Like a lot of brand-name journalists, Frank Rich attracts his share of awe and loathing. Being a “cultural” critic for The New York Times, after all, is enough for an entire demographic to dislike you, if not dismiss you, on partisan principle. The fact that this venerated pundit moved to his coveted Op-Ed-page spot from the theater section probably won’t help him push copies in Provo, either.
But the perspective of a drama critic is germane to The Greatest Story Ever Sold, a book that reads like an Ã¼ber-blog entry'but not necessarily in a bad way. Where many anti-Bush books devote themselves to tirelessly chronicling canards, or tackling the Bush administration from a historical perspective, Rich keeps his focus on stagecraft'specifically, the administration’s spin and stunts done in the name of winning the battle for public opinion.
The formula here is bloglike, indeed: Quote a New York Times or Washington Post story and dispense with the commentary. You can practically see the hyperlinks. The analysis, however, is relentless, original and well argued. It boils down to this: The Bush administration has done an unprecedented job in manipulating a wide spectrum of media to sell the Iraq war to the American public.
In a cross between a Hollywood publicity campaign and action film, Rich chronicles it all: The release of politically useful and patently false news narratives (paging PFC Lynch); the bribing of news commentators (Armstrong Williams), the perpetuation of fake reporters (Jeff Gannon, anyone?), Bush’s Top Gun scene on a sunset-silhouetted aircraft carrier. All of this is contextualized and debunked. Lather, rinse, repeat.
What’s refreshing about Rich is that however liberal his politics might be, he doesn’t carry water for the opposition party, which he sees as almost incurably ineffectual when it comes to creating its own counter-narrative. The Greatest Story Ever Sold is also packed with some excellent meta-analysis of the popular culture within the larger framework of selling the war. Take Rich’s contention that the deification of the “Greatest Generationâ€'a brand unto itself'is played out in the war debate. Rich suggests that Boomer Generation pundits hoped to be part of their own greatest generation “even if it was other people’s children who had to do the fighting. Their contempt for the war’s critics often seems so defensive in retrospect that it’s hard not to wonder if the overheated rhetoric was a reflection of their own deep-seated, unmentioned doubts about the Iraq project.
It’s tempting and somewhat understandable to lump all of this in with the growing genre of Bush-bashing literature, and indeed at times The Greatest Story reads more like a malfeasance catalog than a sustained narrative. But there’s something larger at play in Rich’s argument regarding how fear and manipulation'and the manipulation of fear'can turn a free press into a conduit for an administration whose selling pitch, we continue to learn, was miles rosier than the delivered product.
Of course, for all of Rich’s spin-debunking, he raises questions that probably require another book to answer. In an age of partisan news'Fox and Ann Coulter, for some; Air America and Al Franken, for others'coupled with a metastasizing blogosphere, is public perception easier or harder to tweak? Would the tactics of Karl Rove and Co. work as well now, when bloggers'from left and right'are able to check a news story faster than George Allen can say “macacaâ€? Or would the tactics simply adapt and become even more underhanded?
If nothing else, Rich offers a great primer for those who maybe haven’t paid as much attention to the news as they would’ve liked these last few years. For political junkies, expect to sift through stories you’ve already followed. In either case, if you can make it through these pages without becoming enraged, you’re either bipartisan to the point of nirvana or taking too many sedatives.