Now that the mid-term elections are over, with Democrats in the majority in House and Senate, it appears that the American public has, for the most part, recognized the artificial reality created by the Bush (II) administration for what it was and has, finally, become aware of the “spin” and falsehoods that were its hallmark.
This book should be read and studied by everyone, those who supported and still support Mr. Bush’s view of reality and those who have become aware of the duplicity that was used.
Mr. Rich, a former drama critic for the New York Times and, more recently, an op-ed contributor to that paper, uses his theatrical background to articulate “fictional realities” that Bush has presented as fact. Mr. Rich’s opinion of the Bush presidency is well known and, somewhat, lessens the strength of this book. On the whole, it is a convincing and very dramatic portrayal of the failure of the press, opposition Democrats and the public at large to question the statements of the administration, even when such statements were patently inaccurate.
I am reminded of the old comedy routine that ended with the question, “What are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?”
In a lengthy examination of the jingoistic, pro-Pentagon reporting on the early days of the Iraq war, Mr. Rich notes that “about the only discouraging words to be found in the American mass media about America’s instant victory in Iraq was on Comedy Central.” Jon Stewart, the host of Comedy Central’s “Daily Show,” wins Mr. Rich’s praise for finding laughs by “taking the facts of a news story more seriously than real TV journalists did,” as when he called the list of United States allies the “Coalition of the Piddling” while conventional news media “mindlessly parroted” the Pentagon’s preferred tags, “coalition forces” or “Coalition of the Willing.”
Mr. Rich cites numerous examples of the administration’s creation of a fictional reality and the public’s willingness to accept that reality as true. Among these were Mr. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” speech, delivered on the USS Abraham Lincoln after he landed a plane on its deck. Rich deconstructs the event, from the repainting of the plane, the placement of the ship so that it appeared to be far at sea, the timing at dusk – prized by cinematographers for its glow – and the echoing of popular movies like Top Gun.
Other “realities” discussed by Mr. Rich include the false stories surrounding the Jessica Lynch capture and rescue, the government’s preparation for Hurricane Katrina, the stories surrounding the death of football star Pat Tillman, and more and more.
The book contains a primer for future candidates for office on how to turn a campaign liability into an asset: in this case how someone with no combat experience can successfully run on national security issues against someone who was actually shot on the battlefield.
Mr. Rich asserts that the Bush camp, “so brilliant at creating fictional stories for their own man,” managed to “create a fictional biography for Kerry” that offset the stories of his heroism as captain of a Swift boat in Vietnam, leaving the war hero “stripped of his medals – so that he would be on the same footing as a president whose Vietnam service consisted of sporadic participation in the Texas ‘Champagne unit’ stateside.”
Mr. Rich cites chapter and verse on the discrediting of Mr. Kerry. There is no explanation of why John Kerry didn’t really fight back.
As a liberal and Democrat, even I could more willingly go along with Mr. Rich’s conclusions that Mr. Bush has “lost the public” and “lost the war of ideas” in the struggle against radical Islam if Mr. Rich’s disdain for the president as a person were less obvious, and if he occasionally gave Mr. Bush credit for some of his initiatives.
Of all those he skewers for contributing to the “decline and fall of truth” in the selling of the war in Iraq, Mr. Rich goes easiest on the American people, writing that they had “a better excuse than the smart guys within the Beltway” because “Americans always love a good story.” He says that after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on American soil it was “not all that easy to resist” an administration willing to sell a scary story “with brilliant stagecraft and relentless pacing.”
Still, Mr. Rich ends his book by urging Americans to reject the pervasive culture of blurred lines between truth and fiction, or to risk being “exploited by another master manipulator from either political party.” If the public does not heed Mr. Rich’s warnings, perhaps the news media will answer his call for coverage that more aggressively separates fiction from reality as a step toward a more truthful civic life.