columnist Frank Rich knows theater. He was the paper's chief theater critic before going to the op-ed page in 1999.
Rich, whose theatrical reviews earned him the title "The Butcher of Broadway," is more likely now to skewer politicians than producers.
But the 57-year-old Rich clearly has not lost his critic's eye. This Sunday, Nov. 5, he'll be in Portland at the Schnitz to discuss his new book, The Greatest Story Ever Sold—applying his critical expertise to a harsh analysis of the Bush administration and its use of propaganda and theatrics.
The story begins during the summer before the 9/11 attacks, when the country had time to be enthralled by then-Rep. Gary Condit (anybody remember the missing intern?), and ends with the Hurricane Katrina debacle in 2005. WW spoke with Rich via telephone from Chicago this week.
WW: With all the books out there criticizing the Bush administration, what did you think your book would add?
Frank Rich: My feeling even before 9/11 was that this administration lived and died by show business and theater. I'm an expert in this field, but I resisted writing a book for a while because I didn't want to write a wonky book, and I didn't want to write a policy book about the war in Iraq. What I wanted to write was how the administration rolled out the show, how these techniques they've used have the quality of a big Broadway production. The day I decided to write it was right after we saw their response to Katrina, because I suddenly had my ending. That was when the scales tipped against them, and they finally lost credibility with the public.
What sorts of "Broadway-style" techniques do you mean?
Well, it's things like Bush giving a speech in front of Mount Rushmore, and the small intricacies, like making sure that his profile was perfectly blended in with those of the other presidents on the mountainside. One of the points I wanted to make in the first chapter was that the administration felt that even something as innocuous as a summer vacation—and that was before 9/11—had to be branded, had to be turned into something like Leave It to Beaver. I wasn't looking for them to do theater—they already were.
Why has the Democrats' message been so ineffective against that?
The Democrats did not have a clear message. [John] Kerry made an appearance in front of the Grand Canyon late in the [2004 presidential] election, and was asked if he'd still vote for the war if he knew everything he now knew. He still said yes—and this was practically on the eve of the election! Even my son, who's in his late teens, said, "What the hell is this?" This desire to manipulate this culture is not unique to Bush—he was just brilliant at it. The Democrats would like to do it. [But] for all their ties to Hollywood, they haven't managed to pull it off. Kerry announced his candidacy in front of an aircraft carrier, Bush-style, in South Carolina. But the aircraft carrier was docked.
You also blame the media for letting the Bush administration get away with so much. As a member of the media yourself, why was it so easy for the Bush administration?
Well, it's much less so now. But after 9/11 the media—and much of the major media is in New York and Washington—were shaken up and grief-stricken, as I certainly was. Understandably, the media wanted to give the benefit of the doubt. After November , when it looked like we had taken out the Taliban, the public had every right to still be shell-shocked. But the media and Congress should have been more skeptical. There was an attempt to make you look like a traitor if you questioned the administration. But I think the press should have stepped up to the plate. There were reporters that did write skeptical stories, but those were on page A13, and those about aluminum tubes [presented as evidence of an Iraqi nuclear-weapons program] were on A1, as [The New York Times'] public editor has pointed out. The big reporters did not get to the story in time, and that certainly includes Judy [Miller of the Times] and Bob Woodward at The Washington Post. Even now, it seems absurd how everyone just rolled over. But I thought that if you had a step-by-step look at how things happened, it might become more understandable.
Rich appears at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall this Sunday, Nov. 5, at 7:30 pm as part of the Portland Arts & Lecture Series. Tickets are available for $5 to $26 at literary-arts.org/boxoffice.