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."

Of course, that mockery didn't do anything to slow the march to war in Iraq. And even as the U.S. became mired in occupation, and Rumsfeld's stock sank and sank leading up to his disgraced 2006 resignation, his quote gained in luster, culminating with Rumsfeld reclaiming it for his 2011 memoir's title. After all, he may have been grievously wrong about de-Baathification, but wasn't that a brilliantly pithy piece of popular epistemology? Decoupled from its context, it seemed smart. That's how I came to view the quote, and I'd wager most people couldn't tell you what Rumsfeld was talking about when he said it.
Morris is now trying to lead a third wave of understanding:

Few people today remember that Rumsfeld was ostensibly responding to Miklaszewski’s request for evidence. What evidence do you have that Iraq is supplying terrorists with W.M.D.? Rumsfeld’s answer was a non-answer—not just an evasion or a misdirection. Many people believe Rumsfeld’s reply was brilliant. I think otherwise.

We'll see if it works. It's hard to imagine a Rumsfeld renaissance, but perhaps the quote is too firmly entrenched in the public mind by now.

In its changing reception over time, Rumsfeld "unknowns" quote illustrates continuity with other famous comments in history whose meaning is far different today than it was at the time. The mixed reception for the Gettysburg Address may be the most famous American case. In November, my colleague Megan Garber wrote about the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Patriot-Union issuing a formal correction of its brusque dismissal of the Lincoln's "silly" remarks.

Less well-known: Two of Winston Churchill's most famous World War II speeches, often quoted today, were flops at the time. His "Never was so much owed by so many to so few ..." was delivered before a nearly empty House of Commons; and as Richard Overy noted in the Times Literary Supplement (paywalled) in January:

The equally famous speech on June 18, 1940, ending "this was their finest hour", announcing that the Battle of Britain was about to commence, met with a mixed response in the Commons, cheered more loudly by the Labour Party. When against his better instincts Churchill broadcast the speech, the popular response was also mixed. Some found that it settled nerves following the French collapse, but other comments suggested that his delivery was poor and his sentiments unconvincing, either because he was drunk or because he was tired.

Churchill, of course (in yet another of his famous quotes), boasted, "History will be kind to me for I intend to write it." These examples prove he was wrong, and that history changes in unpredictable ways—salubriously for Churchill, in this case. It's too soon to tell Rumsfeld's fate.