Frank Rich Reviews the Bush Follies

The New York Times op-ed writer explains how the White House propaganda machine replaced reality with “truthiness” to lead us into Iraq.

October 4, 2006  |  In his new book, The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth from 9/11 to Katrina, Frank Rich writes, “… whatever else 9/11 was, we can see now that it was the beginning of a new national narrative — a compelling and often persuasive story that was told by the president of the United States and his administration to mobilize a shell-shocked country desperate to be led.”

According to Rich, the administration’s highest priority was not to eliminate Al Qaeda, but to consolidate its own power, and this aim called for a propaganda presidency in which reality was consistently replaced by “truthiness.”

Rich, who became a New York Times op-ed columnist in 1994 after serving for 13 years as the newspaper’s chief drama critic, talked to Terrence McNally.

Terrence McNally: Paul Krugman, fellow New York Times op-ed writer, joined the Times as a mild mannered Princeton economist. In fact, he’d been attacked by the left for being a cheerleader for globalization. Then, on the job, he morphed into a fiery critic of the Bush administration. Now here you are, for years an entertainment writer …

Frank Rich: There’s something about the Bush administration that brings out the best or worst in everyone I guess.

McNally: Tell us a bit about that evolution.

Rich: I’ve had a very strange career. I grew up in Washington, D.C., in a family that was not involved with politics, which is sort of like growing up in Beverly Hills in a family that’s got nothing to do with show business. I was always captivated by politics, but I was also stage-struck as a kid and interested in theater and culture. I’ve always written about both, though I did have a long period when I was a drama critic at the Times. But even then I was writing a bit about politics and culture for the New Republic and Esquire and elsewhere.

I think that in the case of Paul, he’s a numbers guy who really understands economics, and he was appalled — and rightly so — in the earliest days of the Bush administration when he saw their fuzzy math. The numbers just didn’t add up, and I think it offended his professionalism as an economist. I don’t think there was anything particularly ideological about it.

In my case, it wasn’t the numbers that caught my eye, but the stagecraft. Why are they always putting on a show? Why does everything have a backdrop with Orwellian words telling you what to think? What are they hiding? What is this “Wizard of Oz”-like theater they’ve set up?

After all the time I spent thinking about the theater, including Washington theater, if I know nothing else, I know empty spectacle when I see it. Not to make light of something that’s been tragic for many Americans and the world, but their whole spectacle is like a big empty Andrew Lloyd Webber contraption — chandeliers rising and falling, people landing in planes on aircraft carriers and celebrating victory — and it’s empty inside.

McNally: I imagine you’ve wished you could have the same power as a critic of the administration that you were said to have as a critic of Broadway —

Rich: Unfortunately this is not a show that could be closed out of town. It’s had quite a run.

McNally: Why did you write this book? Is it because you began to see that the primary narrative of this administration was the fact that they were putting out a “story”?

Rich: That’s exactly right. I started talking about this book with my editor at Penguin a year and a half ago, maybe even longer. Because of my strong belief in wanting to tell this as a narrative as opposed to just throwing together collected columns, I felt it had to have a third act curtain. I’m such a creature of the theater and of narrative, that I felt I couldn’t sit down and start writing this book unless I knew, in at least some figurative sense, when it was ending.

One place to look for an ending was in the 2004 election. I made an informal agreement with my editor that if Kerry won, well that’s the end of the story, but, as we know, that did not happen.

I finally decided to write the book when I realized that Katrina was the third act curtain. That disaster and the Bush administration’s response to it stripped bare everything that had been true about the administration all along. All in one place, happening 24/7, in real time, on television with all the network anchors watching: the use of spin, the claiming of triumphs and successes that hadn’t happened, the slowness to react to a city under siege, looting — just as in Baghdad after the invasion of Iraq — everything playing out in fast motion.

I rolled the dice and said, this is the end of my book, he can’t come back from it. That’s when I started to write.

McNally: You felt Katrina, tragic as it was, might be the end of this story. You also wrote an article in which you said — I’m going to misquote you — “The Iraq war is over, someone tell the president.” Is that close?

Rich: Yes, I actually wrote that quite some time ago.

McNally: Is it possible that events are going to make you as wrong as the administration was when they claimed “Mission Accomplished?”

Rich: I’m not declaring something quite as definitive as they did. There are many things that can scramble the situation in Iraq and at home, events that have nothing to do with politicians, such as, God forbid, another domestic terrorism attack — but I have felt for some time that with the Iraq war, all we’re talking about is the negotiation of how we draw down.

Sadly, the war is going to go on for a very long time, but American engagement at this level is — as the vice president said of the insurgency over a year ago — in its last throes. There’s almost uniform agreement everywhere, except in the White House, that we have to start figuring out the terms under which we’re going to turn this over to the Iraqis. We’re not going to get out all at once, and no one really is advocating that in either political party in Washington.

Now we have conservative Republicans, including columnists like George Will saying it’s untenable, or Max Boot, a conservative writer for the Los Angeles Times, likening the war to Vietnam and saying either we’ve got to throw in a bunch more troops or cut back to 50,000. I don’t think we have the “more troops” to put in there, so we’re just really talking about the terms of what is going to be some kind of slow fade.

McNally: So you meant not the actual end, but the tipping point?

Rich: The tipping point to American involvement. And when I said, “Tell it to the president,” no kidding, because this is a guy who keeps saying, “We planned for victory, we will stay the course” — and there’s no plan. Other people are going to make the plan for him and, depending on what happens in the election this November, those plans may proceed quite quickly … If one of the houses changes hands, and this guy is a lame duck …

McNally: I agree. If even one house shifts, the conversation will shift. Suddenly the media may not feel the need to kiss up as much in exchange for access.

Rich: I think we’ve already seen that shift. One point I make in my book is that for the longest time, you had to watch Jon Stewart to see the administration get caught in a lie. Dick Cheney would go on a network talk show and say, “I never said that there was a pretty well confirmed connection between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein,” and Jon Stewart would show you the “Meet the Press” clip where he said it.

Starting with Katrina, the media had to get with the program of actually being news people again. Whether it be the infamous Michael Brown, or, for that matter, Michael Chertoff saying, “What’s going on in the Superdome, we’ve heard nothing about that,” while you can see in split screen exactly what’s going on. They’ve finally brought on themselves a media that’s not as compliant as it was in the months and even years after 9/11.

McNally: In reading your detailed description of the almost daily development and execution of their propaganda, I found myself remembering events that had shocked or infuriated me when they happened, but that I’d almost forgotten since. For instance, Enron or Abramoff, which at the time seemed so huge and so tied to them. Somehow I feel so much gets swamped by our ridiculous focus on Iraq.

Rich: I was trying to write a very lean, almost screenplay-like narrative of the past four or five years, told almost entirely through their PR stunts and presentations.

I tell you how they presented something, and then show you what was behind the curtain that renders it false. For instance, the first half of the book ends with the official war in Iraq, the 43 days between the day we invaded Iraq and the day that Bush went on the aircraft carrier outside of San Diego and said the major combat operations had ended — “Mission Accomplished.”

I realized that this war — despite the fact that there were reporters embedded and we were getting all this coverage — was essentially a series of discrete shows put on for the American public. Many were fairly meaningless in terms of the actual war, but all served the purpose of keeping casualties — our own and Iraqi civilians — off screen.

If you look back on it, what happened in those 43 days?

First we had shock and awe, this strange beginning, which was very telegenic and which people were riveted to on television. As someone later said, we were watching munitions and bombs going off in a city of six million people, yet we had no sense of what they were hitting or if anyone was being killed. It was just like watching a Lumiere display.

Then we started to take some casualties, there was a little bit of nay saying about the conduct of the invasion, and suddenly we had this drama about the rescue of Jessica Lynch, which we would later find out was at variance with the facts as Jessica Lynch herself knew them — though she was out of it at the time.

McNally: — which meant she was perfectly cast. She couldn’t contradict the story.

Rich: Exactly. They manufactured this Rambo-like scenario and a dramatic rescue. Now she was a brave young woman who suffered a grievous injury and was captured, but the sort of Audie Murphy drama created by the Pentagon had nothing to do with reality.

Next came the toppling of the Saddam Hussein statue, one of many such statues in Baghdad. As some people pointed out at the time, it was a contrived event done with the help of the Americans. Television commentators, following the lead of Rumsfeld and others, kept referring to it as a moment in history tantamount to the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, but the Berliners tore down their wall, the Americans didn’t. This was a completely different and somewhat staged event.

Then finally we get to “Mission Accomplished,” like a big MGM musical first act finale, celebrating the end of combat operations. But sadly, as we well know, they weren’t ending.

So that’s sort of the pattern of the whole book: I’ve looked at everything as they presented it, and then tried to puncture the balloons and, where appropriate, show what was actually inside.

McNally: In fact, quite a long section of the book offers a timeline.

Rich: During the early days of the Valerie Plame/Joseph Wilson leak case, I began to notice reporting about the evidence of WMD’s that had been presented to the public in the run up to the war — through the press, including somewhat notoriously through the New York Times. We started to learn for the first time that there was a discrepancy between what they had been saying and what they actually knew, and when they knew it.

As an aid to myself, almost like Cliff’s notes, I started keeping a calendar. I’d just say, “They said on x-date, January 2003, that Saddam had uranium from Africa …” Then I would find out that Joe Wilson or someone else had reported earlier that it wasn’t true. I started noting these discrepancies, and it became almost like a game. That appendix is up to 80 pages now.

It’s rather eye opening — two columns side by side: their own words on one side, on the other published information through which we later learned that they were telling us things they knew to be false.

McNally: Can you speak just a bit about the role of the New York Times and Judith Miller in pushing the administration’s story?

Rich: I talk about Judy Miller in the book. Essentially, for whatever reasons, Judy ran articles that the Times published in the run-up to the war that were overly credulous about WMD claims. Intentionally or not, these often backed up the scenario the administration was cooking up to take us into war against the “grave threat” presented by Saddam Hussein.

McNally: One could almost construct another visual aid — two columns side by side, the administration’s talking points and Judith Miller’s articles.

Rich: Indeed. In the timeline I have some excerpts from Miller’s activities when they relate to the main narrative. She was not alone in doing this, however. Many others did too.

There were also good reporters at the New York Times, the Washington Post and elsewhere, particularly at the Knight-Ridder chain, that did have accurate stories, questioning the administration line. But those stories were often buried. It was a huge failure of the media in which, of course, the Times was complicit.

This is, however, a separate issue from her involvement with the Plame case, which is much more complicated. I’m not so sure that she did anything wrong in that regard, and, in fact, she went to jail for a worthy principle.

McNally: You’ve put this book out a couple of months ahead of the November elections. It reminds people, “In case you’ve gotten foggy about it, here’s just how much they were lying, here’s just how much they were manipulating you.” Are you hopeful at this moment that voters will hold them accountable?

You said at the top that you feel they can’t get their credibility back. For me, watching Bush, Rove, and the GOP is almost like watching Jason or Chucky from the slasher movies. They keep coming back no matter what you do to them. I call them “electoral savants,” phenomenally good at demonizing their enemies and winning elections, but with no inclination or competence for governing. Up until November 8th I will be afraid that they’re going to pull this off again.

Rich: Look, anything can happen. It’s foolhardy to predict an election like this, which is, after all, hundreds of individual local elections, where most people are not voting with some big national picture in mind. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I guess anything’s possible, That said, 60 percent of the country is against the war the government’s fighting in Iraq, and 70 percent feels that the country is on the wrong track.

McNally: That’s an amazing number.

Rich: People are discontented for a lot of reasons. Iraq is very high on the list, but so are certain economic issues, particularly the inequality of gain for the middle class, in terms of tax cuts and everything else. I think these things eventually do have consequences.

I believe that the Bush propaganda machine — and this as a big point in my book — has been enabled by two things. One is the media environment, whether it be the credulousness of newspapers like the Times in the run up to the war, the obsequiousness on the part of a lot of television news, which is still the main way that most Americans get their news, or the press’s self-inflicted errors, like ours, like CBS’s. All of that has helped them.

But so has a not very interesting or brave Democratic party with a rather lousy bunch of leaders, including potential presidents. One reason I feel the tide is changing — I felt this even before the 2004 election and before I started to write this book — is that Kerry was an incredibly ineffectual candidate. He was clumsy, and his views about the war were incoherent. Even so, he lost by only three and a half million votes against a war president. I think that if the Democratic party had had its act together, they could have probably done better than they did in 2000, when, as we know, they won the popular vote.

It didn’t happen largely because you can’t fight something with nothing. The Democrats have to start fighting something with something. That doesn’t mean doctrinaire positions, but it means leadership and sticking their necks out there and taking stands, and I think we’re finally beginning to see some of that.

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