To celebrate July 4th, the Weeklings Editorial Board brings you an in-depth look at the least acceptable among us. Although only living figures were considered, space was limited and deliberations were intense. In the end, there were fifteen good men (and women, but mostly men) chosen. God bless this great land.
A POLITICIAN WITH BLOOD on his hands is nothing novel. Anyone wired for the rank of governor or higher – Democrat, Republican, what have you – must be able to compartmentalize the loss of human life that will accrue from the stroke of a pen or a command. Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense under both Gerald Ford and George W. Bush, and one of the architects of the catastrophic Iraq War, falls into this category (as does Obama). But that’s not what makes him loathsome.
What makes Rumsfeld one of our Worst Americans is his irrepressible jollity in the face of it all. The rationales for his actions come wrapped in a chummy grin, a quip, and a shrug, even a jocular irritation at being called out. To be clear: he adamantly, smilingly sold the Iraq war to the American public; he obfuscated, conflated Saddam Hussein with bin Laden, and did so with a fierce, smiling will; he did not, as he insisted with a smile to Jon Stewart, merely “present” the case for war. He sold it under false pretenses – WMDs – with willful ignorance and lethal underestimation of the contentious cultures into which he was sending our troops. The proud people into whose land he sent forces (while he remained safe) – Iraqis, Afghanis, Kurds – did not “greet us as liberators” as he smilingly insisted they would. Hundreds of thousands died, most of them civilians. The world will feel the costs of all of this for generations. And for what? To “prevent Saddam Hussein, who is aligned with the 9-11 terrorists, from using WMDs,” which was then, and is now, a crock of shit.
[Actual reason(s)? Depends who you ask, of course. Google away, knock yourself out.)
Granted, Rummy didn’t do it alone (I’m looking at you, Hillary), and granted, like everyone else, he passes the buck to “faulty CIA intelligence” (not buying that); the main thing is: he laughs about it a lot. Even George W. Bush, who, with Dick Cheney, completes the Unholy Triptych of the Unremorseful, made an attempt to suppress his inherent jokester qualities. Not so his War Chief.
Rather than render him a sociopath, Rumsfeld’s waggishness made him a star, a sought-after presence, a hot interview. So he wags on. Even before someone coined the term “click bait,” that’s what Rumsfeld became, rising into the public eye in our Internet age, tailor made for the sound bite, and that’s what he remains: a star undimmed, beloved of advertisers. Not unlike a mischievous child, he relishes the attention he receives, regardless of its quality; even when he’s annoyed, he’s flushed and pleasured. He plays to the cheap seats, and they love it/him. It’s good TV, it’s click bait, it’s a chance for him to do his frat boy/oracle thing, in love with his own high fructose gibberish, which seems to serve as a kind of tonic inoculating him from the hard facts that his career helped send us, citizens of an ever-shrinking world, into a shadowy time, foreign-policy-wise.
His distinctive usage of language galls me. He speaks fucking nonsense, but floridly so, with precision: “There’s another way to phrase that and that is that the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence,” he says, with a smile, of fantasy WMDs, while lives are destroyed and trillions squandered. “Simply because you do not have evidence that something does exist does not mean that you have evidence that it doesn’t exist.” Here he is having more fun: “I’m not into this detail stuff. I’m more concept-y,” he says, giggling, while families are slaughtered and U.S. soldiers, broken beyond repair, stagger home (or don’t). Or he’ll throw in a Hamlet quote: “Nothing is good or bad but that thinking makes it so!” he says with a snicker. And when the looters stole priceless antiquities from the Baghdad Museum after our “Mission Accomplished”? He joked, of course: “The images you are seeing on television you are seeing over, and over, and over, and it’s the same picture of some person walking out of some building with a vase, and you see it twenty times, and you think, ‘My goodness, were there that many vases?’” My goodness.
This dark talent for throwing words around like confetti, but acting like it’s gold dust, appears not only to sustain him, it keeps the press corps coming back for more, and it makes Rummy popular with folks who love a good cadence, a rimshot, a hook, regardless of lyrical content. His proud acknowledgement that he’s always been a compulsive note taker, a sender of thousands of memos (some quite incriminating, but he’ll never do time) from which he derives “wisdom” to funnel into his ideas, is an insult to writing.
To be fair, he did officially express regret for the Abu Ghraib prison torture case, and he tried to resign but, amazingly, Bush refused his resignation. TWICE. Even after charges were brought against Rumsfeld, alleging that he’d OK’ed torture, violating the Geneva Convention and further besmirching our image across the planet, he still had a fucking job! He said he “regretted what happened” at Abu Ghraib, but he would not call it “torture.” Because, y’know, he’s a wordsmith. He’ll call it “enhanced interrogation,” designed to protect his constituents, and many decided that was fine. Despite the horrific photos and the outcry, he stands by his pretty words, to this day: enhanced interrogation, said with the corners of the mouth twitching upward.
Rumsfeld had been around since the 70s, but he and his ilk stepped to center stage in the early ‘aughts, when I was a new father and a teacher of small children. Prior to this confluence of events, I’d been more of a relativist, fancying myself a sophisticate with a big, magnanimous heart, quoting Jesus, Buddha, Gandhi, MLK, et al. I was Mr. Forgiveness. But with Rummy in the air at the same time preschoolers ran amok at my feet, I felt animus and rancor, and I worried my heart was shrinking, withering under the poison of hate; I’d bought the received wisdom of “hate destroys the vessel in which it resides.” But guess what? That’s not true.
My heart was not shrinking; it had grown to encompass the lives of the kids in my charge, who, by being so young, were mere steps away from the stream from which all life rises; my heart encompassed my fellow parents, who were shepherding little beings forward, or trying to. These were – and are – my people, and the warmonger Donald Rumsfeld invested his estimable energy in bringing pain and death to people exactly like them, all the while laughing it off like a child, having a bit of fun, willfully disconnecting from consequence. This is unforgivable, and yes, it hurts to hold a grudge. But I accept the resulting ache, the sadness, the clarifying rage, so I may point to Rumsfeld and, with heartfelt feeling, say: Here is evil. Beware of such like. This is a terrible intimacy, but with so much at stake, I can afford it.