Lit Crit

Donald Rumsfeld: Known, Unknown, and Better Left Unsaid

April 18, 2011

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Donald Rumsfeld: Known, Unknown, and Better Left Unsaid

Nixon in China, John Adams’s opera based on Richard Nixon’s détente-seeking 1972 visit to the People’s Republic, has Kissinger pirouetting, Chairman and Madame Mao dancing the tango, and Pat Nixon touring a factory delighted at the sight of hundreds of glass elephants—but it is more than just satire.

Donald is a novel by Eric Martin and Stephen Elliott that approaches more recent events and is rather less than satire. According to the publishers it is “a high-wire allegory” exploring “What would happen if Donald Rumsfeld…was abducted at night from his Maryland home [and] held without charges in his own prison system?” What would happen? He wouldn’t like it, and that’s about all that happens.

Donald is an allegory except there is no moral. There isn’t much, in fact, beyond the tag line and the cover: Donald Rumsfeld with the same relaxed pose and cocky smile that is on the cover of his memoir Known and Unknown but wearing an orange prisoner’s jumpsuit.

“If Nixon could go to China, perhaps Bush should have gone to Afghanistan and Iraq.”

As a book, Donald is too long at 109 pages, while Known and Unknown is quite palatable at 832. Known and Unknown also has better characters: Nixon, Kissinger, Saddam Hussein, Condoleezza Rice, and even a guest appearance by Elvis Presley.

In Donald there is Donald, convincingly confident and towering above hapless younger Americans, accusers, interrogators, and prison guards. In the first chapter, two kids confront Donald in a library, which prompts this thought:

“By the time he was their age, he’d married, served his country, won four elections, managed broad constituencies, and was raising three children. What are they doing? Writing books? About war? What could they possibly know?”

It’s difficult to argue. What these kids can do is ask questions:

“How do you know what you know?…No one’s in charge, are they?”

Like the legs of the Mark Morris Dance Group in Nixon in China, the questions remain suspended in midair. But it’s less of a pleasure to see them hanging there, unresolved.

In Known and Unknown too, there are traces of that student-like faith that asking the right questions is somehow half the battle. “George W. Bush confronted many hard questions, especially after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001,” Rumsfeld tells us. In praise of W.: “He asked serious questions, was self-confident and had a command of important issues.”

If Nixon could go to China, perhaps Bush should have gone to Afghanistan and Iraq.

Rumsfeld tells of a list of experts in diplomacy and Arabic needed to fill posts in the Iraqi Transitional Government. Out of two hundred on the list, most ended up turning down the jobs because their spouses didn’t want them to go to Iraq. A country may be as strong as its middle class, but an empire is only as strong as its administrators.


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