Executive Times






2006 Book Reviews


The Greatest Story Ever Sold by Frank Rich








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If you agree with Frank Rich, you’ll fine The Greatest Story Ever Sold to be perspective. If you disagree, your blood pressure will rise as he fails to understand what has been going on. Rich indicts the Bush administration for its public relations methods and practices that presented a version of reality that often was distant from the truth. The text is overpowering with presenting lies, mistakes, spin, photo ops, simulations that formed policy impressions. We have come to expect politicians to lie, and The Greatest Story Ever Sold presents the ways in which political lying has reached a zenith. Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of Chapter 3, “‘I Don’t Think Anyone Could Have Predicted,’” pp. 42-4:


On Christmas Day, 2001, Karl Rove, Bush’s longtime political guru, told Richard L. Berke of The New York Times about a conversation he’d had with the president just after 9/11. In Rove’s recollection, Bush set the bipartisan tone for political behavior during a national emergency: “He just said, ‘Politics has no role in this. Don’t anybody talk to me about politics for a while.” But that—if it ever happened—was then, and this was now. The New Normal was ka­put. The new year—a midterm election year—was at hand. So was the annual State of the Union address. This would be Bush’s first speech to the nation since his appearance before a joint session of Congress on the eve of the war in Afghanistan. Now that the war was fast receding in the public consciousness, Berke reported, the White House was having “extensive discussions about how long Mr. Bush can sustain his impressive popularity ratings.” One strategist working with the administration explained the game plan: “They’re not manip­ulating the military operations. But there’s a manipulation of the environment. They take advantage of the situation to achieve some political objectives.”

But to get to the State of the Union at the end of January, the White House had to first run the gauntlet of Enron. The Houston energy giant, the greatest single financial patron of Bush’s political career, was imploding under the weight of scandalous revelations. At the end of 2001, it had filed for bank­ruptcy protection, laid off four thousand employees, and left its stockholders and pensioners with shares plunging toward penny-stock trading levels. News of Enron—White House ties proliferated daily; the Bush administration had been something of a full-employment service for past Enron consultants and executives, from Lawrence Lindsey, the chief economic adviser, to Thomas White, secretary of the army, to the White House counsel, Alberto Gonzales, who had had an attorney-client relationship with Enron while a partner at Vin­son & Elkins, in Houston. Enron brass had participated in a secret Dick Cheney energy task force that wrote the administration’s energy policy. Even the sole medical heavyweight the White House could produce to endorse its stem-cell “compromise” the preceding August, John Mendelsohn, was tainted by Enron: the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, which he ran, received six hun­dred thousand dollars in Enron lucre while he was a member of its board, serv­ing on its notorious see-no-evil audit committee.2 No wonder the number of available stem-cell lines under the Bush plan had turned out to be as inflated as Enron profits.

After New Year’s, the Justice Department confirmed that an inevitable criminal investigation of the company was under way—albeit one without the department’s chief, John Ashcroft, who recused himself from the case because of his own past political contributions from Enron. The next day, the president addressed the growing fury, telling reporters that Enron’s CEO, Kenneth Lay, who had contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars both to the Republi­cans’ post-election legal fight in Florida and to the subsequent presidential in­augural in Washington, was in fact a supporter of Ann Richards, the Democratic governor of Texas whom Bush had defeated in 1994. “And she had named him the head of the Governor’s Business Council,” Bush said. “And I decided to leave him in place, just for the sake of continuity. And that’s when I first got to know Ken and worked with Ken.” Bush was either suffering from memory loss or lying outright. The president who said he “got to know” Lay only in 1994 had actually known him since at least 1992, and Lay himself had said in a PBS Frontline documentary from early 2001 that he “did support” Bush over Richards in the Texas gubernatorial race.3

For a leader who had promised to usher America into a “new era of personal responsibility” after the Clinton years, it was a poor performance; the whole country knew that he had bestowed a nickname, “Kenny Boy,” on the man he now publicly referred to at times as “Mr. Lay.” But it was nothing Bush couldn’t ride out, over the short term at least, thanks to the halo effect of war. The country would cut him some slack, especially if the subject of the national conversation could be moved away from Enron and its implications for an ail­ing post-9/l 1 economy and back to the imperatives of terrorism. That war would be the theme of that year’s political campaign was laid out explicitly by Rove in a speech in Austin on January 18 as the State of the Union ap­proached. “Americans trust the Republicans to do a better job of keeping our communities and our families safe,” Rove told the winter meeting of the Re­publican National Committee. “We can also go to the country on this issue be­cause they trust the Republican Party to do a better job of protecting and strengthening America’s military might and thereby protecting America.”4 The president’s post 9/11 directive—”Don’t anybody talk to me about politics for a while”—was from that moment defunct. “For a while” had turned out to mean all of four months.

The State of the Union, presented to a cheering Congress still aglow with the post-9/11 bipartisanship that had uncharacteristically suffused the capital, was more explicit about how Rove’s “issue” might be sustained. The president larded the audience with heroes and widows from 9/11. “Our war against ter­ror is only beginning,” he declared. He made a rare, explicit, if nonbinding, ap­peal for sacrifice, asking Americans to devote two years (or four thousand hours) to a new and vaguely defined USA Freedom Corps and proposing an expanded Peace Corps. But what most grabbed the world’s attention was Bush’s vow to take on any “regimes that sponsor terror”—specifically, Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, which he collectively branded the “axis of evil.” This embryonic statement of Bush’s novel doctrine of preemptive war would be re­membered long after the call for volunteerism was completely forgotten (as it was by the following morning).

There was, of course, no mention of Enron in the State of the Union. But rather pointedly, for a speech that was going to sustain the idea of a nation at war, there was also no mention of Public Enemy No. 1, the man wanted dead or alive, the one we were at war with—Osama bin Laden.


Rich has a voice and a platform at The New York Times that presents a story different from the one pitched from the White House. The Greatest Story Ever Told raises the decibel level of that voice with reams of examples of the departures from truth and its consequences.  


Steve Hopkins, November 20, 2006



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the December 2006 issue of Executive Times


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