SEC. RUMSFELD: The problem is the word “it.”


As a creative exercise in history and language, let me plagiarize what the New York Times said about President Clinton in 1998:

Has the Defense Secretary read too much French literary theory? Is he our first postmodernist, poststructuralist, deconstructionist leader, averring that objectivity is impossible, meaning self-contradictory, and reality socially constructed through language?

No. Mr. Rumsfeld has long realized that language does have a systematic though complex relation to reality. His semantic arguments, if ultimately unsuccessful, have shown an acute understanding of the logic and psychology of language.

The world is analog; language is digital. A tape measure shows that people’s heights vary continuously, but when we talk about them, we face a choice between ”tall” and ”short.” People who describe themselves as ”middle-aged,” ”gray” and ”wise” cannot pinpoint the instant they became so. Words are anchored to endpoints, but the continuum between them may be up for grabs.

Why? There’s this, from a recent press conference and an official U.S. Defense Department transcript:

Q Sir, General Casey and the ambassador said the Iraqis had agreed that they would go through this exercise. Are you saying they haven’t agreed on the need to do it? (Off mike.)

SEC. RUMSFELD: The problem is the word “it.”

Q Benchmarks — to lay down benchmarks.

SEC. RUMSFELD: (Chuckles.) Don’t go there.

You say have they agreed to “it”? Are they meeting and having discussions on these things? Yes. Have they been meeting for some weeks and months? Yes. Does that imply a certain amount of understanding that that process might be useful? Yes. But can I say that they — that is to say the prime minister and his government — have come down and said, yes, we’ll do this, we won’t do that or, yes, we will do this, we won’t do that, and we’ll do it by this time? No. I — one would have thought they might have announced that if they decided all of that.

And that sort of echoed around in my mind and I found this from Slate, in 1998:

Years from now, when we look back on Bill Clinton’s presidency, its defining moment may well be Clinton’s rationalization to the grand jury about why he wasn’t lying when he said to his top aides that with respect to Monica Lewinsky, “there’s nothing going on between us.” How can this be? Here’s what Clinton told the grand jury (according to footnote 1,128 in Starr’s report):

“It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is. If the–if he–if ‘is’ means is and never has been, that is not–that is one thing. If it means there is none, that was a completely true statement….Now, if someone had asked me on that day, are you having any kind of sexual relations with Ms. Lewinsky, that is, asked me a question in the present tense, I would have said no. And it would have been completely true.”

It’s tempting to say the more things change, the more things stay the same. That would be horribly inaccurate. The Defense Secretary was talking about a war that has killed tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of people. Clinton was talking about infidelity. Not every stupidity is equally stupid.

Here’s a link to the original– and still snide!–article from the New York Times archive.

The image, by the way, is from a 1983 meeting between Rumsfeld and Saddam Hussein.

About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn't want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so. I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that 'at' symbol]

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