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Book Review by Deirdre Sinnott
The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth from 9/11 to Katrina, by Frank Rich, The Penguin Press, 341 pp., 2006.
September 29, 2006
Who could have mixed into one readable, bubbling stew George Bush’s White House, Pearl Harbor the movie, the attacks of September eleventh, the U.S.’s so called “intelligence,” the Iraq War, and the historic failure of the national government to protect, evacuate, or rescue the people of New Orleans from hurricane Katrina? Only a former drama critic with a flair for the absurd.
Frank Rich, cultural historian extraordinaire and New York Times columnist, picks at the bones of the Bush administration’s self-created reality in his new book, “The Greatest Story Ever Sold.” Rich is one of the best thermometers of the U.S. mood and he’s gathered most all the shocking highlights of the last five years for mass consumption. Whether writing about the subservient press or a cynically dishonest White House he keeps focused on his topic — how truth has been jettisoned in favor of convenience.
Before September eleventh, numerous examples of the White House stagecraft unfolded in the lazy atmosphere of spring and summer 2001. According to Rich whether it was “compassionate conservatism” that wasn’t, “No Child Left Behind” that did, or the budget slashing “Campaign for American Libraries,” “…a smiling Bush appearance to bless any cause, program, or habitat was tantamount to a visit from the angel of death.” Master of ceremonies Karl Rove proceeded along the path of tried and true Republican agendas, cut taxes, cut spending and protect the base of millionaires and billionaires.
Somewhere between a few shark attacks and the media’s obsession with the disappearance of Chandra Levy, a twenty-four-year-old Washington intern to Congressman Gary Condit, the country seemed to have grudgingly accepted having to sit out the next four years before ridding themselves of a forgettable president. Then four planes reshaped the landscape and pushed Bush into a role he never was suited for, leader of a confused and fearful nation.
The aftermath, with its deadly consequences, parades across Rich’s stage — slight of hand to shocking lies, wars and the erosion of civil rights to torture and shadowy rendition centers. He describes how every twist and turn is followed with servile vigor by cable news networks with thousands of hours to fill. The words might start on the lips of a Pentagon or White House operative, but they were breathlessly repeated, unquestioned and uninvestigated, by various news outlets. Happy to feed the gaping maw of the 24/7 news cycle, Rove and company created several entities whose sole purpose was to “manipulate public opinion both at home and abroad.”
“At the Pentagon, a covert Office of Strategic Influence, with a staff of fifteen, was established to plant helpful ‘news,’ some of it phony, with foreign media.” The office had to be “closed down” when a New York Times article exposed it.
And in August 2002 the administration created the White House Iraq Group (WHIG) and readied itself to push out the latest “product” — war with Iraq. September 6, 2002, Andrew Card, White House chief of staff, “alluded to his group’s existence by hinting of the plan afoot to market a war against Saddam Hussein: ‘From a marketing point of view, you don’t introduce new products in August.’”
When it comes to the media manipulation that Rich recounts there are too many highlights and lowlights to talk about here, so I will follow the Vice President’s example and do some cherry-picking of my own. Rich guides us through the tissues of lies that lead up to the War on Iraq and the ever shifting reasons for being there; travails of Jessica Lynch and the actions of her bizarro-world counterpart, Abu Ghraib guard Lynndie England; Pat Tillman, the NFL player who volunteered after 9/11, whose friendly-fire death was covered up with tales heroism; the defections and subsequent books of former treasure secretary Paul O’Neill and terrorism Czar Richard Clarke and so much more.
Rich outlines the administration’s attempts to put a plug in the unstoppable flood news about atrocities in Iraq. It seemed like Bush and company had an idea, but that they never heard of the failure of mice, men or their plans.
The book characterizes the pivotal role that the unraveling cover-up of the exposure of CIA agent Valerie Plame played. It began with a trip by her husband, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, to verify reports that Iraq sought unprocessed uranium from Africa. Wilson’s inconvenient conclusion, that the charges were without merit, was ignored by the administration. When he revealed his judgment, which shredded the argument of Saddam Hussein’s ability to go nuclear, in a June 6, 2003 Op Ed piece in the New York Times titled “What I Didn’t Find in Africa,” the White house began a vindictive campaign to undermine him, including suggestions that the trip was a “junket” organized by his wife. The cover-up of the smear campaign was a large part of what shifted public opinion against the Bush White House and the Iraq war.
So even as the floor waters consumed New Orleans Bush was already under water. His apathy and the government’s abandonment of U.S. citizens on U.S. soil shocked the nation and deflated any reserve of political capital gained on 9/11.
“Only fiction can truly deal with a white house that lived and died by fiction,” claims Rich.
Rich exposes the conduct of the Bush administration and does a miraculous ballet through the muddy water of political theatrics. He brings with him a theory about truth that ought to make people in this country wake up and stay focused.