Many a complacent D.C. wag insists that politics is all about numbers—as in who turns out when, presenting what margin of victory to produce which sort of mandate to govern. In a twist, New York Times columnist Frank Rich confronts one talismanic number of the Bush years—9/11—with another: 24/7. In Mr. Rich’s anatomy of the Bush governing style, all White House policy is driven by the will to manage the 24/7 cable news cycle—simply because the attention of the electorate can be whipsawed hither and yon by whatever lurid or misleading fare that cable producers hit upon to gain their own provisional margins of victory in the war for ratings.
“Only an overheated 24/7 infotainment culture that had trivialized the very idea of reality (and with it, what was once known as ‘news’) could be so successfully manipulated by those in power,” Mr. Rich writes in his introduction. He believes that future chroniclers of the abuses, lies and excesses of Bush rule will find that “the cultural context of the early twenty-first century may explain at least as much as the characters and official actions that played out against that backdrop.”
There’s little doubt that the credulous, alarmist character of cable programming is a poor excuse for skeptically minded newsgathering. And one can hardly dispute that the lead strategists of Team Bush have, like plenty of their Oval Office predecessors, done their utmost to control and distort their own media image to maximal advantage. Yet the sort of single-bullet culture theorizing that runs through Mr. Rich’s book tends to downplay many more raw and revealing power plays; as an explanatory device, the “24/7” catchphrase tends to produce the same eye-glazing numbness as too many hours staring slack-jawed at The Situation Room.
Much as in his weekly Times column (which, in its own infotainment fashion, has shunted from the paper’s op-ed section to the Arts and Leisure section and back again), in The Greatest Story Ever Sold Mr. Rich produces a thorough synthesis of how the Bush administration has stretched every manner of information past consensual reality’s breaking point, be it the several fraudulent casus belli for the Iraq invasion or the pundit payola schemes to tout White House domestic initiatives.
But perhaps because Mr. Rich focuses so obsessively on the Bush team’s message-crafting, he often seems to overlook the actual content of the Bush administration’s ideology and self-image. On the one hand, Mr. Rich disputes—properly, in my view—the hoary left/liberal mantra that George W. Bush is outlandishly dumb. On the other, though, Mr. Rich argues that the President hasn’t been motivated by much of anything beyond a sense of political dominance for its own sake: “Bush was a competitor who liked to win the game, even if he was unclear about what to do with his victory beyond catering to the economic interests of his real base, the traditional Republican business constituency.”
Such explanations don’t leave much room to account for how very far out of their way Mr. Bush and his senior advisors went to manufacture a spurious case for invading Iraq—or how badly they botched the logistics of the postwar occupation. The hard-core ideological vision that drove so much of the Bush team’s bellicosity—from the epically distorted collection of prewar intelligence to the systematic marginalizing of war skeptics in administration power confabs—gets scant mention in the spectacle-minded pages of The Greatest Story Ever Sold.
Indeed, the ultimate explanation that Mr. Rich offers for the motivation behind the Iraq invasion is itself a classic study in the very Beltway-bubble myopia that Mr. Rich bemoans at great length in the Washington establishment and the mainstream press. It was all done, Mr. Rich claims, to nail down a big win for the G.O.P. in the 2002 off-year elections and so solidify Karl Rove’s dream of permanent Republican rule in Washington. “It was a propitious moment to wag the dog,” Mr. Rich writes, and here the picture grows dim with much shadowy neocon cunning and surmises about a lot of overlapping, but undocumented, prime motives among key Bush players: “For Rove and Bush to get what they wanted most, slam-dunk midterm election victories, and for Libby and Cheney to get what they wanted most, a war in Iraq for ideological reasons predating 9/11, their real whys for going to war had to be replaced by more saleable fictional ones.” Hence, Mr. Rich argues, Messrs. Libby and Rove’s crusade to out Valerie Plame after Joe Wilson came forward to discredit the notorious claim that Saddam Hussein sought to get weapons-grade uranium out of Niger: It struck at the key fictional case for war, the bogus claim that the Iraq threat was imminent “because there was a direct connection between Saddam and Al Qaeda and because Saddam was on the verge of attacking America with nuclear weapons.”
There are several problems here, not least of which is the recent revelation—in a far more richly reported book (Hubris, by David Corn and Michael Isikoff)—that the initial leaker of Ms. Plame’s identity was then Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who was among the administration’s most vocal skeptics on the case for any imminent Iraq threat. But more to the point is the problem that sends most elaborate marionette-string conspiracies like this one tumbling to the ground: the rule of logic known as Occam’s razor, which insists on the fewest plausible premises to explain an outcome. If Mr. Rove has the dark political genius to engineer something so grandly sinister as a foreign invasion just in order to mobilize the Republican base, why would he then resort to something so petty and plainly self-endangering as a Beltway whispering campaign to discredit a retired diplomatic functionary like Joe Wilson? It’s another contradictory portrait: We’ve already been asked to conceive of Mr. Bush as a lazy power-monger; now we’re asked to buy a vision of Karl Rove as equal parts Niccolò Machiavelli and Louella Parsons.
If the grand motives in Mr. Rich’s master theory go blurry, his prolonged brief against the trivial tyrannies of the 24/7 infotainment culture get downright surreal. That culture is at once everywhere and nowhere in Mr. Rich’s frustrating account, providing explanations for everything and nothing. Consider the attention he lavishes on the movie Pearl Harbor, which peddles, in Mr. Rich’s view, a “scrupulously nonpartisan” view of war as “a state-of-the-art digital video game, with even the bloodshed sanitized to preserve the financially desirable PG-13 rating.” It was, he argues, “an essential historical artifact … of the tranquil American summer of 2001”—as well as “the peak and the reductio ad absurdum of the World War II nostalgia boom.” It was everything, in fact, except a box-office success, and its most lasting legacy looks—thankfully—to have been the termination of Ben Affleck’s career as a big box-office lead. And don’t get Mr. Rich started on actual commercial and critical successes such as Chicago—which reminds him of the White House press corps’ dismal performance at a rare prewar 2002 Bush press conference, the lapdog journalists all singing along in the big production number, “We Both Reached for the Gun.” (Don’t worry—he lost me, too.)
More disturbing are Frank Rich’s own turns at cable-style pundit hyperbole. He attacks, for example, evangelical Christian leaders as “Taliban-esque … homegrown ayatollahs” by pointing out that some of them disapprove of hip-shaking pop music—as did Islamic fundamentalism’s guiding light, Sayyid Qutb! Mr. Rich also goes out of his way to deride the National Review Online for running a heinous post-9/11 column by Ann Coulter calling for the widespread slaughter of Muslim leaders and the coerced Christian conversion of the Muslim faithful across the globe; he cites the article as evidence of the early bloodlust of “Bush’s right flank.” In general terms, believe me, the ridicule of the National Review Online is a cause that commands my utmost sympathy. But Mr. Rich omits to note that this was the column that led to Ms. Coulter’s dismissal from the National Review—not exactly the sort of citation that inspires confidence in an account of rampant distortions of the truth.
The Greatest Story Ever Sold is, in narrative terms, well crafted—it’s useful, if nothing else, to have a clear-eyed chronology of the many evasions, prevarications and outright lies that have marked the Bush years. Indeed, one of the most valuable features of the book is a 78-page timeline, presented as an appendix, juxtaposing misleading White House claims about the case for war and the war’s progress with subsequent press reports showing those claims to be false. But the more tendentious stretches of the book confuse the stage-managing of consent with the exercise of power. In the world outside the 24/7 mediasphere, systematic deceit is more than a matter of heavy-breathing conspiracy, just as illegal war-making is more than a matter of cultural resemblances.
Chris Lehmann is an editor at CQ Weekly and the author of Revolt of the Masscult (Prickly Paradigm).