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Frank Rich on the Bush presidency since 9/11

In his new book, “The Greatest Story Ever Sold,” The New York Times columnist examines how the Bush administration reclaimed center stage.
/ Source: TODAY

When Frank Rich was the drama critic for The New York Times, his nickname was “the butcher of Broadway.” He now writes for the Times about culture and politics, prompting Slate magazine to re-name him “the butcher of the Beltway.” His new book, “The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth from 9/11 to Katrina,” is an unsparing look at the Bush administration. Rich was invited on “Today” to discuss his book. Read an excerpt:

Chapter oneThe summer of 2001 had been one of national torpor, with some cheap entertainment for spice. The still-novice president was vacationing in Crawford, Texas, but he was hardly the only American gone fishing. In New York, the tabloids whipped up a frenzy about the legal travails of a marginal but conspicuously wealthy thirty-year-old show-business publicist, Lizzie Grubman, who in an apparent fit of impatience had plowed her SUV into a crowd outside a nightclub in the Hamptons and then fled. The rest of the country, having quickly determined that the murder of the wife of the actor Robert Blake was too B-list to qualify as an O. J. Simpson rerun, feasted instead on Gary Condit.

A back-bencher congressman from Modesto, California, Condit could not explain the abrupt disappearance of a twenty-four-year-old Washington intern, Chandra Levy, with whom he may or may not have had an extramarital affair. In retrospect, the Condit affair (or non-affair — we never did find out) was the last gasp of the fin-de-siècle Clinton culture and its bread and circuses of sex scandals. With Bill Clinton gone from center stage, the country had to settle for a dim-witted Price Club surrogate — and did. Desperate pundits worked overtime to turn a pale understudy into a star.

The Condit-Levy soap opera was a snapshot of a waning era. It quickly mushroomed into a classic 24/7 cable TV mediathon in the O.J.-pioneered format. A nugget of salacious news was rapidly inflated with acres of speculation, a large cast of supporting players, and teams of bloviating “experts” — the familiar set of ingredients that has become electronic journalism’s equivalent of Hamburger Helper. The circus provided continuous infotainment for a nation with time on its hands.

The moralists and publicity seekers (often one and the same) turned out in full force. “Condit makes our former president look like the model of monogamy,” observed Jonathan Turley, one of the many Monica-era talking heads who seized an opportunity for renewed television face time. But while Condit was a Democrat, he was a conservative Democrat who had once co-sponsored a bill calling for the display of the Ten Commandments in public places. In the end, about the only person in America to stand up for the guy was the virtuecrat William Bennett, who entered the fray to argue that Condit belonged on a higher moral plane than the philandering president whom Bennett had spent the past decade vilifying. “Hypocrisy is better than no standards at all,” Bennett explained, coining a maxim that would come in handy two years later, when he was exposed as a gambling addict with losses of at least eight million dollars.

If there was a real moral to Condit’s tale, however, it had nothing to do with sex; it was that the culture valued a politician’s performance above all else. And Condit had steadfastly refused to perform. He didn’t apologize for anything. He didn’t express sorrow for the Levy family. He didn’t cry. Other politicians, pundits, and citizens faulted him for not being phony enough — for not being as good an actor as Bill Clinton. As the self-appointed voice of the masses, Bill O’Reilly of Fox News Channel’s O’Reilly Factor, elaborated after Condit gave a TV interview to ABC’s Connie Chung in August, “This guy doesn’t look like he’s broken up about this at all …  If I were Condit, I would have cried. He could have done the lip thing.” The conservative commentator William Kristol astutely observed that politicians of all stripes were most likely to “condemn Condit for terrible P.R. judgment — not for being a terrible human being.”

Though Americans were fond of saying that they valued authenticity in their politicians above all else, they didn’t really mean it. Condit’s sleaziness was authentic; what they wanted from him was fake contrition. In 1961, the year after John F. Kennedy won a crucial campaign debate with the charisma challenged Richard Nixon because of his telegenic charm rather than the substance of what he said, the historian Daniel Boorstin canonized this sea change in American public life with his classic book The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America. Four decades later this cultural strain had metastasized. As Condit learned the hard way, the performance of a politician, the image, was sometimes the only thing that mattered.

Along with Condit, another heavily hyped product from California provided escapist entertainment for a bored country in a sleepy summer — Pearl Harbor, a Jerry Bruckheimer extravaganza from Disney. With a 95 percent awareness factor (according to Hollywood tracking polls), Pearl Harbor, the movie, was better known to most Americans than Pearl Harbor, the historical event. The peacetime navy had cooperated with the making of the film, and it donated the aircraft carrier John C. Stennis as a stage for revelers at the gala premiere in Hawaii. That night the movie’s star, Ben Affleck, told reporters that the film’s “message is not one about the United States or Japan or the Second World War, right or wrong” but just about how “terrible” war is in general. To have raised matters of right and wrong might have depressed ticket sales in Tokyo. Pearl Harbor is so scrupulously nonpartisan that it never explains Japan’s motives for its attack —  or, for that matter, why anyone fought in Asia or Europe during World War II.

The vapid Pearl Harbor was an essential historical artifact anyway — not of its ostensible subject but of the tranquil American summer of 2001. The forty-minute bombing sequence looked like a state-of-the-art digital video game, with even the bloodshed sanitized to preserve the financially desirable PG-13 rating. The flyboy fashions, complete with product placements for Ray-Ban, were as pristine as those in the Abercrombie & Fitch catalogue. The war itself was transformed into a content-free but vaguely uplifting exercise in team gamesmanship whose main purpose was to put randy pilots in proximity to bodacious nurses. America is invincible; any and every battle can be won without working up a sweat. Even medical miracles are effortlessly within reach: in one scene of high drama, FDR, trying to rally his Cabinet, miraculously rises from his wheelchair to stand on his own two feet, polio be damned. Pearl Harbor was at once the peak and the reductio ad absurdum of the World War II nostalgia boom that had preoccupied America for several years.

That craze had produced so many movies, books, and TV series that the greatest generation was less an idea than a brand, useful for selling anything. (Amazon opened up a Pearl Harbor Store in tandem with Disney’s film.) What was it all about? Tom Brokaw, whose best-selling book had helped kick off the phenomenon, noted that only a decade earlier the fiftieth-anniversary ceremonies at Pearl Harbor received scant attention; he was the only TV anchor on hand. But that was in 1991, when a World War II vet was still president. Now the boomers had ascended to power. Just as Pearl Harbor was more about the present than the past, so the overall World War II obsession said more about the generation born after the war than the generation who fought the war. After all, it was mainly boomers — and others too young to remember Pearl Harbor firsthand — who created the idea of the greatest generation and its sundry product lines, not the reticent and dwindling ranks of World War II veterans.

The motivation, in part, was overcompensation for what was missing in our national life: some cause larger than ourselves, whatever it might be. So debased was the notion of sacrifice by the summer of 2001 that when the White House press secretary, Ari Fleischer, was asked if Americans should think about altering their lifestyles to conserve energy, he declared that the president believed that the current gas-guzzling lifestyle was “the American way of life” and that “it should be the goal of policy makers to protect the American way of life — the American way of life is a blessed one.” The Democrats’ idea of sacrifice was scarcely different. The opposition party’s leadership had unveiled a so-called alternative energy plan that also swore off “reductions in our standard of living” and featured on its cover a photo of a family polishing its SUV.

For all the differences between the Clinton-Gore and Bush-Cheney administrations, together they formed a boomer continuum. Each was ruled by narcissists who wanted what they wanted when they wanted it and were convinced of their own righteousness. Clinton and Bush were masters at using the sweet-talking language of “compassion,” “feeling your pain,” and “faith” as a rhetorical substitute for, say, expending political capital to bring medical insurance to poor children. If the Republicans offered greater tax cuts instead of more New Deal–Great Society entitlement programs, neither political party wanted voters to give up anything for any common good larger than feathering their own immediate nests. “Both parties have reversed J.F.K. Their mantra is ‘Ask not what you can do for your country, but rather what your country can do for your stock portfolio/benefit package,’” said Marshall Wittmann, then of Washington’s conservative Hudson Institute.

And so the Clinton-Bush boomer generation turned a nominally selfless tribute to its fathers’ generation not only into a lucrative branch of show business but also into an implicit, cost-free celebration of its own worthiness. By exulting in our parents’ wartime service, we could practice what the writer John Gregory Dunne labeled a “virtual patriotism” that made us look noble by association. Seeing Pearl Harbor or giving The Greatest Generation as a Father’s Day present could become the cost-free moral equivalent of going to war. We never imagined that America might actually have to go fight another real one.

Our virtual patriotism also helped us repress more recent memories of the war our generation was asked to fight, Vietnam — a debacle that, not so incidentally, was cooked up by dogtag-wearing members of the greatest generation, including JFK, and that both boomer presidents had ducked. No matter how much Americans doted on World War II, it was still the Vietnam ghosts who lurked in the shadows. They leapt out again during the spring of 2001, when The New York Times published revelations about Bob Kerrey’s anguish over the women and children who died in a 1969 SEAL raid he led on a peasant village in Vietnam But hardly did the Kerrey story emerge than boomer politicians and journalists rushed to lock it up again — by throwing up our hands and saying, “Who are we to judge?” and “War is war.”

We didn’t want to go there if we could help it. Newsweek, which had had the Kerrey scoop before the Times but dropped it, ran a twelve-page cover story promoting Pearl Harbor. At the movie’s five-million-dollar Hawaiian premiere, Kerrey’s old outfit, the Navy SEALs, parachuted down from the skies to entertain the celebrity guests — a cheerful, Disneyfied inversion of the Playboy Bunnies’ USO show in Apocalypse Now. The new president, whose political supporters had tried to smear John McCain as a crazed vet during the 2000 primaries, returned to his alma mater, Yale, to deliver a jokey commencement address to the class of 2001. Though Bush’s class was riven by Vietnam, and Yale lost a few men there, his reminiscences included no mention of that war or any other.

By then, a half year into his term, George W. Bush was on his way to becoming a forgettable chief executive with no driving agenda beyond traditional Republican tax cuts and a Reagan-bequeathed defense-spending boondoggle (the “Star Wars” missile shield). Unlike his father, a bona fide greatest-generation hero, the forty-third president had ridden out his own war by obtaining a hard to secure slot in the Texas Air National Guard, aka the “champagne unit,” a well-known parking place for well-heeled and well-connected Texans who wanted to make certain their Vietnam War service was spent safely stateside. Bush was at best a profile in peacetime courage: as a politician, he was determined to say and do nothing that might disturb the country during one of its longest-running naps. He was so unexceptional that That’s My Bush!, a satirical series on the cable channel Comedy Central, created by the scabrous and highly popular team behind South Park, expired at the start of September after a brief run that incited neither laughter nor the expected controversy.

The standard rap on Bush from Democrats in the 2000 campaign deemed him an airhead — or, more commonly, an idiot, a moron, a monkey. Asked by a South Carolina elementary school kid at a campaign photo op to name his favorite book as a child, Bush responded, “I can’t remember any specific books.” When he seemed to stand up bravely to his party’s right flank with a speech referring damningly to the title of Robert Bork’s best-selling screed Slouching Towards Gomorrah, his spokesman said that the allusion was inadvertent. (“He may not even have realized he was referring to a book,” cracked Bork.) Slate magazine fastidiously collected the many Bushisms of the malaprop-prone Republican standard-bearer. In March 2000 David Letterman summed up the prevailing bottom line: “This guy, to me, looks like he could be a colossal boob.”

That indictment had only gained in vociferousness and decibel level after the bitter battle of Florida, during which James Baker’s legal shock troops outwitted their Al Gore counterparts, tossing the recount into its foregone conclusion before a partisan Supreme Court. But there was plenty of evidence to suggest that Bush was no dunce. His mediocre grades at Yale—which he tried to keep private — were indistinguishable from those of the showily wonky Gore at Harvard. The problem with Bush was not that he was stupid but that he thought everyone else was stupid.

Excerpted from “The Greatest Story Ever Sold” by Frank Rich. Copyright Frank Rich, 2006. Reprinted by arrangement with No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from the publisher.