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About (Late) Last Night: Donald Rumsfeld defends the Iraq war on 'The Daily Show' [Video]

February 24, 2011 |  7:21 am

During his tenure as secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld gained a reputation for being a testy interview subject. News conferences with "Rummy" were almost always colorful events, in which the secretary would spout pithy aphorisms ("Death has a tendency to encourage a depressing view of war.") and winding, cautiously worded defenses of his policies ("I believe what I said yesterday. I don't know what I said, but I know what I think, and, well, I assume it's what I said.").

Rumsfeld's off-the-cuff poetry and verbal hedging--not to mention his pivotal role in the Iraq war--made him a favorite target for late-night comedians, especially Jon Stewart. So when Rumsfeld visited "The Daily Show" last night to promote his new book, "Known and Unknown," it was bound to be interesting. As Stewart acknowledged right out of the gate, "I think I know why you're here. And let me just deflate the tension right off the bat: Apology accepted."

Alas, Rumsfeld was not there to issue a mea culpa. For those of you who are skeptical of the Bush administration's argument for war in Iraq, this lengthy interview--the extended version of which runs over 30 minutes online--is not exactly Frost versus Nixon. There's no real "gotcha" moment, and Rumsfeld remains as verbally agile and cantankerous as ever. His refusal to acknowledge most of Stewart's criticisms is either galling or noble, depending on your perspective, more reminiscent of Reagan's infamous "I don't recall" testimony regarding the Iran-Contra affair than Nixon's televised meltdown. Still, it's must-watch television for people of all political stripes, a civilized yet pointed discussion of the Iraq war with one of the people most responsible for it.

Stewart's main critique was that the Bush administration sold the war to the American public with "a certainty bordering on arrogance." In his view, Rumsfeld and his cohorts expended much more effort making the case for an invasion, when they ought to have been scrutinizing the intelligence itself. Rumsfeld claimed they merely "presented" the evidence, and there was no urgency to their efforts--only careful, cautious deliberation. Stewart suggested that during the build-up to the war there was "a dismissiveness to anyone who would challenge [the administration's] certainty"; Rumsfeld said he doesn't remember it that way.

The biggest laughs--and the most blatant change of subject by Rumsfeld--arrive halfway through the second portion of the interview. "It feels like you sold us a car. You said 'This is a car you have to have, it's going to keep your family safe," said Stewart.  "We got in the car, it flipped over, rolled down an embankment, burst into flames. Then we came back to you and said, 'That's a crappy car.' And you went 'Hey, you never know with cars.'"

Needless to say, the analogy did not sit well with Rumsfeld. But was it accurate?

What did you think of this interview? Were Stewart's critiques effective?

--Meredith Blake