Cage Match: I, Rumsfeld

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Delirious after a week of sifting through transcripts of Donald Rumsfeld press conferences, I tried an experiment last night.

The first thing I did was put on my Rumsfeld face. This takes practice. You’ve got to lower your head and raise your chin at the same time, then squint violently and screw up your eyes as though trying to read something in small writing on a wall fifty feet away. Your elderly mouth should be open slightly. Your body should be static and mummy-like. And instead of turning your whole torso to speak to someone, you have to learn to swivel your whole head–like an owl, or Linda Blair in The Exorcist.

After a week of practice, I had it down pretty well. Squinting, I got in my car and drove to Burger King. There was a young black woman behind the counter. I recount my exchange with her in Dept. of Defense transcript form:

Q: Good evening, sir. Would you like to try a Western Whopper?

Taibbi: (hissing) Ask me a question I can answer!

Q: Excuse–

Taibbi: (hissing and pointing) My goodness! Enough!

No laughter, no applause. Instead, she stared at me as if I were a madman. I wondered: Why does it work for him, and not for me?

Up until last week, Donald Rumsfeld’s press conferences were the hottest ticket in Washington, and the defense secretary was somehow credited by journalists with having a "charming," even Wildean, wit. But Rumsfeld doesn’t really make jokes; what really happens is that he occasionally explodes in outbursts of menacing, petulant impatience, and the press corps either applauds or laughs in response. For instance, Rumsfeld has a thing about being interrupted or being asked follow-up questions, and his pissy takedowns of journalists who break his "rules" are often met with warm, approving laughter. A typical exchange:

Rumsfeld: And we can’t tell you–if you can’t tell how long it’s going to last, you sure can’t tell what it’s going to cost. But now–

Q: But that budget was based on the war plan–

Rumsfeld: (hissing, raising finger to mouth) Shhh! (laughter) Shhh! (laughter)

His public personality having been nurtured over the last few years in this consequence-free environment, Rumsfeld by the time of the outbreak of war had begun to experiment with occasional forays into the philosophical. The pop Rumsfeld was giving way to the "deep" Rumsfeld. It was his political Ravi Shankar phase. One of the weirder efforts yet in this direction came two Fridays ago, on the second day of the war proper, when he pondered the impressionistic nature of the war coverage:

"What we are seeing," he said, "is not the war in Iraq. What we’re seeing are slices of the war in Iraq. We’re seeing that particularized perspective that that reporter, or that commentator or that television camera happens to be able to see at that moment. And it is not what’s taking place. What you see is taking place, to be sure, but it is one slice. And it is the totality of that that is what this war is about and being made up of."

Looks like everything about France is bad but its pretentious philosophy. Rumsfeld’s point was repeated credulously by several major papers, including the Washingon Post, and Ari Fleischer would later use the same reasoning to discredit the impressions of the war left by the media as opposed to the "totality" of the war picture, which of course only the government is privy to.

Two days later, Rumsfeld made a Sunday media blitz during the first day of truly bad war news, appearing on Face the Nation and Meet the Press. In both appearances, he showed that when he didn’t have any metaphysical spin ready for those very few uncomfortable questions that were sent his way, he was more than willing to resort to ordinary, run-of-the-mill bullshit. Take this segment from his interview with Tim Russert of Meet the Press:

Russert: There are also reports that a Patriot missile, unfortunately, inadvertently struck a British aircraft. Can you confirm that?

Rumsfeld: I’ve heard the reports. There’s an investigation under way. And the normal procedure is that there is a method of identifying friendly aircraft. And if, indeed, what you said occurred, it very likely was a result of the fact that either the identification in the aircraft wasn’t working properly or the ability to identify the identification from the Patriot battery wasn’t working properly, in which case this type of a tragedy can occur."

I was waiting for Russert to shout, "Answer the fucking question! Did the Patriot shoot down a Tornado, or didn’t it?" But he only pulls that with people like Howard Dean.

Another example of shameless Rumsfeld double-talk left unchallenged: In an interview that Sunday with Wolf Blitzer of CNN, Rumsfeld was asked if the errant missile that hit an Iranian oil depot was, as reported, American:

"The present speculation," he said, "is that it was an Iraqi weapon, but it’s possible that it wasn’t, and that’s the kind of thing that will have to be looked at, and the debris, the remnants of the weapon probably could be inspected and some determination made finally, but only after you have ground troops. Certainly if it was an errant weapon from a coalition force, it would have been an accident and totally unintended, but at least the preliminary estimate is that it’s–it was an Iraqi weapon."

"After you have ground troops"? In Iran? What the hell was he talking about? Blitzer didn’t ask. In another part of the Meet the Press interview, Rumsfeld gave Russert a chance to snuff out the entire POW-Geneva convention controversy before it even began. The Russert interview came on the first day that Rumsfeld decided to complain about the Iraqi broadcasts of pictures of American POWs. At one point in his complaints, he said:

"And the United States, of course, avoids showing photographs of prisoners of war. We have thousands of Iraqi prisoners… But we do not–we avoid showing photographs of them."

As soon as he used the word "avoid," he was one step away from admitting that the United States was guilty of the same thing that the Iraqis were. After all, photos of Iraqi POWs have been published and aired on television from the very first day of the war. And "we avoid," of course, is not the same as
"we do not." Rumsfeld was admitting that he was a hypocrite on live tv. But Russert, who is a suspiciously sharp interviewer when he is not interviewing the secretary of defense, let it pass.

The charm of Donald Rumsfeld is something that is really hard to figure. It is hard to imagine him really enjoying anything other than utterly compliant media attention or military violence. Think about it: can you picture Rumsfeld bowling? Looking at a painting? Reading aloud from Where the Sidewalk Ends? These things are impossible to imagine. Rumsfeld appears to be a man who wouldn’t enjoy oral sex from an 18-year-old virgin. There are no smile lines around his eyes, and when he talks, the words seem to come out of a wrinkly hole in the middle of his face that, rectum-like, expands and contracts as needed.

And yet, even in the middle of this bloody catastrophe unfolding in Iraq, Rumsfeld continues to be treated like a rock star. If it’s because he’s our idea of charismatic, we’re in a lot of trouble.

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