Stephen Colbert took a pause before addressing former Sec. of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. To preface the question Colbert wanted to ask him, Colbert threw out one of Sec. Rumsfeld’s most popular quotes. “There are known knowns—things we know that we know. There are known unknowns—things we know we don’t know. Then there are unknown unknowns.”
“Those are the ones that get you,” Sec. Rumsfeld interrupted. The audience chuckled.
Sec. Rumsfeld looked uncomfortable. He probably knew where this question was going, but he politely sat back and let Colbert get to his point. “I think there’s a fourth option though—known unknowns,” Colbert suggested, “These are things we know, but we choose not to know or things that we know, but don’t want other people to know that we know. With Iraq, it was known that there was not hard evidence, but we, as the American people, were given a partial picture. Do you think that was the right thing to do?”
A bit of pandering ensued. The two went back and forth about going into Iraq with the right intentions, and how solid the Bush Administration’s information was about the situation in Iraq. Finally, Sec. Rumsfeld found the right words to answer Colbert’s question. “The National Security Council had all the information. It was all shared between the departments, but nothing was ever certain,” he said. “If we were talking facts, the information wouldn’t be called intelligence. There’s always information that you can’t verify and presidents have to make decisions based off of that intelligence.”
The audience went silent. Even Colbert seemed a bit shocked. After a brief pause, the audience started to applaud for a few seconds. All Colbert could say was, “I think you answered my question.”
This interaction is emblematic of what Stephen Colbert has been doing with The Late Show since he took over the program last September. These two, ideologically speaking, should not get along. If you had put Stephen Colbert’s hard-line conservative character from The Colbert Report with Donald Rumsfeld, the interview probably would have ended with Rumsfeld storming off the set. But on The Late Show, out of character, sincerely conversing with a politician that he has serious questions for, Colbert is able to have both a friendly and substantive conversation that neither party walks away from feeling misused or defeated.
If you flip over to NBC and watch a bit of The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, you’ll see nothing like this. Fallon’s too afraid to get into heavy topics like this with people he knows might get upset. He just throws out a few superficial political jokes in his monologue and moves on to talking to whoever is promoting a new movie that week.
Colbert takes the risk. He’s not afraid to ask his guests questions that might upset them. He usually won’t, though. Colbert crafts his more controversial questions with the most sincere intention and tone, and it usually disarms his more abrasive and argumentative guests. Sure, not every interview is as tense as the one with Sec. Rumsfeld. Colbert definitely has his share of celebrities promoting their newest show, movie, or album, but that’s what comes with having to host a popular late-night show five days a week.
When it comes to late-night programs, Colbert’s is the cream of the crop. Sometimes, it’s hysterical. At other times, it takes on a very serious tone, which is really refreshing compared to some of the other late-night programs. The only other show that’s similar is The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, but Trevor Noah’s still got a lot to learn before he can reach the caliber of his predecessor, Jon Stewart. Colbert’s been in the game long enough to know how to shake things up every night. We rarely hear the same comedic scene or voice from episode to episode, and Colbert’s too quick-witted not to get more than a few laughs out of the most hard-to-please viewers.
“I think what’s important are the intentions and capabilities of the people in government,” Rumself said at the end of the interview. “It was Churchill that said, ‘Democracy is the worst form of government except for any other that’s ever been tried.’”
“You know what else he said?” Stephen responded. “Try my solitaire game.” Colbert pulled out his iPad with a green, velvet background with hearts and diamonds that read “Churchill Solitaire.” “Thank you, sir. It was a real honor to talk with you.” The two shook hands.
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