment ago is, eloquent. That he was, I would probably use a slightly different word. But let’s just say for the sake of argument, eloquent, well spoken. Then it’s assumed that he was actually hiding something. That’s wishful thinking. I have a much darker view of it. Yeah.



On Executive Power

QUESTION: I came to the movie with the question it ended on. Why would he be interviewed with you, especially since the Fog of War became such a lightning rod for a lot of liberals in the way that it seemed, I think, clear that if you were to do this movie, that it might have a result that he might not be satisfied with. And I was waiting the entire movie for that question, and when it came, and he says, I’ll be darned if I know, and I’m a little dissatisfied with that.

ERROL MORRIS: Well, you should be. But that’s not my fault. That’s his fault. [LAUGHTER]

But I think you’re trying to decipher the character of Donald Rumsfeld, the way he perceives himself, and try to juxtapose that with the Machiavellian who orchestrated the Halloween massacre, whatever we call the night of long knives in the Ford Administration. I mean, it seemed, you’re calling him a performance artist, or you know, well spoken. But there seemed, there has to be something else going on.

ERROL MORRIS: I would say, we were talking about this, my editor and my research associate on the way back to our house during the screening. And you know, what to make of all of this. I mean, think of these answers. What did we learn from Vietnam? Damned if I know, or he wouldn’t say damn, darned if I know. That’s a vicious question. It’s clearly deflection. Toying, I don’t know.

There’s something about pure ambition here. Almost raw, during the making of the movie we would argue about this, this ideology at work, some kind of, with Cheney I feel that there is ideology at work. There’s something underneath all of it. There’s some kind of infernal set of principles. With Rumsfeld I feel like just raw ambition.

And so the question is, how could you write this thesis at Princeton advocating the limitation of presidential power, and then become Donald Rumsfeld, the Donald Rumsfeld we all know and love. And the answer is, I think really quite simply that he was always espousing pretty much the same thing again, which was, you know, he was a wrestler. He was legendary for the fireman’s carry. You pick him up. You throw him on the mat, and you pin him. And it’s a kind of brute force idea of foreign policy. And when given an opportunity to put it into practice, we see the result.

I don’t think there’s some kind of sophisticated idea at work here. And maybe this just shows my inherent limitations, or if you like, my lack of imagination. [LAUGHTER] But yeah, I see him as opportunistic, ambitious. It’s just, I’m saying things that are really inherently obvious.


Want to read more? Check out Errol Morris’ new series of four essays in The New York Times, The Certainty of Donald Rumsfeld. Also and @errolmorris.



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