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Rich's Story

Each Sunday New York Times columnist Frank Rich writes a 1,500-word column depicting the intersection of culture and news.

By JANE AMMESON

Each Sunday New York Times columnist Frank Rich writes a 1,500-word column depicting the intersection of culture and news. Rich recently took his analysis one step further by exploring how the Bush administration convinced the American public to go to war against Iraq in his second book, The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth from 9/11 to Katrina (Penguin Press, 2006). Rich, who worked for 13 years as a drama critic for the Times and earned the sobriquet of "Butcher of Broadway," uses his razor-sharp writing skills to create a compelling look at a masterpiece of hucksterism.

Why did you choose this topic?

I come from a background as a theater critic. I grew up in Washington, D.C., and I've always been struck, beginning when I was a child and watching the short-lived Kennedy years, by the connection between politics and cultural politics and pop culture. I felt in the case of this particular administration, no one, not Kennedy, not Reaganwho himself was a Hollywood actorno one has more effectively used the cultural apparatus of the country to tell a story.

And the story was?

In this case, in my view, a fictional story that brought the country into a war against a nation that did not attack us on 9/11. I wanted to go back a reconstruct how they did it because it was a masterpiece in the storytelling. The Greatest Story Ever Sold is not entirely an ironic title, or actually maybe it's not a great story, but it was brilliantly told. I felt that what I could do with this book that might set it apart from others about this period is to tell that story. Everyone has their visions about the policies of the Bush administration, and this isn't really a book about that. It's about how they did it, how they bought it all and of course how it fell apart.

For so long the story was so compelling to so many people. How and when did it fall apart?

Katrina. Indeed, the moment I decided to write the book was after the response to Katrina. I'm a real believer in beginnings, middles and ends in narratives, and I was looking to see if there might be a way to draw the curtain on the story. I'm speaking more in the aesthetic sense than reality. Obviously this administration will go on for another two plus years. I rolled the dice on my conviction that Katrina was the last straw, that Katrina was a replay of Iraq in many, many ways in the lack of preparedness to the chaos that ensued, to inefficient tardy response, to lootings, to the president's disengagement from reality of what was going on all these things came back. I think those people who had not seen what Bush had been up to in Iraq now did and most of the country saw it. I felt that was my final curtain, and that's when I decided to write the book.

How did you accumulate your research?

I submersed myself in old newspaper accounts, television news transcripts, articles and clips that I had saved. I'm a pack rat. When I felt something didn't add up and it was a missing piece in the story, I went searching for and often found it. I constantly found things that were hiding in plain sight. Even something like the uranium from Nigerif there had been no Joseph Wilson blowing the whistle and talking about his trip, there was still plenty of evidence. There were forged papers, there were people like ElBaradei, the head of the UN atomic energy weapon component [IAEA], publicly saying ten days before the invasion of Iraq that there was likely to be nothing to it. People just ignored it. I also tried to piece together why culture allows this to happen.

In many ways, your book is about a journey from the dark days following 9/11 to now.

It was a lot of connecting the dots to try to see how we got from a country that was shell-shocked after 9/11, over-whelmingly supported the new president with a 90 percent-plus approval rating..and overwhelmingly supported what, in my view, was a very correct war to go after the Taliban and any Al-Qaeda personnel they could find in Afghanistan. How do we go from that to the situation we're in now? How do you get from A to Z? I wanted to draw that map.

Your book reads like a novel. It's fast paced and enthralling, but do you think it will change things?

I think that we're seeing a change. One part of change that's not positive is a lot of people are just turned off. They feel they've been lied to so much that they're disengaged from the system. But I do think many Americans understand what's gone on and on some level want to get the country back from this. I do feel everyone in politics, regardless of political parties, feels this tremendous discontent out there and not just with the Bush administration. Congress has even lower ratings because it also failed in the key issue of oversight. I do believe in the cycle of history, and I do feel that we are coming out of the cycle. I'm reasonably optimistic that there will be change of some sort that will be productive.

You've gone from being a theater critic to a columnist. Are you enjoying it?

It is a lot of fun because it's a terrific platform and you have a lot of freedom. Writing a column, any columnist anywhere will tell you it's also a high wire act because of the pressure involved. I remember when I started, Bill Safire, the great Times columnist, telling me that being a columnist is like standing under a windmill. Every time you're so relieved the blade has passed by you, you look up and another one is coming down at your head.

Do you ever feel like The New York Times and others could even lose their freedom to report?

There's no question that there's an assault going on against journalism in general by the government. It's a very difficult time. I have to try to be optimistic and hope that the public wants the right to know, and part of me feels the one good thing about the Internet is that it makes it much, much harder to stop the flow of information. We've seen that in totalitarian countries around the world. We do not live in a totalitarian country. Our situation is not nearly so dire, but the fact is that even in countries where the situation is that dire, the news can sometimes penetrate, suggesting it's not really in the end going to be successful in America to try to clamp down on free press. But still this is a brutal and troublesome period to me and everyone in the profession, not just at the Times.

I read that after you gave a negative review of Mel Gibson's movie, The Passion of The Christ, he wished you and your dog dead. Do you get a lot of threats like that?

Any job I've had I think I'm a lightning rod for certain controversy, but that goes with the territory. Someone like that making ludicrous threats is more silly than anything else. I don't take him [seriously]. I'm much more concerned about his movie and the bad blood that was created than I am about his juvenile personal attacks.

You seem so intense and so focused. What do you do for fun?

I like to read about things other than Iraq. I like to go to the theater, and I like to be with my family. I like to go out in New York and listen to jazz. I'm not sitting around looking to go to symposiums about politics.

I read your quote that "news happens through culture." Can you expound on that?

We have cultures going through an enormous transition because of the digital revolution. It's sort of a version of what's happening to the news business. It's scary and exciting at the same time. It's scary because if you go to a place like Hollywood, they don't know what to do when some young audiences are content watching three-minute films on a cell phone. All the forums, not to mention the distribution of culture, [are in] play now, so I often liken it to what it was like when sound came into the movies. There was a lot of chaos and anxiety in the pop culture establishment in the country. The same time, [there were] opportunities for new kinds of art, new artists, new people to break through. My son's friends have a band that only really exists on the Internet and in personal appearances that completely bypass the whole record/radio universe that I grew up with in pop music, and it's fascinating. I'm very stimulated by it. I agree there's a lot of vulgarity and crap in our culture, but that's America. It's never going to change. There's also wonderful fiction being written, there's some good theater, there are certainly good movies, so it's a very mixed bag. That's part of the excitement of America.

Published: August 01, 2006
Issue: November 2006