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Rumsfeld's unknowns overwhelm his knowns

In our world, narratives and theories get strung out over a period of time until it's like they're chisled in stone as truth -- notwithstanding the fact they are totally based in mid-air without any roots or substance.

— Former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, speaking Wednesday night at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia.

Rumsfeld, arguably the most contentious figure to run the Pentagon since the Vietnam era, wasn't talking about the controversial run-up to the Iraq War — when cases for weapons of mass destruction there and terror ties to al-Qaeda — vanished into that very same ether.

Instead, prompted by moderator and presidential historian Michael Beschloss, the 78-year-old stalwart of the George W. Bush regime was relating a mostly forgotten episode over whether he'd sabotaged Bush's father's shot at becoming Gerald Ford's running mate in 1976.

That's pretty much how things went down for roughly 700 people who packed the center for a rare public appearance by Rumsfeld, who chose Philadelphia as the first stop on a national tour to promote his new memoir called Known and Unknown.

Known, after Rumsfeld's talk? The minute details of the time that Sammy Davis Jr. took him and his wife backstage at a Las Vegas nightspot to meet Elvis Presley.

Not known? Anything new about the torture scandal at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison that took place during Rumsfeld's tenure and damaged America's reputation. That subject never even came up.

But then, neither did a wide range of critical moments during Rumsfeld's six years in the Bush cabinet, from the location of Osama bin Laden to his unwillingness to lift the ban on gays serving openly in the military to even the war in Afghanistan iself, which has lingered long into Rumsfeld's retirement.

Sharply attired in a navy blue suit, seated with hands clasped and uttering "Oh my gosh" in response to about every third or fourth question, Rumsfeld made it feel like 2003 all over again during much of the 70-minute session.

The same could arguably be said about the one controversial topic Rumsfeld did attempt to address in detail last night: The case for the war in Iraq.

Just as the public saw eight years ago, Rumsfeld threw out a jumbled kitchen sink of reasons for invading a country that had not attacked us on Sept. 11. These included violations of the "no fly zone" over Iraq, fears that Saddam Hussein might somehow attack the U.S. in smallpox (a threat that even Fox News debunked at the time), and the subsequent fact that Libya abandoned its weapons program in the wake of the U.S. attack in the region.

Of course, some of the key reasons given to Americans at the time — such an allegation that Iraq had tried to buy yellowcake uranium in Africa — have long since been tossed down the memory hole.

Answering one of only a couple of audience questions on index cards that were filtered through Beschloss, Rumsfeld said of the different between the Iraq War and Vietnam: "The Vietnamese were not likely to come and attack the United States of America."

Yet the CIA reported in October 2002 that it was unlikely that Iraq would launch any type of chemical or biological attack against America — unless we provoked the regime by attacking them.

Beschloss gave Rumsfeld an opportunity at the end to explain what he'd tell a family that lost a loved one in Iraq. He answered that when he and his wife met with wounded soldiers at military hospitals: "We came out of those meetings feeling inspired — not that we had helped them, but they had helped us."

Indeed, Rumsfeld conceded that it's hard today to give a simple explanation — as you could with World War II — what the Iraq war and related terrorism conflicts were all about.

"It is a marathon, not a sprint," he said. "It is a competition of ideas. For whatever reason, we are hestitant and not skillful in engaging in the competition of ideas."

Last night in America's founding city, the competition of ideas did not involve journalists. There would be no news conference or interviews, no questions from the press at all and few from the public except several pre-screened by Beschloss.

Nevertheless, I grabbed an index card and wrote down a question, in the wildly futile hope that the moderator might select it. I wanted to know why — on the early afternoon of Sept. 11, with the Pentagon still on fire — Rumsfeld scribbled notes later made public about his desire to go after not just bin Laden but Saddam as well.

But like a lot of questions last night, that one remains somewhere in the "unknown" pile.