Rumsfeld's Knowns and Unknowns: The Intellectual History of a Quip

How will posterity remember the secretary of defense's most famous soundbite? That's a known unknown.

Errol Morris has long shown an obsession with the nature of facts and evidence (The Thin Blue Line), violence and war (The Fog of War), and obsession itself (Fast, Cheap & Out of Control). His newest film, which premiered Tuesday, combines all three: It's a documentary about Donald Rumsfeld and what Morris sees as his obsession with going to war in Iraq. Here's the trailer:

The title of the movie, The Unknown Known, comes from Rumsfeld's most famous statement while serving as George W. Bush's secretary of defense: 

As we know, there 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. 

Morris is exploring that quote in a series of posts on The New York Times website this week. Through the first two posts, he has begun a detailed deconstruction of that quote—the antecedents for it as far back as Keats, how Rumsfeld conducted (and generally seems to have delighted in) press briefings, how he dueled with reporters, and the secretary's relationship with evidence and reality. I won't try to summarize Morris's posts, because they're absolutely worth reading in full, and also because they're unsummarizable.

But his interviews with reporters who were present at the start got me thinking about that quote, which has become so associated with Rumsfeld that he also borrowed from it for the title of his memoir, Knowns and Unknowns. It's a truism that we live in an age of soundbites, where quick quips—or even better, anything that fits in 140 characters—are the rhetorical weapons of choice. (Rumsfeld's remark, from those innocent pre-Twitter days, clocks in at a behemoth 244 characters.) The truism is likely reductive, but also seductive, in part because anyone can use it to advance their view of contemporary society. For Cassandras, it's a sign of how the culture has degraded into bluntness and black and white, throwing aside nuance. For Pollyannas, it makes communication easier than ever, flattening the playing field and removing obstructions. For most people, it's the simply the way we live now, decontextualized and fragmented. No matter where you fall, it's certainly new and different, disjointed from historical experience.

Reading over Morris's first post, it's easy to see how just how important context remains, and just how firmly soundbites' reception is rooted in historical precedent. It's only been 12 years since Rumsfeld delivered his comment on February 12, 2002, and there are at least three distinctive phases of how it's been considered. 

I don't remember how I first heard that quote, but I recall many people viewing it as handwaving nonsense meant to cover over reality. It was a laughingstock—and it fit well with a president widely mocked for his malapropisms and mis-statements. That's also how Jamie McIntyre (then of CNN, now of NPR), the reporter who elicited the quote, recalls the reception: "I remember some people were portraying it as some sort of gaffe—some bit of nonsense he had said that was convoluted and didn’t make any sense."

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David A. Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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