On Wednesday night, Tavis Smiley welcomed film director Errol Morris onto the set of his PBS program to talk about Morris’ new documentary on former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Unlike Bill Maher, who challenged Morris when he interviewed him last Friday, Smiley joined Morris in maligning Rumsfeld throughout the entire interview.
Smiley seemed appalled that Rumsfeld ever came to be in charge of the Defense Department, and by extension managing the prosecution of the Iraq War. He remarked to Morris:
I watched your piece and I was just dumbfounded that this is the guy who was in charge. And again, I’m not trying to demonize the guy. But I’m watching like, and you were the one making the decisions?
It’s pretty hard to not demonize the former secretary with a comment like that. Morris tried to explain how Rumsfeld came to power:
Rumsfeld is incredibly charming. He’s well-spoken. He’s convincing. He was the front man for the war. He is the guy who stood up in all those Pentagon press conferences.
At that point, Smiley interjected:
Is that all it takes, is to look good on camera and to be well-spoken and charming and charismatic? Is that – that’s it? The qualifications to be Defense secretary are, like, irrelevant? That’s all it takes?
It’s worth pointing out that Rumsfeld is a Princeton graduate who served as U.S. ambassador to NATO under President Nixon, White House chief of staff under President Ford, and secretary of Defense under President Ford before George W. Bush made him secretary of Defense once again in 2001. He is more than just a well-spoken, charming man who looks good on camera.
Morris, who is no fan of Rumsfeld, didn’t bother to defend him in response to Smiley’s question. He only sighed, “I don't know. To me, it’s depressing because I love this country, and I would think that our democracy could, and should, produce more thoughtful people.”
At one point, Morris used the line “intelligent beings in the universe” to refer to aliens, but Smiley seized on it to disparage Rumsfeld. While admitting that he is not the most intelligent being in the universe, Smiley commented, “And yet when I watch this, I kept coming back to the fact this is the guy who was in charge. This was the secretary of Defense.”
Throughout the interview, Smiley often seemed to be at a loss for words to describe Rumsfeld’s performance in the documentary. Near the end, the befuddled host looked into the camera and confessed, “I feel worthless tonight and I feel tongue-tied, ‘cause I’m still, like, flabbergasted at what I saw.”
Smiley was worthless as an interviewer because he agreed with Morris the whole time, never asking him any tough questions. He did nothing but pile disdain on Rumsfeld, just like Morris did. It was hard to tell who was the liberal activist filmmaker and who was the host.
Below is a transcript of the segment:
TAVIS SMILEY: Let me go back to your phrase a moment ago, Errol, of – I think you used the phrase “intelligent beings in the universe.” And I say this not to demonize him, not to cast dispersion on him in any way, and I would never, you know, put myself out as the smartest, the most intelligent being in this universe. I’m nowhere near that. And yet when I watch this, I kept coming back to the fact this is the guy who was in charge. This was the secretary of Defense. And I know how this Washington parlor game works. It’s that once you get in the Washington, you know, glitterati –
ERROL MORRIS: You’re in the power mix.
SMILEY: There you go. I like that. Once you get in that Washington power mix, you can bounce from one president's administration to another. You can go from Ford – I mean, from Nixon to Ford and to Bush and to Reagan. I mean, you can bounce around. I get that. But I watched your piece and I was just dumbfounded that this is the guy who was in charge. And again, I’m not trying to demonize the guy. But I’m watching like, and you were the one making the decisions? It just didn't –
MORRIS: Rumsfeld is incredibly charming.
SMILEY: That he is.
MORRIS: He’s well spoken. He’s convincing. He was the front man for the war. He is the guy who stood up in all those Pentagon press conferences –
SMILEY: Is that all it takes, is to look good on camera and to be well-spoken and charming and charismatic? Is that – that’s it? The qualifications to be Defense secretary are, like, irrelevant? That’s all it takes?
MORRIS: I don't know. To me it’s depressing because I love this country, and I would think that our democracy could, and should, produce more thoughtful people.
SMILEY: I knew going into it that Rumsfeld and I didn't agree on much of anything.
MORRIS: Not a surprise.
SMILEY: Okay, not a surprise to me, not a surprise to my viewers, not a surprise to you. Got it. Alright, but I want to be open-minded, and I don't have a monopoly on the truth. And I believe that there is the truth –
MORRIS: By the way, none of us do.
SMILEY: Exactly. I believe there is the truth – I don’t think Donald Rumsfeld knows that, though – I think there is the truth and I think there’s the way to the truth. So I don’t have a monopoly on the journey or the destination. I got that. But I’m watching your piece because I am open to hearing his explanations. But that’s when I fall out of my seat. Because when given the opportunity to explain what he did and why he did it and how he did it and the fact he would do it again, I walk away thinking, again I just -- I feel worthless tonight and I feel tongue-tied, ‘cause I’m still, like, flabbergasted at what I saw. Or didn't see, as it were.
MORRIS: It’s frustrating, it’s infuriating. Speaking as the man who spent these 30-plus hours with him, it’s exhausting trying to figure out what is going on inside of his head
Could it be that a man so used to obfuscating, evading, misdirecting, just lost all purchase with reality? Is there anything real left? I’m not so sure. That’s the mystery if you think of this as – sometimes I think of it as a horror movie. Sometimes I think of it as a mystery. And the mystery still remains, who is this man? What did he think he was doing?