A review of The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth from 9/11 to Katrina, by Frank Rich

A small but significant sentence occurs in one of the early chapters of this book: "Like the 'lovely war' the British foresaw in the early going of World War I, the illusion of a painless engagement in Iraq was short-lived." Now, it is true that some British jingoists believed that the combat begun on August 4, 1914, would be "all over by Christmas," and that this early euphoria forms a small part of the tragic sense with which that catastrophe has been imbued ever since. But the concept of a "lovely war" is derived from a musical satire of stage and screen, dating from the 1960s and deftly staged by some English radicals. (Oh! What a Lovely War was the title; it was actually based on a book called The Donkeys by the Tory historian Alan Clark, son of the Lord Clark who authored the Civilization series.) Mr. Frank Rich began his career as a theater critic: Broadway is his milieu. It comes naturally to him, perhaps, to conflate a world-historical calamity with a catchy tune from a subsequent smash-hit, and then to cleverly re-deploy the idea to ridicule "Shock and Awe." The problem is that his book is supposed to be a critique of showbiz values in public life. But, with its Hollywood-echo title, it is instead an example of how universal those very values have now become.

Suppose, for a thought experiment, I picture what Frank Rich might have said about the war led by the first President Bush to recover Kuwait from its annexation by Saddam Hussein. It was never made very clear quite what this war was, as they say, "about." At one point we were told it was to restore the pre-existing territorial borders of Kuwait—a subject which the Bush Administration had previously said could not constitute a casus belli. So Secretary of State James Baker, then as now the glass of fashion and the mold of form for all "realists," came out and said that the war was for "jobs"—a shot in the arm for the American economy. The vulgarity of this appearing excessive, it was determined that Saddam Hussein was another Hitler who had gassed "his own" people. But once one has announced that someone is another Hitler, further coexistence with him becomes impossible, and the overthrow of his regime is morally necessitated. However, there was no international or U.N. warrant for the removal of the Saddam Hussein system (which indeed was eventually confirmed in power by General Norman Schwarzkopf). I vividly remember saying to the late Peter Jennings, as we journeyed toward the Gulf on the eve of hostilities, that the measure of success would now be, not the recovery of Kuwait, but the replacement of the Ba'athist order. And I shall never forget his response, which was, journalist to journalist: "That's only true if we say so."

Once the war was over, the U.N. inspectors discovered something that has been erased from many memories. Saddam Hussein had built an enormous secret nuclear reactor at Tuwaitha, and had acquired most of the elements of a nuclear weapon. Had he waited to develop this, and only then moved to take Kuwait, that small yet incredibly wealthy country would be a part of Iraq to this day, and we would all be living—as, unknowingly, we did then—partly at the pleasure of a psychopathic dictator. Accommodations would soon enough have been made to this reality by many powers, perhaps including our own.

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But the weapons had not been part of the justification for the war! So they did not "really" count. Imagine what fun Mr. Rich could have had, gaily pointing out the inconsistencies and hypocrisies of the administration's position. At one point, Colin Powell had gone before the cameras and shown aerial photography of Iraqi troops on the Saudi border, as if poised to take the greatest oilfields of all. This alarmist story turned out to be a canard. At still another stage, trained Kuwaiti witnesses were brought to Capitol Hill and coached to tell a tear-jerking tale about babies torn from incubators in a hospital and left to die on the floor. This, too, was soon exposed as a piece of atrocity propaganda. It was almost too easy to point up the absurdities and exaggerations of the Bush Administration's case. I know this very well, because I used to do it myself and was even somewhat celebrated for doing so, until I took a slightly closer look at Iraq and became mightily impressed by what a menace its despotism had become, to its own subjects, to the region, and to the world beyond. At this point, the contours of an inescapable eventual confrontation with Saddam became more important to me than rating the dubious PR skills of a Republican White House.

Rich prefers the latter task and is, in his way, quite an accomplished reviewer. He seems to have watched an absolutely extraordinary amount of television, and to have retained most of what he absorbed. And he's very deft at employing the standards of this medium while pretending simultaneously to decry them. Thus: "As the reigning cliché had it, 2002 was the Seinfeld election—an election about nothing." I don't remember this being the reigning cliché and I have never seen an episode of Seinfeld, but that the show itself was about nothing I do not for a moment doubt. With much else of Rich's TV reviewing I am inclined to agree also: there certainly ought to be more fighting and more bloodshed shown on our screens, and it ought still to be possible to see the scenes of mass incineration from September 11, 2001, as well. Let us by all means not "sanitize" anything, let alone euphemize it. I would change the name of the Defense Department back to the War Department right away, for example, and perhaps Rich would even support me here.

Or perhaps not. If I have it right, the special signature of today's media-savvy writer is his or her capacity for "irony." (This noble and elusive term has now been reduced to a signature wink, or display of the fingertips as if to signal quotation marks, though conceivably that is better than nothing.) However, the supposedly ironic Mr. Rich can be determinedly literal-minded when the exigencies of his political position demand it:

Even the villain at hand, Saddam Hussein, remained a vague figure from stock, since the specific history of his reign of terror got far less airtime than the tacky décor of his palaces. When Torie Clarke said in a Pentagon briefing that Saddam was responsible for "decades and decades and decades of torture and oppression the likes of which I think the world has not ever seen before," few journalists were going to gainsay the Pentagon mouthpiece by bringing up Hitler and Stalin.

See how high his standards are? Unless the Pentagon can find a briefer who in unscripted remarks can put Iraqi Ba'athism in its exact historical context, the Pentagon's position is as trivial and evanescent as the "airtime" which merely concentrates on palace décor. I personally doubt that there were many members of the Defense Department press corps who could have taken Ms. Clarke up on the point, but then I doubt that Rich could tell us much about the ideological debt of the Ba'ath Party to both Nazism and Stalinism, either. So does he mean to say that there is no proper comparison, or that Clarke was wrong to imply one? Of course he would not dare venture so far. Thus the potential "seriousness" of his own point becomes just another part of the media wallpaper: a cheap and easy observation made for no better reason than to pass the time.

Any fool can have great fun with the ineptitudes of departmental spokesmen (and once again, I speak as one who knows). Rich has been thundering on for years now about the supposedly chilling and oppressive effect of Ari Fleischer's admonition, a few days after September 11, 2001, that people should "watch what they say." He alludes to this terrifying moment several times in these pages, putting the most literal construction on the hasty but decent reply of a powerless and meek official, who was attempting to fend off questions about the bigotry of a Republican backwoodsman and the spurious moral equivalences of Bill Maher. I have written about the whole context of this non-episode elsewhere (see Slate magazine, September 11, 2006, if you are curious) but for now I will simply say that if you sometimes find the responses of public officials at press conferences to be stupid or inarticulate, you should always make a point of looking up the original journalistic questions.

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For another instance of Rich's pseudo-forensic style, you might try the following:

"I don't think we ever said—at least I know I didn't say that there was a direct connection between September the 11th and Saddam Hussein," Bush said in the spring of 2006. That is technically true, but it is really just truthiness: Bush struck 9/11 like a gong in every fear-instilling speech about Iraq he could.

Now, "truthiness" is a laugh-word invented by Stephen Colbert who (along with his friend Jon Stewart and the other heroes of Comedy Central) is the beau ideal of what Rich considers to be the ironic. In this book and in his regular column, he gives "truthiness" a workout whenever he can. He clearly wishes he had coined it himself, and he has kept it going for perhaps a touch longer—may I hint?—than even Colbert might wish. Let us examine it in the present case. The administration did not, in point of fact and as Rich concedes, ever make the case that Saddam Hussein had sponsored the assault of 9/11. It did, however, strongly imply that he might have an interest in, or enthusiasm for, this kind of activity. And many Americans when polled were found to suspect him of an even more direct connection. Well, Saddam Hussein had sheltered the Iraqi-American fugitive who mixed the chemicals for the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center. He had allowed the internationally-wanted criminal Abu Nidal to use Baghdad as his headquarters. He had boasted of paying a bounty to the suicide-murderers of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The man who hijacked the Achille Lauro cruise ship, a certain Abu Abbas, who was responsible for rolling Leon Klinghoffer in his wheelchair off the vessel's deck and into the Mediterranean, had to be released when apprehended because he was traveling on an Iraqi passport. A diplomatic passport. The Baghdad state-run press had exulted at the revenge taken on America on 9/11. This does not exhaust the "truthiness" of the suggestion that Saddam Hussein might have to be taken seriously as a sponsor of nihilistic violence. Could one even suggest that those who thought so might be intuitively and even objectively wiser than those who thought it crass to mention Saddam Hussein and "terrorism" in the same breath? Not without being jeered at by Rich, who either does not know any of the above facts or who chooses not to include any of them in his proudly truth-centered narrative.

It would be good to have a demotic word for the way in which journalism, commentary, "spin," and official propaganda converge, though I think "truthiness" would be too feeble to cover it. All that the term does is to condense what we already "know," which is that perception trumps reality as often as not. Rich himself gives a fine illustration of the point when he idly says that Michael Moore's entirely mendacious film Fahrenheit 9/11, which mobilized Democrats and liberals behind a completely fictitious account of events, was both a "movie eviscerating Bush" and "an instant media sensation." His stale phrasing comprises one very smelly value-judgment—the president was not in fact "eviscerated" by this contemptible movie, which surely cannot be praised even faintly by anyone with the smallest regard for veracity—as well as one statement of near-fact which is almost true by definition. As Peter Jennings might have put it, if the New York Times describes something as "an instant media sensation," then an instant media sensation is what it becomes. But who's the "truthy" one here?

As if sensing the need for a change of cultural pace, Rich turns off the TV at the midpoint of his book, and snatches up a work of fiction:

A month before the election, the country's mood was captured with startling acuity in a newly published Philip Roth novel, The Plot Against America. The book's resonance with ongoing events may have been part of the reason why it became Roth's biggest seller in years, joining a bestseller shelf crowded with books about George W. Bush.

Note the easy, near-automatic way in which—like movies these days—books are reviewed according to their initial sales. But Roth's book is about Charles Lindbergh. How does it "join a bestseller shelf crowded with books about George W. Bush"? Well, that's easy. Lindbergh could fly a plane, was a Christian, had a populist manner when it suited him. He is also (and here I switch tenses out of respect for the novel form, because now he's being fictionally portrayed by Roth as a might-have-been president) a fear-monger and an invoker of "national security." That does it. Bush to the life! I cannot be absolutely sure that Rich has even bothered to observe the difference between the actual Bush and the hypothetical Roosevelt who is defeated by the hypothetical Lindbergh. (Nor can I be certain if he really thinks that a national "mood" can be "captured with startling acuity.") But it will always remain the case that Lindbergh and his anti-Semitic "America First" movement accused Franklin Roosevelt of scaring the nation into a war, and of being prepared to promulgate falsehoods in order to do so. Indeed, two of the most prominent figures of today's anti-war movement, Gore Vidal and Patrick J. Buchanan, remain strikingly loyal to the memory of Lindbergh and accuse the president of staging a new Pearl Harbor to stampede us into a war in which Israeli (as they sometimes remember to put it) interests are paramount. If Rich was going to discuss Roth at all, as a writer or as a counterfactual historian, he would have had to notice that the isolationists of today are, as they were yesterday, the foes of regime change. But why trouble to make the effort, when one can scan the reviews of the reviews and call the result cultural criticism?

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Frank Rich is an expert on the ways in which a deadline or a news-cycle can make all the difference, and on the advantage that this knowledge can give to those who "spin." He is an adept when it comes to such Washington tricks-of-the-trade as the official passing out of unwelcome news late on Fridays or early on Saturdays (though he never seems to ask himself why the press keeps falling for this obvious and notorious trick). So it is amusing to be able to say that he himself falls a hapless victim to the difference between quotidian journalism and even the most instant type of book-publishing. Readers of these pages will have noticed that, toward the end of summer 2006, the greatest white whale-hunt ever mounted was shamefacedly called off. Nothing has been heard lately of the grand White House plot to unmask and destroy the innocent Valerie Plame and her Galahad, the fearless Joseph Wilson. The story went from grand peur to yawn in no time flat. Alas this bathos came too late to rescue the book under review, which went to press while many, many reporters still scented the scandal of a lifetime, or at the very least of a career. It then became widely known that the man who disclosed the identity of Ms. Plame to Robert Novak was Mr. Richard Armitage—a consecrated opponent of the then-policy of "regime change" and democratization in the Middle East, whose role goes unmentioned here. Should you ever wish to recover the atmosphere of hectic conspiracy-mongering that pervaded the press in those days, and overrode even the most basic rules of evidence or analysis, here it all is, as if preserved in amber. Best of all is the knowing way in which Rich talks of matters that are well beyond his ken: "The leaks, in time-honored fashion, went to the reporters the White House judged most reliably sympathetic: Woodward, Miller, Novak, in that order of preference and chronology." Not really: Woodward and Miller never even wrote the story, and Novak (who did) is one of the most dedicated opponents of the Iraq war in print, as well as an admirer of the CIA, a sometime foe of Israel, and a partisan of Joseph Wilson's. From his pen we eventually learned what had long been obvious, or obvious to anyone not intoxicated by hatred of the White House, which is that he had approached the authorities and not the other way around. A goodly chunk of Rich's book, and of the portentous and padded "time-line" section that makes up a great part of it, is rendered entirely nugatory thereby. The remainder can stand as an instance of the weed-like spread of second-order media phenomena such as "truthiness," and as a warning to those who suppose that the profound can be deduced from an intense but myopic scrutiny of the superficial.