Rumsfeld channels Chamberlain

MSNBC's Olbermann has an Edward R. Murrow moment at Donald Rumsfeld's expense.

Published September 10, 2006

He read it while waiting for his plane to take off in Los Angeles.

And the moment MSNBC host Keith Olbermann realized the impact of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's Aug. 29 speech before the American Legion in Salt Lake City - which he felt compared critics of the Bush administration to those who enabled Adolf Hitler's rise to power - the anchor knew he had to respond.

"To consider any of his critics as not merely unpatriotic but equivalent to the (Nazi) appeasers of the 1930s, just struck me as absurd and so contradictory to anything in our nation's history," said Olbermann, who wrote a rough draft of his now-classic rebuttal on the back of his travel itinerary.

At that speech, Rumsfeld said, in part: "(The early 1900s) was a time when a certain amount of cynicism and moral confusion set in among Western democracies. ... I recount that history because once again we face similar challenges in efforts to confront the rising threat of a new type of fascism. ... But some seem not to have learned history's lessons. ... Any kind of moral or intellectual confusion about who and what is right or wrong can weaken the ability of free societies to persevere."

Olbermann's impassioned, six-minute commentary drew praise from liberals and scorn from conservatives, along with ratings, as MSNBC replayed and analyzed it.

Others e-mailed copies of the speech in an endless cyberspatial game of telephone - the video upload site YouTube features 13 different clips of the speech which have been viewed more than 115,000 times.

As a sportscaster turned news anchor, ESPN refugee Olbermann has hosted MSNBC's news roundup show Countdown since April 2003, emerging as a steady gadfly of Fox News Channel, its star pundit Bill O'Reilly and the excesses of the current administration (one feature of the broadcast, his nightly award for Worst Person in the World, will be published this month as a book).

"I am loath to wrap myself in the flag, because when I see other people do it, my stomach gets turned," said Olbermann Friday. "But ... what does this country stand for? And what is Don Rumsfeld trying to get us to change when he says something like he said? ... The more they try to accomplish the oldest trick in the book - scaring people into abandoning some of their liberties - the more people will say, 'Hey, wait a minute.' "

Here is a condensed transcript of Olbermann's commentary.

* * *

The man who sees absolutes where all other men see nuances and shades of meaning is either a prophet or a quack. Donald H. Rumsfeld is not a prophet.

Dissent and disagreement with government is the life's blood of human freedom, not merely the first roadblock against the kind of tyranny the men Mr. Rumsfeld likes to think of as his troops still fight this very evening in Iraq. It is also essential, because just every once in a while, it is right and the power to which it speaks is wrong.

In a small irony however, Mr. Rumsfeld's speech writer was adroit in invoking the memory of the appeasement of the Nazis for in their time, there was another government faced with true peril with a growing evil - powerful, and remorseless.

That government, like Mr. Rumsfeld's, had a monopoly on all the facts. It too had the secret information, it alone had the true picture of the threat. It too, dismissed and insulted its critics in terms like Mr. Rumsfeld's. Questioning their intellect and their morality.

That government was England's in the 1930s. It knew Hitler posed no true threat to Europe, let alone to England. It knew Germany was not rearming in violation of all treaties. It knew that the hard evidence it had received, which contradicted its own policies, its own conclusions, its own omniscience, needed to be dismissed.

The English government of Neville Chamberlain already knew the truth. Most relevant of all, it knew that its staunchest critics needed to be marginalized and isolated, in fact it portrayed the foremost of them as a bloodthirsty warmonger who was, if not truly senile, at best morally or intellectually confused. That critic's name was Winston Churchill.

Thus did Mr. Rumsfeld make an apt historical analogy excepting the fact that he has the battery plugged in backwards. His government - absolute and exclusive in its knowledge - is not the modern version of the one which stood up to the Nazis. It is the modern version of the government of Neville Chamberlain.

But back to today's omniscient ones, that about what Mr. Rumsfeld is confused is simply this: This is a democracy, still, sometimes just barely and as such, all voices count, not just his. Had he or his president perhaps proven any of their prior claims of omniscience, about Osama bin Laden's plans five years ago, about Saddam Hussein's weapons four years ago, about Hurricane Katrina's impact one year ago, we all might be able to swallow hard and accept their omniscience as a bearable, even useful recipe of fact plus ego.

But to date, this government has proved little besides its own arrogance and its own hubris. And yet he can stand up in public and question the morality and the intellect of those of us who dare ask just for the receipt for the emperor's new clothes.

In what country was Mr. Rumsfeld raised? On what side of the battle for freedom did he dream one day to fight? With what country has he confused the United States of America?

The confusion is about whether this secretary of defense and this administration are in fact now accomplishing what they claim the terrorists seek, the destruction of our freedoms, the very ones for which the same veterans Mr. Rumsfeld addressed in Salt Lake City so valiantly fought.

And about Mr. Rumsfeld's other main assertion that this country faces a new type of fascism as he was correct to remind us how a government that knew everything could get everything wrong. So too was he right when he said that.

Though probably not in the way he thought he meant. This country faces a new type of fascism, indeed.

"We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty," (Edward R. Murrow warned in 1954). "We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men, not from men who fear to write, to speak, to associate and to defend causes that were, for the moment, unpopular. And so, good night and good luck."