The Greatest Story Ever Sold (by Frank Rich)

Spin Doctors

Then-secretary of state Colin Powell holds up a vial of
Then-secretary of state Colin Powell holds up a vial of "anthrax" at the U.N. in February 2003. (Elise Amendola - AP)
Reviewed by David Greenberg
Sunday, September 24, 2006


The Decline and Fall of Truth from 9/11 to Katrina

By Frank Rich

Penguin Press. 341 pp. $25.95

Throughout George W. Bush's presidency, no columnist has been more perceptive than Frank Rich of the New York Times. A longtime film and drama critic, Rich, for the past decade, has used his insights into performance and stagecraft to explain a political culture increasingly dominated by simulation and spectacle.

Exploring the news each week through the lens of pop culture -- the film "United 93" or the TV show "24," for example -- Rich teases out implications that escape straight-news pundits. The technique allows him to illuminate not only the submerged political currents of mass entertainment but also the theatricality of Washington politics today.

Now Rich has written The Greatest Story Ever Sold , a gripping, witty and devastating indictment of President Bush's reliance on public relations to market his Iraq and counterterrorism policies. Future historians will turn to other works -- by James Bamford, Thomas E. Ricks, James Risen, Ron Suskind and Bob Woodward -- to understand White House and Pentagon decision-making after 9/11. But Rich's overview will be indispensable for grasping how Americans experienced the events of these years.

For those who have largely opposed Bush's policies, reading Rich's book summons up familiar feelings of outrage and helplessness. Those readers who have tipped from being Bush supporters to critics may gain some wisdom into why they were originally led astray. And even die-hard Bushies may appreciate this volume as a shrewd study in the history of political PR -- if, that is, they can get past Rich's wry, withering tone.

As in his columns, Rich uses cultural touchstones such as Philip Roth's novel The Plot Against America and the movie "Chicago" to help us see how populist demagoguery works or how a huckster can con a press pack. But the book's core is a survey of the White House spins and shams since 9/11, including then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice's "mushroom cloud" scare tactics, Colin Powell's Adlai Stevenson impersonation at the United Nations and, of course, Bush's May 2003 "Mission Accomplished" declaration on the flight deck. Rich deftly arranges these and other public moments alongside cases of secret government propaganda -- the payola to working journalists, the fake "video news releases" slipped into local TV news shows -- to construct a persuasive picture of an administration bent on creating "our own reality," as one Bush aide famously put it.

Rich does let a few people off the hook. He's too easy on Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald, who, while fashioning himself as the second coming of Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox, has abetted the president's anti-press campaign by jailing one reporter for not playing ball and threatening others.

In my view, Rich lays too much blame for the free hand that Bush has enjoyed at the door of the Fourth Estate. Rich doesn't go as far as some other recent books that lambaste reporters as lapdogs, but he laments that "there was only sporadic digging into the war-ennobled administration by mainstream journalists" and that TV news "barely raised any questions at all."

Obviously, individual outlets, including the New York Times for which Rich writes, erred badly in overplaying claims about the menace Saddam Hussein posed. Some Washington correspondents went native, identifying too closely with insider sources. The tabloid tenor of most broadcast news -- about which Rich has written brilliantly -- fanned Americans' crudest urges.

But Rich's well-researched narrative testifies to the dogged, independent-minded reporting that -- despite this oppressive climate -- revealed official mistakes, lies and violations of law. In recounting the long trail of administration deceptions and blunders, Rich credits the reporters at The Washington Post, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal who discovered them. He cites scoops from outlets as diverse as Roll Call, the National Journal, the Smoking Gun, Vanity Fair and the New Yorker. Even the generally abysmal TV news shows did some worthy investigation, he tells us: CBS News exposed the abuses at Abu Ghraib, and anchors such as Diane Sawyer, Tom Brokaw and Ted Koppel grilled Bush and other evasive heavies at key moments.

What The Greatest Story Ever Sold illustrates is that most Americans did not back the Iraq invasion because they were credulous, though many were, or even because the administration was dishonest, though it was -- reprehensibly so. In the end, notwithstanding the hype, the truth wasn't all that hard to see; even Bush's misleading claims that Saddam Hussein was about to acquire nukes were debunked on the front pages, as Rich points out, before the invasion began. Yet most citizens, despite access to evidence, chose to follow the president anyway. Rich doesn't get into why they did so, but I think the reasons boil down to a widespread popular desire to exorcise post-9/11 feelings of shame and vulnerability with the nationalistic pride achieved through the exercise of military might.

Many people who might have supported the Iraq war under different circumstances remained intractably opposed because they believed Bush hadn't proven that Baghdad was making nuclear weapons or working with al-Qaeda. They held this view because, among other reasons, in the months and years after 9/11, they were reading the smart, critical and blessedly spin-proof writings of Frank Rich. ยท

David Greenberg is a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers University and the author of "Nixon's Shadow: The History of an Image" and the forthcoming "Calvin Coolidge."

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