You have to hand it to Donald Rumsfeld: at least he has a sense of humour.
Or is it that he has no sense of shame? I can’t really make up my mind about the title of his memoir, “Known and Unknown”, released this week.
It’s a play on words you see, a reference to one of his more famous quotes regarding whether Iraq did indeed have weapons of mass destruction:
[T]here are known knowns there are things we know we know.
We also know there are known unknowns that is to say we know there are some things we do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.
At the time, there was a big debate about whether Rumsfeld’s formulation actually made any sense, which I think was exactly what the US defence secretary had intended. As the press corps hared down the blind alley they forgot about the main issue – the rather uncomfortable fact (for Rumsfeld) that there was absolutely no evidence of WMDs in Iraq.
The memoir seems to continue with the semantic trickery. I haven’t read the book, and judging by the kind of reviews it’s been getting, I don’t think I’ll learn anything by doing so.
But what’s already clear is that it doesn’t just continue the verbal trickery, it adds an extra dash of finesse, by subtly modifying the time honoured “out of context” defence.
You see, for most politicians the get-out clause of last resort has long been the claim of “misquote”. You see it all the time when public figures find themselves hoisted and hung out to dry by their own words – out comes the cliche: “My words were taken out of context”.
Rumsfeld’s new, modified approach is picked up in The Guardian, which illustrates the technique in action.
Here he is trying to explain away another of his untruths, the claim that the CIA had identified WMD sites around Tikrit and Baghdad:
“While I made a few misstatements – in particular the one mentioned above – they were not common and certainly not characteristic.
So instead of claiming he was “misquoted”, Rumsfeld boldly owns up to his claim, but excuses it as a lone “mis-statement” (so human, so easy to understand), which was given so much undue attention that it caused the broader, accurate picture he was painting to be distorted.
The same technique is used in defence of his press conference regarding the looting of Iraq’s museums:
“I had uttered more than 1,000 words at that press conference before I said ‘stuff happens’ but they were the only two words that seemed to matter”
Thus, it seems a new benchmark has been set for accountability: lies and mischaracterisation are henceforth irrelevant, or at least forgiveable, so long as they are buried by 1000 other, less damning, words.
Pure PR genius.