The wonderful, award-winning filmmaker Errol Morris has a new documentary being released, The Unknown Known, about former Secretary of Defense (and former lots of things) Donald Rumsfeld, The core of the film is Rumsfeld sitting down for a long interview with Morris, much the same as former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara did for The Fog of War, which won the Oscar in 1973 for Best Documentary. In that, McNamara comes across as thoughtful and introspective about his involvement with the Vietnam War and even acknowledges that his actions could be seen as war crimes. By contrast, in the few clips I've seen, Rumsfeld comes across as smarmy, fatuous, self-serving and a liar. Yes, I know, this shouldn't come as a shock. In fairness, McNamara had decades to ruminate about Vietnam. Rumsfeld hasn't had the distance of time to reflect on his actions. But then, it shouldn't take long to figure out you're a liar.
Here's the trailer.
The endearing Mr. Rumsfeld has always been galling to me -- longer than for most people I suspect: when I was a kid growing up in Glencoe, Illinois, he was my congressman for four terms. (Yes, that's how conservative the district was where I was raised, yet somehow I survived...) The only reason he left was because he was brought into the White House to work for Richard Nixon as -- get this -- Director of the Office of Economic Opportunity. More galling is that we went to the same high school (albeit at very different times.)
Two years ago, that high school, New Trier, in Winnetka, starting giving out awards to its most distinguished alums -- and the list is seriously impressive. In that first group, they named Donald Rumsfeld as one of the honorees, something which brought a great deal of protest from other alumnae. It also brought forth a Huffington Post article from me.
This is the piece written on February 22, 2011.
To Serve Donald Rumsfeld
Last Sunday, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told CNN that he didn't think President of the United States Barack Obama deserved the Nobel Peace Prize.
"He had not accomplished a thing when he got the Nobel Prize," Rumsfeld told Candy Crowley, "it was given to him on hope -- had to have been, because there wasn't anything that he'd done. He'd been in office 15 minutes."
In fairness, given America's track record during Mr. Rumsfeld and George Bush's tenure of starting a war based on lies and absolutely no evidence, "not doing anything" could well be seen by the rest of the world as a major and significant advancement for peace.
But that aside, I think it's equally fair to say that Donald Rumsfeld has a reasonable point to make. Mind you, there's nothing in the Nobel's rules that say "hope" isn't a valid standard for the Peace Prize. But though one can make a solid case that he did deserve the award, it's still a very understandable argument that Mr. Obama didn't earn it. Of course, I'd like to think that all Americans would nonetheless be thrilled when a U.S. president wins the Nobel Peace Prize, but that's another matter entirely.
Going further though, I'd add that I myself don't think that Donald Rumsfeld deserved the Presidential Medal of Freedom given to him in 1977. As Richard Nixon himself was tape-recorded saying about Rumsfeld, "He's a ruthless little bastard. You can be sure of that." And hey, if anyone knew a thing or two about ruthless little bastards, it was Richard Nixon. You can be sure of that.
But going even further still, I don't think that Donald Rumsfeld even deserves the New Trier High School Alumni Achievement Award.
It's an award that will be given on March 22. I know about it because I'm a graduate of New Trier myself, in the Chicago suburb of Winnetka. Okay, so I'm admittedly a little annoyed that I wasn't singled out for the honor this year. But then, given that other such fellow-alumni as actors Ann-Margaret, Charlton Heston, Virginia Madsen, Rock Hudson, Bruce Dern, William Christopher ('Father Mulcahy' in M*A*S*H), Ralph Bellamy, Hugh O'Brian, director Ed Zwick, novelist Scott Turow, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Archibald MacLeish, singer-songwriter Liz Phair, Green Bay Packer linebacker Clay Matthews, two-time Tony-winner Christine Ebersole, American League Rookie of the Year John Castino, college basketball coach Ben Braun, famed restaurateur Charlie Trotter, Nobel Prize-winner for physics Jack Steinberger, 12-year president of the National Academy of Sciences Bruce Alberts, superagent Ari Emanuel, former Sen. Charles Percy, Sen. Mark Kirk, Rahm Emanuel and Dr. Zeke Emanuel didn't get it means I'm in good company.
But I'm still trying to figure out Donald Rumsfeld receiving the award.
Happily, it's not him alone. Other honorees this year include Rainn Wilson of The Office, former U.S. Ambassador Richard Williamson, cancer researcher Todd Golub, Holocaust Museum founder Sam Harris, and Christie Hefner, former CEO of Playboy.
But I'm still trying to figure out Donald Rumsfeld receiving the award.
Not surprisingly, I'm not alone.
There has been a growing protest from alumni over the award, calling on the school to rescind it. As the Chicago Tribune noted, this includes the current senior class president, Jeremy Levine-Drizin, who wrote, "This is not a matter of liberal or conservative; it is a matter of right and wrong."
That matter was explained by another former student, Timothy Yu (class of 1992), who wrote, "While Mr. Rumsfeld has undoubtedly achieved positions of great power and prominence, he is an extremely poor representative of New Trier's stated values..."
Those values are expressed in the school's motto: "To commit minds to inquiry, hearts to compassion, and lives to the service of humanity.
Given that Mr. Rumsfeld oversaw the torture and abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison, and managed a war based on actual, known-lies -- lies that have become even more known during the past week, as the U.S. informant code-named Curveball finally admitted what most rationally-thinking people figured out long ago -- it's a little hard to balance Mr. Rumsfeld's actions with such noble school values.
"My goodness, the intelligence was certainly wrong," Mr. Rumsfeld told ABC News earlier in the month.
My goodness, indeed.
Or as Mae West famously once said, "Goodness had nothing to do with it."
What also has nothing to do with it is Mr. Rumsfeld himself, who has chosen to avoid the controversy and will not be attending. How admirable. Let the school swing in the wind by itself. Then again, that's sort of fitting.
Needless to say, the school has defended its choice. "This committee spent days discussing and debating the nominees and really did due diligence for this first group of honorees," spokesperson Nicole Dizon said. "In the case of Secretary Rumsfeld, the committee felt he served his country for more than 50 years."
Of course, it's not "how long" one serves their country, but how they serve it.
It's like the famous Twilight Zone episode, "To Serve Man." As the humans board an alien spaceship taking them all to a far-off planet as guests, or so they think based on a volume they've discovered but could only translate the idealistic-sounding title, a frantic translator comes rushing in to cry out his too-late discovery that they're not guests at all, but the main course. "It's a cook book!!"
For further recipes on how Donald Rumsfeld serves Americans, just contact the school cafeteria...
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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