Why Is Donald Rumsfeld on This Package of Spicy Peanuts?

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There are, in this salty tale of frolics, politics and peanuts, a number of what Donald Rumsfeld, might call known knowns. These are things we know that we know — like how a photograph of a young Rumsfeld, a chopstick balanced on his protruding upper lip as he gazes at a giggling geisha — came to decorate packets of U.K. snack-food manufacturer Tyrrell’s Spicy Coated Peanuts. “All our packs feature imagery which aims to be rather entertaining, quirky and just a bit different from the norm of popping a slice of cheese and an onion on the front of a pack,” e-mails Oliver Rudgard, Tyrrell’s marketing director. “We thought this image was in line with our brand’s light-hearted and slightly eccentric view on life.”

The story is rich with known unknowns too. For example, we know that the former White House Chief of Staff and Secretary of Defense did not know that his more than slightly eccentric portrait was being used this way until TIME informed his people.

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And here’s another Rumsfeldian known unknown: few Britons ripping open a packet of the wasabi-flavored treats would recognize the anonymous man unwittingly pressed into service to promote the product. There’s no caption to the photograph on the packaging. “We chose it because we loved the picture,” confirms Rudgard. “The fact that Donald Rumsfeld was featured was merely coincidental.” Indeed, the packaging was an unknown unknown. British consumers didn’t know they didn’t know the story behind it.

Coincidence ensured that this unknown unknown and the known unknowns became known knowns. An eagle-eyed TIME staffer picked up a few groceries in a convenience store during a recent holiday in the north of England. He spotted the photograph and felt sure it belonged to a set taken by the photographer David Hume Kennerly during President Gerald Ford’s 1974 visit to Japan. Kennerly, duly contacted, confirmed a further known unknown. Like Rumsfeld, he had no idea that the image had found a new and salty-fingered audience.

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Kennerly e-mails:

Indeed, it is my pic, taken at a state dinner featuring Geisha, in Kyoto, November 21, 1974 … Rumsfeld, then the White House Chief of Staff, participated in this Japanese parlor game that involved passing a piece of straw held between the upper lip and nose to the person next to him (a Geisha dressed in colorful attire, in this case). Rumsfeld, defying tradition as is his way, used a chopstick instead of the obligatory straw. The nose-down winner, however, was Sec[retary of State Henry] Kissinger, who invoked the ‘closer-to-the-upper-lip-with-his-schnoz’ rule, thereby defeating Rumsfeld and President Ford, who was also in the competition.

The host of the dinner, Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, was later caught up in the Lockheed scandal, but that’s another story, and another evening altogether.

Tyrrell’s licensed Kennerly’s picture through the agency Getty Images; the image is also held in the Ford Library. The photographer finds its new deployment startling but curiously apt. “It’s a clever and funny campaign,” Kennerly writes. “The nuts are wasabi-coated. Rumsfeld, as we know, is a person whose actions have often caused people to sweat, so this is fitting. I’m assuming if the former Secretary of Defense raises hell about it, sales of the peanuts will skyrocket … [But] word has it that he’s quite amused.”

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TIME received the following statement from Rumsfeld’s aide, Keith Urbahn: “We aren’t looking for any royalties, though I’m sure Mr Rumsfeld would be delighted to get a box of peanuts. Better yet, the company might send a few boxes to our troops serving abroad.”

With that statement, most known unknowns relating to Rumsfeld’s starring role in Britain’s snack-food sector would seem to have been resolved. One remains: whether the hawkish neo-con, whom many Britons remember from the misadventure of the Iraq war, truly reflects the light-hearted and slightly eccentric view of life Tyrrell’s wishes to associate with its brand. Whichever way you look at it, it’s nuts.

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Mayer is the London bureau chief at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @Catherine_Mayer or on Facebook at Facebook/Amortality-the-Pleasures-and-Perils-of-Living-Agelessly. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.


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