I’ll read anything Christoper Hitchens writes, but when I saw that he had written a review in the Claremont Review Books of Frank Rich’s The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth From 9/11 to Katrina, I wasn’t enthusiastic. Rich has always seemed like a lightweight, and the title of his book suggested it’s not a serious work. Hitchens’ review, I thought, would be in the nature of killing an ant with a sledgehammer.
It turns out to be more like a master chef carving an unsavory turkey. The turkey is carved largely with two strokes of the blade. The first is to identify Rich’s central point — that the infusion of “showbiz values” into public life produces a decline in truth. The second is to demonstrate how Rich exemplifies this very problem.
Rich does so through his use of party tricks. One of them is finding error or exaggeration in the statements of administration spokespersons. As Hitchens notes, “any fool can have great fun with the ineptitudes of departmental spokesmen (and I speak as someone who knows).”
When hunting for bigger game, Rich employs the concept of “truthiness,” which he apparently borrowed from comedian Steven Colbert (more showbiz values). Thus, President Bush’s statement that “I didn’t say there was a direct connection between September the 11th and Saddam Hussein” is, in Rich’s estimation, “technically true but it is really just truthiness: Bush struck 9/11 like a gong in every fear-instilling speech about Iraq he could.”
What Bush actually did, Hitchens explains, was to strongly imply that Saddam had an interest in or enthusiasm for the kind of activity that occurred on 9/11. And that proposition is more than just “truthy.” Saddam had sheltered the fugitive who mixed the chemicals for the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center. He had allowed the terrorist Abu Nidal to use Baghdad as his headquarters. He had boasted of paying bounties to the suicide-murderers of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The man responsible for killing Leon Klinghoffer on the Achille Lauro was traveling on an Iraqi diplomatic passport. And the Baghdad state-run press had exulted at the revenge taken on America on 9/11.
Thus, asks Hitchens, can it be that those who thought Saddam “might have to be taken seriously as a sponsor of nihilistic violence” were wiser than “those who thought it crass to mention [him] and terrorism in the same breath?” The answer is “not without being jeered at by Rich, who either does not know any of the above facts or who chooses not to include any of them in his proudly truth-centered narrative.”
Rich’s apparently frivolous book has an appropriately frivolous core — the Valerie Plame story. Thus, “should you ever wish to recover the atmosphere of hectic conspiracy-mongering that pervaded the press in those days, and overrode even the most basic rules of evidence of analysis, here it all is, as if preserved in amber.” Developments that occurred shortly after Rich’s book went to press rendered “a goodly chunk” of it otherwise “nugatory.” The remainder “can stand as a warning to those who suppose that the profound can be deduced from an intense but myopic scrutiny of the superficial.”
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