Maureen Dowd / A mad Tea Party

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WASHINGTON -- How awful are Ted Cruz and his Cruzettes?

They have done the impossible. They have made Americans look back at the Bush II era, the most reckless wrecking ball in American history, with relative nostalgia.

With 78 percent of Americans feeling blue about the country being on the wrong track, according to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, many consider the GOP's imperialistic unilaterists less loco than the narcissistic anarchists. As grandiose delusions go, global domination makes more sense than self-annihilation.

"If I was in the Senate now, I'd kill myself," Chris Christie said Friday.

But before you start thinking Dick Cheney is temperate by comparison, consider the Commentary roast of the former vice president on Monday night at the Plaza Hotel in New York.

Mr. Cheney made a joke about waterboarding an antelope that he borrowed from Jay Leno. Donald Rumsfeld quasi-jested that he knew Dick "back when the president of the United States still led our foreign policy, instead of Putin."

Ben Smith of BuzzFeed reported that the roast sponsored by Rupert Murdoch and others featured Mr. Rumsfeld, Joe Lieberman and Scooter Libby, known as "Cheney's Cheney" until he was convicted of lying during a federal leak probe.

Mr. Lieberman, a guest told BuzzFeed, said it was nicer to be at the Plaza than in cages after a war crimes trial. There were pardon jokes about W., whose relationship with Mr. Cheney was shattered over not giving Mr. Libby one. Mr. Libby said W. sent a note: "Pardon me, I can't make it."

The acrid legacy of Messrs. Cheney and Rummy lives on as they carp from the sidelines about the "so-called commander in chief." In December, "The Unknown Known," an Errol Morris documentary about the man who was the youngest and oldest secretary of defense, hits theaters.

Mr. Morris won an Oscar in 2004 for "Fog of War," his documentary about another dangerous, delusional defense secretary with wire-rimmed glasses, Robert McNamara; in his acceptance speech, Mr. Morris warned that, with Iraq, America might be going down another "rabbit hole."

But the cocky Rummy talked to him for 33 hours anyway. Unlike McNamara, however, Mr. Rumsfeld does not admit his historic blunders, but maintains his "Stuff happens" brio.

"You make a movie with the secretary of defense you have," Mr. Morris told me dryly, "not with the secretary of defense you want to have."

Still, the filmmaker was smart to bookend the men, opposite ends of the same warmongering problem: McNamara was so droning and unemotive that he lulled listeners into thinking that nothing bad could be happening, while Mr. Rumsfeld was so energetic and blithe that it was hard to believe that people were dying and the war was being lost. Mr. Morris' wife and collaborator, Julia Sheehan, said that McNamara was "The Flying Dutchman" wandering the Earth looking for redemption, while Mr. Rumsfeld is the Cheshire cat.

"All we're left with at the very end is this infernal grin," Mr. Morris said. "Everybody wants this smoking gun. The entire Bush administration is a smoking gun.

"In his memos and homilies, Rumsfeld will say things that are just contradictory, as though by saying everything, you've covered all your bases," Mr. Morris continued. "It's deeply anti-rational, as if there's no deep reflection or thought. You have no evidence? Well, 'the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,' as Rumsfeld said about WMD in Iraq. Taken to some crazy conclusion, you can justify anything that way.

"At times in his language, he descends into some strange insanity, as though he's trying to convince himself."

Asked the lesson of Vietnam -- Mr. Rumsfeld was the chief of staff to Gerald Ford when Saigon was evacuated -- Mr. Rumsfeld briskly replies: "Some things work out, some things don't. That didn't."

When Mr. Morris presses Mr. Rumsfeld about the Justice Department's "torture memos," the former defense chief said they did not come out of "the Bush administration, per se; they came out of the U.S. Department of Justice." That parsing would be beyond Bill Clinton.

About the memos that led to what Mr. Morris considers "one of the great stains in American history," Mr. Rumsfeld says he never read them. When asked why, he replies, "I'm not a lawyer. What would I know?"

When Mr. Morris asks Mr. Rumsfeld about the "confusion" that linked Saddam to 9/11, he answers brightly, "I don't think the American people were confused about that," adding, "I don't remember anyone in the Bush administration saying anything like that, nor do I recall anyone believing that."

Holy mushroom cloud.

Mr. Rumsfeld doesn't even seem to understand his signature phrase. Reading from a 2004 memo, he says, "There are known knowns. There are known unknowns. There are unknown unknowns." He tells Mr. Morris that there are also unknown knowns. Things that you possibly may know that you don't know you know.

Mr. Morris challenges him: "But the memo doesn't say that. It says that we know less, not more, than we think we do."

Mr. Rumsfeld finally admits a boo-boo: "Yeah, I think that memo is backwards." Then he chastises the filmmaker for "chasing the wrong rabbit."

Right down the rabbit hole.

opinion_commentary

Maureen Dowd is a syndicated columnist for The New York Times. First Published October 13, 2013 8:00 PM


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