The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth From 9/11 to Katrina [Buy Now]
By Frank Rich
Penguin Press, New York
$25.95; 341 pages
OK, so they lied.
And if you don't want to call it lying, call it dissembling. Or fabricating. However you want to label it, even conventional wisdom now holds that the Bush administration led this country to war in Iraq on false pretenses, deliberately muddling the pursuit of Osama bin Laden with a more ambitious war of choice.
As a result, high percentages of Americans believe that Saddam Hussein was involved in the 9/11 attacks and that some of the 19 hijackers were Iraqi.
As a political columnist for The New York Times, Frank Rich was camped on the front lines as the Bush Administration promoted these impressions. He watched as talking points — "the smoking gun which could be a mushroom cloud" — appeared in his own newspaper and bounced around the talk show circuit as ostensible evidence that Iraq was targeting America.
As a former theatre critic, Rich is also especially tuned in to such stage-managing and fable-making, and he wields his critical skills in The Greatest Story Ever Sold, a blow-by-blow attempt to show how Americans were pitched — and many bought — what he believes to be one of the greatest flimflam acts ever.
The theatricality of this administration was evident from day one, Rich convincingly argues. Going back to what now feels like ancient history, he describes the shaping of Bush's media persona — that of a regular guy who partied too hard, found Jesus and sobriety at the same time, and turned his life around.
Rich never bought it, and provides apt reasons why we shouldn't have either. For starters, "Crawford had been purchased just before he announced his presidential run," he writes. "It was routinely labeled a 'ranch' by the Eastern press. But the 'ranch,' with its few head of cattle, was not a working ranch at all; it was more like a stage set."
Images are tremendously important to this White House, Rich points out again and again, and it is very good at manipulating them. He reminds us how during the 2000 election recount, Republican staffers were flown down to Florida to stage a "riot." Bush may have landed on a destroyer to declare "Mission Accomplished" after a few months in Iraq, but what many Americans didn't know is it was moored just off the coast of San Diego.
It isn't just high-profile policy that gets this kind of image massage. Not long after he was elected, Bush began to be photographed at parks just before he slashed their funding. He posed outside police stations the week his administration slashed federal funding for police salaries.
"While photo ops were nothing new in the modern American presidency," Rich writes, "there had been a time when they were at least occasionally used to dramatize a president's policies rather than almost exclusively to disguise them. Now a smiling Bush appearance to bless any cause, program, or habitat was tantamount to a visit from the angel of death."
Like many political commentators, Rich says that after 9/11, Bush graduated to an even more powerful mythic setting — Ground Zero — and exploited its emotional resonances for all it was worth. Indeed, the Republican 2004 convention was held in New York not long after Bush's administration cut funds for firefighters.
This is not radically new material, especially to readers who tune in to Jon Stewart's The Daily Show or Stephen Colbert's Colbert Report, both of which specialize in exposing political hypocrisy. It was Colbert, after all, who invented the word "truthiness," which characterizes so much of the behavior described here.
As Colbert suggests, we live in an era when what sounds like truth or appears to be true is accepted to be so until proven false, by which point a correction may almost be pointless.
Sadly, while Rich's newspaper columns often arrive right on time, this book feels a bit like one of those corrections buried on page A14.
In other words: too little, too late.