Tuesday, March 1, 2011

StewBeef & Rummy: Jon Stewart Interviews Donald Rumsfeld

I love you, Jon Stewart! Really. I do.

And so, my curiosity and anticipation heightened when I found out at that you would interview former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (on Wednesday 23 February 2011), who is making the rounds to promote his new memoir, Known and Unknown.

I had begun to wonder—only a little bit—what you were doing with the Rally to Restore Sanity. I did not think you had jumped the shark. But, I did wonder if you were putting on the water skis.

I think my wondering had more to do with assumptions about what you must be doing. No one could actually have a rally on the National Mall and not turn it into a giant political movement. In this age of ceaseless branding, that is what you would do with the 15 or 250,000 people who show up in response to you saying, "Hey! Show up!"


You mistake your talent and fame for a movement to do with as you please. You market and “merchandize.” And then, the message, the messenger and the audience suffer a gruesome collapse, like some bad Strauss opera.

Mercifully, no. Not this time.

So far as I can tell, you have let the Rally stand for itself. And, so far as I can tell, after a bit of nattering, so has everyone else. The critics seem to have moved on to the next thing. The attendees have...well...gone back to their busy lives, I expect.

This is not to say that you have not flexed some muscle. Your advocacy—that is what it was, I think—on behalf of those who worked at Ground Zero clearly was fine-tuned political involvement and a sign of an acute awareness of your clout on an important issue politicians had let flounder under their pettiness. Politics, like comedy, is about timing. And, this was a well-timed breaking of the Fourth Wall.

This is not to say that you have not kept the home fires burning. You have, with recognizable humor and exasperation, lived up to the call to reasonableness that inspired and flowed from the Rally. Your interviews with guests—controversial and otherwise—have been as entertaining and (sometimes surprisingly) serious as I could want from you and the few minutes the format allows.

But, Rumsfeld. That is a big deal. That is as close to 43 as you—and, through you, we—are going to get. Well. OK. You might get Colin Powell or Condoleezza Rice. You might even get The Architect. But you are not getting Cheney or 43. Especially Cheney.

Rummy is a great “get.” A sign of how your Seriously Funny works.

And, I fear it was your Joe Biden-John Roberts moment.

The highlight of the Biden-Roberts exchange during now-Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr.’s Senate confirmation hearing in 2005? Watching Mr. Roberts sit there and watch then-Senator Biden talk for 29 of his 30 minutes and then thank Mr. Roberts for his answers. Watching, you knew Mr. Roberts was fit for the Court. Not because of substance. But because, in that moment, you saw a level of patience and smarts that suit the job.

Jon. May I call you Jon? Please? Just this once. For effect?

You let Secretary Rumsfeld sit there and listen while you made the mistake you are so good at avoiding. You let your frustration with (anger at?) the Bush Administration (and the, at the time anyway, seemingly preening Rumsfeld) get your tongue and cloud your mind. I think you thought Rummy was going to stride in with horns on, guns blazing, conceding nothing.

I think you know he is smart and accomplished. That is hard to miss. But, I think his calm, graciousness and wit surprised you. It surprised me.

For (almost) 30 minutes, you tried to ask a question (and, to be fair, that is a big difference from the Biden comparison). But, you did not interview him. Mostly, you testified. You talked about reports few in your audience know. When you did—finally—ask a question, you asked the wrong question.

You let him slip away. 

And, you fell into the single biggest challenge with reasonableness: What to do with a competing view that is reasonable?

You hung your hat on wanting Secretary Rumsfeld to admit that the Bush Administration should have expressed public doubt about a decision Secretary Rumsfeld told you the Bush Administration combed through, worried about, tried to be reasonable—even compassionate—in making. No representative of an Administration is going to admit grave doubt in a public defense of an Administration’s decision. Maybe they will, if they have resigned because they have grave doubt—because the doubts are so grave as to outweigh any alternative. In which case, they speak from the outside, not for the Administration.

You do not want the government to make a one-sided decision about war—or anything else. You want bright, engaged public servants to object during the decision-making process. You even want them to resign and speak out, if they disagree strongly enough and see no alternative.

But, I do not think you want wafflers to be the people with the authority to send people to die. You do not want someone from the Administration coming to you—to us—saying, ‘We think sending Americans to war might be a good idea. We’re not sure. But, it seems like a good idea to us. I guess we’ll see. We can always change our minds.’

You want people with power over life and death to be rational; to develop and be open to (swayed by) the evidence that they have unique access to; to be wise...and decisive. And, decision made, you want them to defend it. You want the Administration to come out and say, “We have gone through every scenario. We have dredged every swamp. We have thought of everything. And, this is the right choice because...”

With all that, still they may get it wrong. And, you want them to be open to that, too. These are not easy decisions with one obvious answer.

You may think the Bush Administration was not thorough, open to options or wise. The quality of their decision-making can be debated. As can the response of much of Congress and the press.

You may think the Bush Administration, in choosing Iraq, chose the wrong war. The choice—and its morphing justifications—can be debated.

And there, I think, you have a point.

But that is not where you went.

Instead, you tried to pin the “Parade of Horribles”—Rumsfeld’s list of all the things that might go wrong in Iraq—on him as a symbol of unreasonableness, a sign he should have expressed (more? any?) public doubt.

The Parade of Horribles is a symbol of reasonableness. It shows Secretary Rumsfeld was processing information, good and bad. He was thinking ahead, considering the options, making a considered choice in an impossible setting and advising the President accordingly.

In raising the Parade of Horribles, you gave Secretary Rumsfeld the opportunity to detail how thorough the Administration was. In raising the gravity of sending people to war, you gave him the opportunity to detail how it ‘breaks my heart’ to send people into war and you gave him the opportunity to paint you into a corner when you set him up to say that the people in the Pentagon are honorable—things no sane person contests.

I think I might actually feel better about Rumsfeld than I did before! And, I wonder what happened to you.

Please know that I know that my criticism is, of course, deeply unfair.

I watched your show. Then, I thought about it. Then, I sat down at my desk to write this.

I do not have to interview Secretary Rumsfeld on national television. I do not have a show! And, there is a good reason for that. I write. I want pour over the words I choose—or at least try to—for days. And still I ponder and kvetch. Plus, as my wife likes to remind me, I look a lot better in person than I do on camera—and that’s not saying much.

I know you cannot hit a home run with every at-bat. And, I know it is unfair to you (and me and everyone else) to expect you will hit a home run with every at-bat. I know that.

But—OH MY GOD!—I wish you did not let Rummy sit there and wait you out.

It would have been good—cathartic and interesting—to see you ask him direct questions about the issues; about how he and the Bush Administration made the decisions they made; about the process, the expectations and where he thinks they got it wrong (and right). Love him or hate him, it would have been nice to see someone ask him questions that challenged him to explain how the Bush Administration, making the decision to go to war, worked.

I love you, Jon Stewart. I really do. No. Seriously. I really do.

And, I am not breaking up with you. I swear.