McNAMARA PAPERS 1992 to 1995

1.1 Outline
Project outline written to coincide with exhibition at Schipper & Krome, June 1994.

1.2 Robert McNamara
Two chapters of a novel based on the film script McNamara, written to coincide with exhibition at Hamburg Kunstverein, October 1993.

10 scenes from draft version of film script, 1992 to 1995.


Written to coincide with exhibition at Schipper & Krome, June 1994.

A Picasso Pictures Production of a film by Liam Gillick
Produced by Dominic Buttimore
Director of Animation Michael Salkeld
Camera by Richard Wolff

I) The film
McNAMARA is a short cartoon film produced in London by a commercial animation company. It is essentially the opening scene from a much longer script written in 1992 and originally presented in the form of an exhibited draft copy. Although the film was not written with the intention of making a movie, the idea of using animation techniques soon emerged in line with the thinking that underscored the project in the first place. Notions of structure, in terms of layering and networks, are central to the narrative development of the scenario. The film deals with characters who, while important within the world of established political power, are not at the forefront of that system. They are positioned in the middle layer of dynamic socio-political manipulation. Neither the originators of change or the only responsible figureheads. McNAMARA is a film set underground that addresses the liberal establishment, negotiations of power and how to deal with attempted rationalisations of global instability within a capitalist context. Specifically, writing about the 1960s within the terms of the 1990s. There is a flickering across time and an attempt to introduce, or at least allow room for, metaphors, symbolism and narrative. It is an action film, although the opening scene is rather subdued. The cartoon was drawn by an animator who has worked on various television advertisements and spots for MTV. The voices in the film are provided by professional actors. McNAMARA was produced in 35mm with an original soundtrack.

II) The Story
The initial action takes place in a tunnel system under the White House. We are, on one level, dealing with a metaphor. An allusion to the bureaucratic and inevitably complex social structures that exist around visible symbols of power. The allusion also encompasses an ironic reference to the way such virtual visual metaphors have been used in the past to refer to the complexities of power, including, but not exclusively, macro-bureaucracy as it exists manifest as executive authority. What we are really dealing with here is a couple of individuals who are frequently called upon to give advice. The two in question, McNamara and Kahn, were far from unknown but somehow set apart while remaining central to certain social debates that emerged in the 1960s. Compromised and under pressure. They became known as flawed visionaries and strategists. People who survive, up to a point, because their value system is flexible. Not at the centre of power but central to power. There is considerable evidence pointing to the existence of extensive tunnel systems under the White House in Washington and in other executive branches of government at the time. It is also reported that J.F. Kennedy, while President, made use of these tunnels in order to move around the Capitol, or at least escape the White House, with a relative degree of secrecy and ease. One or two reports confirm that he used them in order to slip his security guards. It is significant that the film revolves around the absence of former US President Kennedy. His absence is significant in other ways too. In choosing the period of his Presidency as a basis for the film I was interested to address a subject that people had relatively informed opinions about. A degree of general knowledge that makes it possible to proceed, working around the absence of the President without alienating a potential audience by overt reliance on obscure plot and details. I am interested in considering the context within which Kennedy worked rather than add to the mythology that has grown up around him in life and after death. The significance of the surrounding individuals is central to understanding the person. Yet I have created a new story, based on sketchy details and, by bringing together numerous themes and constructs have attempted the development of a parallel history of a dynamic period.

III) The Characters and locations
The way that JFK surrounded himself with different types of people is crucial here. The idea of appropriating the “best” strategists from business and government. Working with the over-qualified and idealistic. The Kennedy’s ability to surround themselves with dynamic people is therefore important to the film. The central characters in the long script version are as follows: Robert McNamara, appointed Secretary of Defense under Kennedy. During his time in office he attempted to bring corporate values to government, notably in a disastrous war with Vietnam. Yet on another level he remained frustrated, compromised, hopeful, intelligent and contradictory. In the film he is frequently found in conversation with Herman Kahn, Director of the RAND Institute. I have no evidence to show that they came into frequent contact. RAND worked as a high powered ‘think-tank’. One of the issues that they dealt with was the attempted rationalisation of potential global nuclear conflict. Groups of technically intelligent young people worked for the organisation. One of their many roles was to work out theoretical models in relation to intelligence reports supplied to them about the relative positions of the US and the Eastern Bloc. Exchanging Philadelphia for Minsk – forming theoretical nuclear scenarios in order to predict a possible result. Through this process RAND contributed to the idea of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) theoretically creating a balance of power which would supposedly prevent nuclear war and limit any exchange of missiles. I was interested to bring McNamara and Kahn together for the purposes of this scenario. They are given greater knowledge than they could possibly have had at the time and are also allocated the benefit of hindsight even while participating in specific events. As such their dialogues make-up the informed core of the story. Yet there is also an apparent tension between the two characters. Their specialisations are clearly different. They are representatives of particular factions. They are controllers and people whose prediction of events changes those events or even causes them to happen. The role of the advisor and strategist are combined in short exchanges and interactions that lead to tragedy and a dynamic finale. Interludes in the action between McNamara and Kahn are occupied by cuts to India and the office of economist J.K. Galbraith. He is the only character in the film who “speaks” directly to President Kennedy. He does this in the form of a series of letters. Again I have no direct evidence that Galbraith wrote to JFK on a regular basis yet his letters in the film are essential. Again full of hindsight while being advisory and conciliatory in tone. There is warmth, paternalism and an edge of resigned bitterness. Before the end of the film both Kahn and Galbraith are dead. Yet while alive they act as prophets for JFK’s fate. Fiddle and Faddle are the two other key characters and their relationship somehow mirrors that of McNamara and Kahn. They are on the run around. There is an implication that they are lovers, but also that they are lovers of JFK. We never find out their real names, but we know they know a great deal. Their progress is less precise than the others and their fate less predetermined. They are a foil to a metaphorical collapse of systems and control because they have access across all levels of the film. Fiddle and Faddle have access to McNamara and to everything he knows – maybe. The main locations are the tunnel systems, mentioned earlier. Galbraith’s office in India. A house in Long Island, that remains uninhabited until the end of the movie. A bar and a Motel room on the outskirts of Washington. Flashing between these various places we watch a tale unfold that brings parallel influences together. There is a constant interchange between the main characters, even if they are not always aware of it. There is sex, violence and depressing self-destruction. There is a constant feeling of imminent collapse that implies a degree of stress beneath the surface of events both then and now which ensures that McNAMARA shifts faster and faster to a tragically avoidable conclusion.

IV) The exhibition
The final version of the film was first presented at Schipper & Krome in Cologne along with full documentation and a number of script versions. Subsequently it has been seen during “Nach Weimar”, curated by Nicolaus Schafhausen and Claus Biesenbach at the Landesmuseum, Weimar and during “Live/Life” curated by Hans-Ulrich Obrist and Laurence Bossé at the Musée d’art moderne de la ville de Paris. The film was shown in video format on a Brionvega television, model “ALGOL 11R”. The television is significant because it was originally designed in 1963/64 by Marco Zanuso and Richard Sapper coinciding with the scenario time setting. Brionvega have recently begun producing the set again with new interior working parts. The importance of showing a film produced in 1994 that cuts across time to the early Sixties and back on a television that also exists in two time frames need not be overstated.


Robert McNamara
Two chapters of a novel based on the film script McNAMARA, written to coincide with exhibition at Hamburg Kunstverein, October 1993.

Chapter 1
If you want to fight then you go underground, whether you’re on the inside of things or on the outside. I don’t know who told me first. Sometimes it feels like I always knew about them. Every great castle has secret passages. Routes and conduits for information and escape. The new palaces, the Twentieth Century palaces have them too. Think about it, all the big military wings have always been located underground. Underground – a metaphor and the literal state of things. But it came as a surprise to find out about the tunnels under the White house. I don’t know why it should have been a surprise. It makes perfect sense. The White House is just a big place where power is located. A big place but big like an iceberg. Small on top and . . . People use the tunnels. They’re a means of escape and arrival but also the place to be.

Present are Robert McNamara Secretary of Defense and Herman Kahn of the RAND Institute. It is dark, Kahn carries a flashlight. McNamara is prematurely balding. He wears glasses. His hair is dark and his eyes precise. Kahn is half a step behind him, always looking for a way in. McNamara stops dead. “There’s a gap between his image and the historical reality. His popularity at home and abroad remained at super high levels, even though we’re talking about a really short period of time.” Kahn, shorter and stouter always looking distracted. Concentrating hard on the job. Feeling for a way in to McNamara’s approaches around the subject. Always more direct. Less precise but more direct. This time he is off track, out of the line of the non-spoken conversation that has led them into the tunnel system. “Uh?, there’s a contradiction here.” Kahn stands, turning to McNamara. His eyes are milky in the fluorescent light. Bob speaks slowly. “He reached a high of 83 percent approval in the Gallup polls after that disaster and stayed within the sixtieth and seventieth percentiles right through this year.” Kahn’s eyes focus, his body straightens, always when he brings his full attention to bear on a McNamara wisdom the change in his demeanour throws the other man. “Nobody says percentiles, Bob. Nobody not yet.”

Chapter 2
Washington in the early 1960s. The place with everything and nothing. Not without hope, yet. Somewhere with the centre and a periphery divorced. And tunnels, those tunnels, underscoring everything. The place to be. In a motel. Next to the highway the rooms are functional. A television in the corner of one. A bed with nylon sheets. A sateen cover is rucked while a half quart of whisky sits on the brown table top. It’s not such a bad place, just there and basic. The window overlooks the car lot. The window is covered with net and fancied drapes. The women are not quite fully dressed. In the bathroom Fiddle is gazing, but the mirror is still misted. “Americans tend to equate good looks with intelligence, sensitivity, sincerity. . .” Faddle is her friend, they are easy together. Easy in a way that McNamara and Kahn can never attain. She likes to finish the sentences of her friend “Self confidence, independence, poise, competence and. . .” The two women look over their shoulders. One is still trying the mirror, the other checking the door. There is silence for a second and an barely perceptible scratching noise. A spark transfers from one to the other. They think hard and lose their comfort.

Kahn is still thinking. He has snapped out of the Bob-induced circumnavigation of the facts. He wants to work things out for a minute. Get an overview of the situation. The only way to do this is to talk. Talking is easy with Bob at times like this. Here, in the tunnel, where you can be anywhere but underground. “Good character Bob.” Something clicks. Kahn feels light. At moments like this everything becomes clear, not all the things he has been attending to but the location of power. The tunnel, it acts like a feeder system a neuro-network and mirrors his unease. The feeling of being flung back through the entire network is exhilarating and devastating.


14 scenes from draft version of script, 1992 to 1995.

Scene 1 (Interior Day/Tunnel)
We are in a tunnel under the White House, it links the Oval Office to various places including other offices and it provides a way out of the White House complex into the surrounding area of Washington DC. Present are Robert McNamara (Secretary of Defense) and Herman Kahn (of the RAND Institute). It is dark. They both carry a flashlights, in addition, McNamara carries a briefcase. Water is dripping and the two men are standing at a point where the tunnel splits off into four different directions. We follow the men and see them from different points of view as they make their way through the tunnels. As this takes place the credits roll and music plays. After the credits have settled down the camera is still, it then tracks into towards the two men. They have stopped and are concentrating on something.

Kahn: Just look at this. OK. Hold it for a second. Yep, it’s open.

McNamara and Kahn look inside an electrical junction box.
We cannot see what they can see.
McNamara: You know. I think someone’s been here before us.

Kahn: Don’t worry Bob, I think they missed it.

McNamara: I wouldn’t be so sure. Give it here, I want to check this again.

Kahn: I know that you’re looking for something, but I don’t understand why. The figures make everything seem so clear.

McNamara: He reached a high of 83 percent approval in the Gallup polls. For what it’s worth. But after that disaster he still managed to stay within the sixtieth and seventieth percentiles. This is some crisis.

Kahn: No one’s going to believe that Bob, nobody, not yet.

McNamara has clearly found what he is looking for. We catch a good look at his face for the first time and he flashes a smile, even so there is something tired about him. A certain weariness around the eyes.

McNamara: It’s just a matter of trust.

Scene 2 (Exterior Day/Car)
Camera fades to black. The image stays dark. Suddenly we see a light and before you know what is happening it becomes clear that we are in a car as it suddenly emerges into daylight from a tunnel. A tall man is driving and talking to himself.

Tall Man: One: Theodore Sorensen’s dominant role in the creation of Kennedy’s book ‘Profiles in Courage’. Two: His Pulitzer Prize. Three: His Addison’s disease and severe back problems. Four: The President’s serious consideration of a first strike over Berlin. Five: A record that could be described as reckless. Six: He cancelled a television programme, OK no big deal. Seven: The relationship between John, Robert and Marilyn, there might be something there. Eight: The Camelot School, it’s good to feel part of a solid dynasty. Nine: Kennedy claimed consistently to be a moral leader. Well, claimed might be better written as “claims”, I’ll have to remember to change that. Ten: Herman told me about his adherence to the philosophy of natural law, as far as he’s concerned there is a fundamental moral order of the cosmos that is knowable by reason. This could explain something, or maybe McNamara has it covered already.

Music. Although it could be described as rock music the soundtrack is unrecognisable. In fact it is a new generic style fabricated from various samples carefully tied together.
Cut back to the tunnel where we focus upon the hands of a man who has something on his mind. The camera slowly rises up a suit clad torso and we realise Kahn is speaking.

Kahn: Between the fear that has begun and the problematic structures that will be created, there is little scope for my rationalisations. But just remember the potential use of good character Bob. Good character. It might be the key to success and failure.

More music

Scene 3 (Interior Day/Motel)
Motel suite just outside Washington DC. Present are ‘Diana Rosenthal’ and ‘Lara Debchenski’, two young women who are intimate friends of President Kennedy. The camera pans around the room and we take in all the key details of its mannered mess as the two occupants go about what appears to be a habitual morning routine of getting up, making coffee, talking, looking through newspapers. As this takes place music plays. The two women remain in a state of semi-dress. Not revealing but casual just-got-up clothing. Diana Rosenthal turns to her friend as she goes through a closet.

Diana Rosenthal: I met someone the other night who reckoned he had all the answers. You know what he said? Americans tend to equate good looks with intelligence, sensitivity, sincerity. All of those types of things. Without really caring about the substance of what is being said.

Lara Debchenski: Self confidence, independence, poise, competence and I bet he was one of those East coast academics who think they know how to frame everything.

Scene 4 (Interior Day/Tunnel)
Cut back to tunnel where Kahn and McNamara are now walking away from the junction box at quite a pace. Kahn is out of breath. Under his breath we hear him mumble.

Kahn: Good character.

McNamara doesn’t quite hear him properly and tries to get a clear statement.

McNamara: Uh?

Suddenly the camera takes off on long and fast journey through the tunnels, swerving and careering around. Music fades up, getting louder and louder. Occasionally we pass by the two men as they continue walking. Both of them are looking straight ahead.

Scene 5 (Interior Day/Motel)
Back in the motel room. Diana Rosenthal and Lara Debchenski are now sitting side-by-side on the bed. They are talking to each other extremely quietly. The camera moves around their faces in close-up.

Diana Rosenthal: So I met this guy. And he was really flashing it around. Victor. I think that was his name. Did you hear about him? Really dropped a lot of dough. Did you meet him? Did you ever meet Victor Lasky? He always uses fancy words. Kind of touching I suppose.

Lara Debchenski: I’d have been touched too, if he’d spent a bit on me. What was he doing there? I thought he was in mourning. He’s a sensitive person. No really, quite someone. In mourning already for someone who is still with us.

Diana Rosenthal gets up from the bed and walks towards the window. Changing her mind she suddenly turns on her heels, sighs and goes into the bathroom instead.

Diana Rosenthal: (shouting) He used the word character several times, as though it had some significance. He thinks he’s worked something out. He got really drunk and emotional towards the end and started ranting on about how there were major deletions in the family’s authorised ‘Death of a President’. What’s he talking about? It scared me.

Lara Debchenski turns on the television, Diana Rosenthal has to raise her voice to compete with the sound of an afternoon game show.

Diana Rosenthal: (cont) He’s just like Solly Manchester. They have got the same way of comparing things. Sol told me that he felt really persecuted from both sides. He reckoned that the way the attorneys and private detectives have been going after him was like living in a Nazi state. Constant fear and a complete loss of trust. Total control. But there are plenty of cracks in this guy’s carefully constructed facade. He could turn out to be a pretty chilly cold-war warrior.

Lara Debchenski: It’s funny you should mention that. I’ve had my own suspicions. Manchester’s so fussy. He was moaning away, nearly sobbing into his martini. “You know the President took the better part of an hour with a foreign service officer and his son to master ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’.” I was just smiling the whole time but kicking him under the table. I couldn’t believe it. What an ass-hole.

They both laugh but without malice

Scene 6 (Exterior Day/with voice-over)
We see the motel from the air and other motels like it. Diana Rosenthal and Lara Debchenski continue.

Diana Rosenthal: At least he was prepared to experiment, risk a bit, play some word games. Let it loose, it can make a difference you know.

Lara Debchenski: Yeah, let loose with the double-speak. With marijuana, cocaine, hash and acid.

Scene 7 (Exterior/Interior Day/Motel)
The camera re-approaches the original motel suite and comes through the door. The two women are now standing face to face, Diana Rosenthal is adjusting the straps on Lara Debchenski’s dress.

Lara Debchenski: . . . all the other things. . . his heavy reliance on his mother, the Blairs completely revised version of Kennedy’s service record charging that he was in fact “A manufactured war hero.” At some point you’ve got to draw the line. And with McCarthy what did he do? At least some people had the nerve and sense of moral consistency to stand up to him. By doing nothing and keeping quiet he might as well have been dragging people along to the witness stand by their hair.

Diana Rosenthal: You think you are smart. We all think we know something, but maybe we should keep our heads down for a while, if you know what I mean.

They both laugh but this time there is no holding back

Scene 8 (Interior Day/India)
A small room with desk, chair and day-bed. A man sits at the desk composing a letter. He is surrounded by papers and has three telephones. It is JK Galbraith and he is in India. It is a noisy city.

Galbraith: (voice over and slow pan around the room) So it’s time to write that letter again. When I took this placement, I had no idea that it would involve so much correspondence. There’s something interesting about the moment before strategy. That’s what they say. So it got interesting at a certain point, but I never thought I’d end up here. It must be said. Something has to be done. Between promise and a threat. Write that letter.

Galbraith is hot. He walks over to the air-conditioning unit and gives it a thump. It sighs and does nothing more. He turns around and goes back to his desk. Galbraith sighs in sympathy with the air-conditioning. He begins to write. We hear the words as we watch over his shoulder. He has a nervous tick so he rubs his hand rapidly over the writing paper between sentences. He also clears his throat intermittently, as if he is about to start talking.

Galbraith: Dear Jack, a few thoughts that I felt may be of interest to you . . .

Just as he is about to begin writing, the camera pulls away again and moves around the room. Galbraith starts to write and cough uncontrollably as the camera pulls out of the window and we see the bustling street outside.

Scene 9 (Interior/Day/Motel)
Cut back to the motel room. Diana Rosenthal and Lara Debchenski are in bed together. Top and tail. Each speaking to the other’s feet. Lara Debchenski is wearing a pink robe.

Diana Rosenthal: You know that by 1924, Joe was a Millionaire several times over. Not only that, but his Stock Market and Real Estate speculations provided a lucrative income. He was making a fortune. But that’s never enough.

Lara Debchenski: How long have you been involved in the illegal liquor trade?

Diana Rosenthal: Yeh. Yeh. Frank Costello time.

Lara Debchenski: And what about ‘Doc’ Stacher?

Diana Rosenthal: We just did elite social events, you know, country clubs that kind of thing. He made millions. Short selling stocks during the market collapse. A real man. That’s what they thought. Swearing, fighting and sorting out problems in a special kind of way.

Lara Debchenski is concentrating on the TV rather than the conversation. There is quite a long pause before she replies. And when she does her works are punctuated by the sounds of another daytime game show.

Lara Debchenski: You know Jack was disturbed about his mother’s frequent absences.

Diana Rosenthal: And that has something to do with the violence? There’s toughness and toughness. In the summer Joe ran something really hard.

Lara Debchenski: I heard he had a sister. Not Joe. Jack.

Diana Rosenthal: Not much of a person after the pre-frontal lobotomy, less of a sister more of a shadow. They stuck her in an institution. She did not and could not exist. A loser.

Lara Debchenski: And we all know there’s not enough room.

Diana Rosenthal: Easy.

Lara Debchenski: It’s not funny. There’s no room for failures because before the end of this, they’ll be so many fractured hearts that there’ll be crying room only.

Diana Rosenthal: Huh?

They both laugh. With malice.

Scene 10 (Interior Day/Tunnel)
Kahn is looking at a metal box on the wall. He stops and opens a heavily hinged flap. Inside the box is a telephone. He dials a few times but fails to get through so he keeps trying. McNamara is agitated and whistles softly to himself. Kahn slams the phone back into the box, but it springs open slightly and the receiver dangles on its cord. He grapples for it but before he can get a hold of the receiver, McNamara has it in his hand. He too dials rapidly and stands tapping his foot. Kahn looks angry, giving McNamara some side long glances. After a while it is evident that there is still no reply.

(end of selection)