Rumsfeld leaves book-tour audience wanting to know more

Host Michael Bescloss listens last night as former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (right) talks about his just-published book, "Known and Unknown," at the National Constitution Center.
Host Michael Bescloss listens last night as former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (right) talks about his just-published book, "Known and Unknown," at the National Constitution Center.
Posted: February 10, 2011

"I N OUR WORLD, narratives and theories get strung out over a period of time until it's like they're chiseled in stone as truth - notwithstanding the fact they are totally based in midair without any roots or substance."

- Former defense

secretary Donald Rumsfeld, speaking last night at the National Constitution Center, in Philadelphia.

Rumsfeld wasn't talking about the controversial run-up to the Iraq War - when cases for weapons of mass destruction there and terror ties to al Qaeda vanished into that very same ether.

Instead, prompted by moderator and presidential historian Michael Beschloss, the 78-year-old Rumsfeld was relating a mostly forgotten episode over whether he'd sabotaged President George W. Bush's father's shot at becoming Gerald Ford's 1976 running mate.

That's pretty much how things went down at the rare public appearance by Rumsfeld, who chose Philadelphia as the first stop on a national tour to promote his new memoir, "Known and Unknown."

Known, after Rumsfeld's talk? The minute details of the time that Sammy Davis Jr. took him and his wife backstage at a Las Vegas nightspot to meet Elvis Presley.

Not known? Anything new about the torture scandal at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison that damaged America's reputation. That subject never even came up.

But then, neither did a wide range of critical moments during Rumsfeld's six years in the Bush cabinet, from the location of Osama bin Laden to his unwillingness to lift the ban on gays serving openly in the military, even to the war in Afghanistan itself.

Rumsfeld made it feel like 2003 all over again during much of the 70-minute session.

The same could arguably be said about the one controversial topic Rumsfeld did attempt to address in detail: The case for the war in Iraq.

Just as the public saw eight years ago, Rumsfeld threw out a jumbled kitchen sink of reasons for invading a country that had not attacked us on Sept. 11. Of course, some of the key reasons given to Americans at the time - such as an allegation that Iraq tried to buy yellowcake uranium in Africa - have long since been tossed down the memory hole.

Answering one of only a couple of audience questions, Rumsfeld said of the difference between the Iraq War and Vietnam: "The Vietnamese were not likely to come and attack the United States of America."

Yet the CIA reported in October 2002 that it was unlikely that Iraq would launch any type of chemical or biological attack against America - unless we provoked the regime by attacking them.

Indeed, Rumsfeld conceded that it's hard today to give a simple explanation - as you could with World War II - about what the Iraq war and related terrorism conflicts were all about.

"It is a marathon, not a sprint," he said. "It is a competition of ideas. For whatever reason, we are hesitant and not skillful in engaging in the competition of ideas."

Last night, the competition of ideas did not involve journalists. There would be no questions from the press and few from the public, except several prescreened by Beschloss.

Nevertheless, I grabbed an index card and wrote down a question, in the wildly futile hope that the moderator might select it. I wanted to know why - on the early afternoon of Sept. 11, with the Pentagon still on fire - Rumsfeld scribbled notes about his desire to go after not just bin Laden but Saddam as well.

But like a lot of questions last night, that one remains somewhere in the "unknown" pile.


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