Review of “The Greatest Story Ever Sold”

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Frank Rich, “The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth From 9/11 to Katrina,” (Penguin Press, 2007), 352 pp., $15.00
by Joe Auciello
All of the factual material in the “The Greatest Story Ever Told” has been published before, and it is hardly news that the Bush administration exaggerated and lied about Saddam Hussein, weapons of mass destruction, etc. in order to justify war against Iraq.
Yet, by the end of this book, the account that “New York Times” op-ed columnist Frank Rich gives of the Bush years hits a reader with the impact of a revelation. Perhaps it is the cumulative weight of the sheer mass of deceit and treachery that has emanated relentlessly for the last several years from the White House.
What’s new here is Rich’s meticulously researched and well-organized presentation of the record, especially the carefully orchestrated deception and fear-mongering about terrorism and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Rich shows how the Bush administration viewed U.S. foreign policy as a concept requiring salesmanship, as an item to be marketed, where false advertising would be an essential part of the package.
Rich pulls the curtain back and exposes the inner workings of the war campaign. He sets factual statements against the false statements of Bush administration officials, so that the depth and scope of the ongoing Big Lie is laid bare.
Also included is a record of public opinion polls that documents Bush’s ability to mislead and deceive the nation. Part of the president’s success, Rich shows, is the willingness of a docile press to believe what it is told, so that the press itself, or large segments of it, became almost a public relations branch of the White House.
Reporters who wanted to remain in favor with the administration, who wanted to maintain contacts with government sources, wrote articles that would be well-received by Bush officials. These reporters would not dig too deeply for contradictory and more accurate information.
This kind of kinship would often lead an especially treacherous scenario: an important official in, say, Vice-President Cheney’s office would leak information to a reporter who would write an article using the material provided. Days later, speaking on a Sunday morning news show, Cheney would seize upon the news article as corroboration of the administration’s claims. The press’s reputation as an independent entity lent credence to this strategy of what should have been called “leak and lie.”
Another aspect of this strategy called for the Bush inner circle to lie to their own. Former press secretary Scott McLellan recounts (“What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception”) the Bush administration’s effort to defame former ambassador Joseph Wilson. In a “New York Times” article, Wilson revealed that a key argument in the president’s 2003 State of the Union speech — Iraq’s supposed nuclear weapons capability — was false and said, further, that he had reported the facts truthfully to U.S. intelligence agencies.
The Bush administration responded by illegally blowing the cover of Wilson’s wife, a CIA operative, and then lying about it. In McLellan’s words, “I had unknowingly passed along false information. And five of the highest- ranking officials in the administration were involved in my doing so: Rove, Libby, Vice President Cheney, the president’s chief of staff Andrew Card, and the president himself.”
In 2003 former Secretary of State Colin Powell delivered a speech at the United Nations outlining the Bush administration’s case for war against Iraq. Powell referred to Iraq’s development of mobile biological weapons labs as one instance of its weapons of mass destruction. Before Powell misled the United Nations and the world, he was himself misled. According to a “Los Angeles Times” article, “Powell said he was never warned, during three days of intense briefings at C.I.A. headquarters before his U.N. speech that he was using material that both the D.I.A. and C.I.A. had determined was false” (Nov. 20, 2005).
Were the United States intelligence agencies conspiring to lead the nation to war? Both Rich and McClellan say “no” and place the blame squarely on President Bush. As McLellan explains, “[Bush] set the policy early on and then his team focused his attention on how to sell it.”
In these instances as in many others, McLellan’s book actually serves as a companion volume to “The Greatest Story Ever Sold.”
Frank Rich wears his liberal bias proudly, and his analysis is by no means a Marxist criticism of the Bush administration, the capitalist state, or of imperialist war. He uses neither this vocabulary nor these concepts. His focus remains more narrowly on the moral failings of the Bush regime and the political ineptness of the Democrats (“[Democratic nominee] Kerry was already proving a genius at self-destruction, handing the White House loaded weapons with which to mow him down”). It’s as if all that matters are the decisions of prominent individuals.
Rich does not explore any of the larger and more significant reasons why the United States capitalists wanted war and would have gotten what they wanted under the leadership of either major party. Nonetheless, Rich has gathered the kind of information that must be an essential part of any more thorough-going analysis.
In the Bush administration’s criminal game of smoke and mirrors, Rich reveals who blew the smoke, who held the mirrors, and who reported the illusion as reality.
May 2, 2009

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