“Ruled By Fiction?” ‘Real’ Deception and Narrative Truth in Frank Rich’s The Greatest Story Ever Sold (2006)

Sebastian M. Herrmann


This essay will discuss Frank Rich’s 2006 creative non-fiction account of the George W. Bush presidency titled The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth in Bush’s America. Following a larger interest in tropes of ‘fictionality,’ presumably ‘unreal realities,’ and epistemic uncertainty in recent popular accounts of the presidency, it will investigate the dynamics of reality and fiction and Rich’s highly successful text.

Already in terms of format and genre, his book is remarkable. Its self-professed goal is to be a “study” (4) of how the Bush administration created the “fictional realities” (4) that, among other things, led to the war in Iraq. Indeed, many of the formal properties of the book fit this characterization and clearly mark it as non-fiction: It contains many endnotes and an extended appendix, it demands very little suspension of disbelief, and it does not really have main characters or dramatic action. At the same time, it is not simply a non-fiction “study.” Instead, it is a gripping, skillfully crafted narrative designed to attract and hold its readers’ attention. Written from the position of a cultural critic, it relies on public discourse and its interpretation, not on privileged insider accounts, to argue its point. On some 225 pages, its (mostly third-person, partly first-person plural) narrator thus tells the story of how the Bush administration has managed to pull off a stunt of quasi-Baudrillardian dimensions: The “creation of false reality” (Buruma) and the replacement of reality by fiction.1 The Greatest Story Ever Sold spans the time between 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, narrating in great depth and detail individual events, PR initiatives, behind-the-scenes action, and public reaction in order to explain what has happened to the United States and to reveal and detail the White House’s unreal narrative. Relating this narrative’s power to trump ‘empirical fact’ to the context of the post-millennial USA, Rich describes not simply a powerful, lying and storytelling executive, but a larger cultural malaise. The most fascinating (as well as the most disturbing) aspect of this book may then be how the author himself tells his story of deception, and how the plausibility and credibility of this story remains indebted to the language he uses, the narrative dynamics he skillfully employs, and the intertextual references and allusions he makes. Despite a total of 311 endnotes and an appendix almost half as long as the book’s body, the convincing power of Story’s narrative, then, does not simply stem from the factual evidence its author enlists, but from the narrative power he is able to unleash—a dynamic that is a troubling revenant of what Rich set out to criticize.

In order to contextualize Rich’s book, I will first look at the genre traditions Story locates itself in, some of which have barely received scholarly attention yet. I will then investigate the hybrid status of Rich’s text as at once a skillfully crafted piece of creative writing and a sociological and/or historical study in order to focus on the various authentication strategies the text uses to make plausible its narrative of deception. Lastly, I will discuss moments of crossover between the powerful narrative of the Bush administration and Rich’s narrative description thereof. Working along the dichotomy of ‘the real’ vs. ‘the fictional’ while simultaneously challenging the boundary between the two, Rich’s argument is in constant danger of collapsing. Reading The Greatest Story Ever Sold for such crossovers and collapses, I argue, shows that the text is not simply describing a certain dynamic but, intentionally or not, is acting it out.

1. Genres and Traditions

With The Greatest Story Ever Sold, Rich, a former New York Times theater critic,2 enters several more or less established traditions. Published in 2006, the book is a latecomer to a whole series of creative non-fiction accounts of the Bush presidency. Shortly before the reelection campaign of 2004, a flurry of such books was published and quickly hit the non-fiction rubric of US bestseller lists. All of these bestsellers—some of them autobiographical kiss-and-tell, others analytical reflections on Bush’s four years in office—are attempts to narrate the first term of the Bush presidency,3 attempts to find and tell a cohesive, convincing narrative of what has happened to the country, including the events of 9/11 and the war in Iraq. More often than not, they argue against a second term of this presidency. In their attempt to ‘emplot’ recent or even ongoing events with a mere gesture of retrospection, these instant historiographies are not unique to the Bush presidency—similar forms of journalistic writing exist for other administrations and events as well—but the sheer amount and commercial success of such narratives, starting in 2004, is unrivaled so far.4 While of very different authorship, mode, and content, they all tell more or less the same story, and their seriality testifies to the cultural work they do.5 In that The Greatest Story Ever Sold also tries to ‘explain’ the presidency by creating a cohesive (and critical) narrative, it partakes in this rather young tradition—and, in terms of narrating the administration’s deceit, may indeed be its most uncompromising incarnation.

A second, longer, genealogical line links the book to writing that diagnoses and scrutinizes an alleged artificiality of the presidential ‘persona.’ Beginning with books such as Joe McGinniss’s 1968 The Selling of the President and Daniel Boorstin’s 1973 The Image, authors have expressed a troubled uneasiness with the presumed lack of ‘realness’ in the post-war US most generally, and in the president, or presidential candidates, specifically. Both Boorstin and McGinniss juxtapose the media-generated image of a candidate with his ‘real’ nature and thus implement a fairly straightforward surface-substance dichotomy. They contend that the power of professional PR creates a superficial image—a brand—that is different from the ‘real’ candidate or politician underneath. Simultaneously, however, they hint at a more fundamental ‘postmodern’ panic: the power of the image emerges as a political threat and the texts thus raise the specter of ‘surface’ somehow trumping or even eradicating substance. Jon Simons has poignantly identified a “rhetoric of iconoclasm” (175) that links an elitist critique of popular culture with a certain critique of populist politics. When Boorstin asserts that “we have become so accustomed to illusions that we mistake them for reality”6 (6), he reads the power of PR and image creation as an expression of a cultural malaise that has immediate political consequences. Denouncing the political power of the image, for Boorstin and McGinnis, is both a statement about the executive branch of government and a form of cultural critique, an iconoclast Kulturkritik that argues, from the position of “typographic culture” and the Gutenberg Galaxy (cf. Simons 175-77), against the increasing ‘superficiality’ of a society obsessed with images and mere representations.

Frank Rich picks up on these traditions. His project, too, is one of Kulturkritik.7 Accordingly, he opens his story with a vivid description of the apparent cause of all problems: the culture of a “fin de siècle” (7) America, of a “country that [has] become habituated to peace and prosperity” (2), that lacks a “cause larger than ourselves” (10), and in which “Pearl Harbor, the movie, [is] better known [...] than Pearl Harbor, the historical event” (9). In this “bored country” (9), he argues, an “overheated 24/7 infotainment culture [has] trivialized the very idea of reality (and with it what once was known as news)” (2). It is in this climate that the Bush presidency has become possible: In “an earlier America,” he insists, it would have been harder to “get away with so many hollow spectacles and misleading public statements” (3). In Rich’s Kulturkritik, then, three major aspects of a more ‘traditional’ Kulturkritik make their appearance: the notion of a decadent, late-empire laziness; a critique of the commodification of culture and the resulting flattening of tastes and lack of distinction; and the conviction that in such a cultural climate substance is trumped, or even permanently replaced, by mere surface, hollow spectacles, and media-generated pseudo-events (as Boorstin calls them).

However, departing from earlier accounts and in line with a more general trend, Rich drops the concept of the ‘image’ and instead uses terms such as ‘narrative’ or ‘story.’ He thus trades the clear-cut dichotomy between ‘the real’ and its more or less distorted, more or less artificial representation for a more complex and messier setup in which there exists a sudden overlap between the administration’s “insidious efforts” (163) of telling a story that is “at variance with the facts” (2) and the author’s own narrative. This overlap informs his entire project and is present in the title already: Whose story is great? And who is trying to sell his story just now? It is these kinds of ambiguities the following section will look at in more detail.

2. Ambiguities and Authentication Strategies

By trading the concept of the image for that of the narrative, Rich confronts head-on a paradox inherent in any attempt to narrate a “decline and fall of truth.” If truth has fallen, how does one still tell the true story of its fall? And: if the administration was successful in blurring the boundaries between an invented reality and “actual reality,” how does one prove to be on the side of “actual reality?” This dilemma is a core double-bind in Rich’s narrative project: he needs to highlight the fragility of empirical reality and the power of fiction and, simultaneously, needs to retain a position from which he can authoritatively speak on these issues. This double-bind naturally complicates any gesture towards authenticity he makes. All attempts to underscore the power of fiction over reality now need to be balanced with a strategy that authenticates the position from which these claims are issued. More intricately, any gesture towards authenticity contains an acknowledgement that the text’s claim to authenticity is ultimately already unstable and threatened.

The most obvious device to authenticate Story’s narrative (and thus discredit the administration’s) are Rich’s numerous endnotes, as well as the appendix, a time line of “What the Administration Knew, and When It Knew It,” and the alphabetical index. They are effective at least in a twofold manner: Endnotes enable the reader to check Rich’s assertions, to trace his claims to their sources and, ultimately, to empirical facts. Or, at the very least, readers can use the apparatus to make sure that Rich’s account conforms to a dense and comprehensive web of sources that corroborate one another. Whether one tracks down his assertions to facts or trusted eyewitnesses, or to this web of other, mutually corroborating, sources, the notes—theoretically—allow for a critical review of what Rich says. Secondly, however, the little numbers sprinkled across the page have a different function at least as important: they are comforting. They designate The Greatest Story Ever Sold as belonging to factual discourse in the tradition of the enlightenment, scholarly work, real, checkable, true—not Image, not surface, not narrative or story, but substance. Like no other stylistic means, end- and footnotes have it written all over: at home in the Gutenberg Galaxy. They thus serve as a genre marker as much as they provide accountability.

In fact, only very few of Rich’s endnotes are ‘checkable’ for the average reader because most of them do not lead to any form of evident empirical fact. Most of them refer to media events that may be just as ‘artificial’ as the fictions Rich wants to discredit, which, of course, is part of the very problem of mediated reality and mediated politics he is aiming to discuss. There’s nothing wrong with this—most scholarly texts work in exactly the same way—but it is important to underscore that endnotes are not direct links to some uncomplicated and accessible instance of ‘reality’ but are primarily a form of intertextuality. And indeed, intertextuality—references to (other) fictional texts, media events, and a shared sense of how they are to be read—is central to Rich’s story.8 Lacking the privileged knowledge, the insights, and the authenticity of the insider turned whistleblower, Rich bases his narrative on publicly available sources and capitalizes on his knowledge of (pop-)cultural texts and his ability to read them for their larger social and political implications. Accordingly, he depends on a shared understanding of which sources are credible and which are not. His Story, as well as the very notion of authenticating it through other sources, works best within a certain textual community. Similarly, his description of the cultural background of the post-millennial USA depends on the readers knowing, or at least having some idea of, the books and cultural artifacts he quotes. Even without having watched Disney’s Pearl Harbor or having read Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation, Rich’s audience can be expected to have a certain shared notion of these texts and of how they should be read. Put differently, without at least a cursory interest in the arts and culture section of at least one larger newspaper, the respective passages in Rich’s book are only half as effective—and only half the fun.

Most importantly, however, Rich authenticates his story through the power of his narrative voice, through language and through what I, for lack of a better term, would call ‘narrative logic’ or ‘narrative truth.’ For example, both in his foreword and in the first chapter, he uses weather descriptions to contextualize 9/11 into a narrative that makes some degree of sense and that works for his story: He writes: “On that crisp blue Tuesday morning I got the news, as most did, by phone” (1). It is the very first sentence of his book, and “that crisp blue Tuesday morning,” of course, refers to September 11th 2001. Rich’s decision to begin his book by talking about the weather represents an artistic choice, not dictated by any inherent logic of writing a study. Consequently, it is the blue September sky that makes his reference to the attack that hit America ‘out of the blue’ considerably ‘thicker’: His take on 9/11 reads the attack as a thunderbolt, a wake-up call that marked the end of America’s lazy days as a decadent empire. It is the logic of plot and narrative that makes the link between a blue sky and a catastrophe ring true. Story capitalizes on this kind of logic as another, lengthier, quote illustrates. At the beginning of the chapter “Home to the Heartland,” the first full chapter of the book and in a way a prelude to both the book and to 9/11, Rich writes:

The summer of 2001 had been one of national torpor, with some cheap entertainment for spice. The still-novice president was vacationing in Crawford, Texas, but he was hardly the only American gone fishing. In New York, the tabloids whipped up a frenzy about the legal travails of a marginal but conspicuously wealthy thirty-year-old show-business publicist, Lizzie Grubman, who, in an apparent fit of impatience, had plowed her SUV into a crowd outside a nightclub in the Hamptons and then fled. The rest of the country, having quickly determined that the murder of the wife of the actor Robert Blake was too B-list to qualify as an O. J. Simpson rerun, feasted instead on Gary Condit. (7)

Rich takes twelve full pages to describe the virtual, unreal nature of this fin de siècle America that he condenses into this one summer, before he wraps up his description: “All was tranquil in the heartland apparently as the real American who happened to be president made his unhurried way back to Washington in September 2001” (20). These paragraphs are typical of Rich’s style. With quick, precise strokes, he paints the image of a fat, decadent nation. From the food metaphors (the country “feasts,” has “whipped up” entertainment, has “gone fishing,” adds “spice,” and people “plow”) to the sarcasm involved when a murder is only judged by its entertainment value (“too B-list to qualify as a rerun”), Rich offers a densely compressed description that rings true mostly because it works well on the level of language and narrative style. For example, the food metaphors mostly seem to do the work they do because they are mere metaphors: detached from the physical reality of bodily consumption. More importantly, the passage as a whole mostly convinces because it is written so densely. The references, overt and hidden, to a culture in which everything is entertainment and nothing really matters abound, and they are convincing because the narrative voice partly appropriates them, blurring the boundary between description and performance. It is the power of Rich’s narrative voice, not of his argument, that lends ‘truth’ to his story.

At the same time, so powerful a language is constantly in danger of going rogue, of running amok, of doing things that seem to compromise the narrative project at stake. The following sections will talk about such moments of crossover or collapse in more detail.

3. Crossovers and Collapses

Rich’s powerful, convincing, yet playful narrative voice is one of the book’s major assets, and, given the number of books on the presidency already published at the time, it may have been one of its major selling points. Yet this very voice creates certain cross-contaminations between content and commentary, between text and meta-text. In the introduction, for example, Rich comments on the structure of his book:

The scenario unfolds in two acts. Part I, “Making the Sale” retraces the elaborate propagandistic stagecraft with which the Bush administration rolled out and prosecuted the war in Iraq [...] Part II, “Buyer’s Remorse,” tells how that story literally and figuratively sprang leaks, culminating in the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina. (3)

Note how the “scenario,” the “acts,” and the “propagandistic stagecraft” are all taken from the register of drama (or film). Yet they refer to distinct spheres in Rich’s text. Embedded in the context of the introduction, the “acts” that bear the names of the two sections of his book refer to the structure of The Greatest Story Ever Sold; The Bush administration’s “stagecraft” is what these sections intend to describe; And the unfolding of the “scenario” refers to both the structure of the book and the structure of what it sets out to describe. As in the title already, the narrative Rich writes and the narrative he writes about begin to blur.

A similar blurring can be found on other levels of Story, too. In sync with much of the time’s writing on 9/11, Rich reads the terrorists’ attacks on the twin towers as an event that has fundamentally addressed the boundary between mediated and ‘actual’ reality.9 It thus makes perfect sense for him to take the attacks as a vantage point for his narrative of the Bush administration’s unreal realities. But when he writes, in his foreword, that “whatever 9/11 was, [...] it was the beginning of a new national narrative—a compelling and often persuasive story that was told by the president of the United States” (2) there, again, is a remarkable crossover between this “narrative” and his own. For both, 9/11 is the beginning, their first chapter and their condition of existence. And the same holds for the story’s (whichever story’s) end. Both narratives, the “new national narrative” and Rich’s Story thereof, culminate in the advent of Hurricane Katrina which, in Rich’s account, put an end to the White House’s fictioneering, thus ending both his and what he describes as the administration’s narrative. With identical starting and ending points, the dramatic development of both stories mimic each other which, of course, is neither surprising nor objectionable. But it underscores and illustrates the difficulty to draw a line between reality and narrative that Story ultimately wants to speak about.

Hurricane Katrina’s double function as the final chapter of both the Bush administration’s unreal “new national narrative” (2) and Frank Rich’s own narrative thereof thus marks another site of crossover between the two stories. It is also a site where Rich has to work particularly hard to keep his argument from collapsing: For most of the text, the obliteration of factual reality and its permanent replacement by carefully controlled, compelling and persuasive stories has featured as a very real threat. Reading Story for its textual dynamics, one could say that this threat has been the texts primary motivation. Now, having to narrate the beginning decline of the Bush presidency (and having to find closure for his own text), Rich seems almost at a loss to explain the sudden collapse of executive power. Turning to Katrina, then, works well along two lines: it creates a narrative bracket from the summer before 9/11 to the storm that washed it all away. Binding the rise and fall of the administration’s storytelling together like this works according to the “narrative logic”  identified above and makes it more plausible. More intricately, as a most disruptive, natural event, the hurricane seems to provide for enough ‘materiality’ to successfully confront the administration’s mere fictions. In this logic, Katrina is an event so powerfully ‘real,’ it cannot be fictionalized out of existence, not even by Bush. However, foregrounding the storm’s self-evident, material presence too much would undermine the argument of the threatening power of executive storytelling. One could even go one step further and assert that a foregrounding of a self-evident, material and undeniable reality of the storm would return to the simple surface-substance dichotomy Rich had shed before. Indeed, The Greatest Story Ever Sold does not refer directly to the sheer material power of the storm, but rather insists that “[t]he true Katrina narrative was just too powerful to be papered over with White House Fiction” (201, emphasis mine). This phrasing re-contextualizes the materiality of Katrina in the framework of competing narratives. Still, the “just” in his wording has to do a lot of work, and while the notion of a “Katrina narrative” thus helps to keep the book’s base storyline intact,10 the notion of a “true” narrative seems odd, considering how difficult it is, according to Story, to tell the true narratives from the fabricated ones. And in what one might read as another, preemptive attempt to contain the materiality of the storm, Rich, even before referring to its undeniable realness, first contextualizes Katrina safely into the realm of fiction: “The storm,” he introduces the Hurricane, “was destined to join the tornado that uprooted Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz in the pantheon of American culture” (199).


In conclusion, ambivalences remain. Commenting on the contemporary US, observers on both sides of the political spectrum tend to diagnose an increasingly elusive distinction between ‘real’ facts and ‘artificial’ narratives, and Frank Rich’s Story may well be the most uncompromising attempt to come to grips with that. His account is indebted to pre-established textual traditions and tropes and thus ties into an existing discourse on the unrealness of the persona of the president (or the presidential candidate) that may be as much part of the problem as it is a description thereof. His conceptual shift towards “narrative,” then, is at once a symptom of and a contribution to the blurriness of the very boundary between fact and fiction he sets out to scrutinize. The same holds true for his choice of the genre of creative non-fiction. Ultimately, it remains impossible to tell whether these and the many other crossovers are intended or merely accidental. Indeed, Rich seems to suggest, albeit only vaguely and in passing, that he sees full fledged fiction as possibly the only remedy against executive storytelling. “[I]n an election year ruled by fiction” (142), he asserts, “all the opposition needed was a plausible counter narrative” (131). Later on, he claims that “telling another historical narrative” (208, emphasis mine) should, for now, best be left to authors such as Philip Roth or “a new Joseph Heller” (208). But these gestures remain inconclusive and just that: gestures. The text, thus, more acts out than solves the difficulties of describing (or confronting?) the narrative powers and discursive elusiveness of the postmodern executive.

1 I do not intend to assess whether Rich’s analysis is correct. I happen to agree with a lot of what he says, but this paper is solely interested in a literary analysis of the textual dynamics Story displays.

2 Rich was called “the Butcher of Broadway” during his active time (Powers 32). The nickname has not been used for Rich alone, but a number of commentators have claimed that his experience as a theater critic uniquely qualified Rich for this project; cf. Buruma.

3 For example, the 2003 Lies (And the Lying Liars Who Tell Them) by Al Franken as well as The Price of Loyalty by Ron Suskind, Against All Enemies by Richard A. Clarke, Plan of Attack by Bob Woodward, and Unfit for Command by John E. O'Neill and Jerome R. Corsi (all 2004) made the top of the New York Times Bestseller list (“New York Times Best Seller Number Ones Listing”). The book is also a latecomer in another sense: With its publication, Rich became “the third Times columnist to turn disdain for the Bush presidency into a highly publicized book” (Powers 31).

4 Exact numbers on this, of course, depend on the strictness of criteria, and an extensive bibliometric analysis is beyond the scope of this article. A brief look at the titles that made the number one position on the New York Times bestseller list between 1988 and 2008 shows at least nine books that narrate the Bush presidency and the cultural climate it operated in after 2002. This is in relation to a total (!) of eight books on the US presidency (in a wide sense) in the fourteen years before.

5 For one facet of this cultural work, cf. Powers’s comment that the likely audience of Story “can already recite the long list of Administration malfeasances like fans at a Neil Diamond concert singing along with ‘Sweet Caroline’” (32).  Exploring the cultural work of such texts further is one of the main goals of the dissertation project this paper is embedded in.

6 Note the didactic first person plural. Indeed, Boorstin’s, like Rich’s, project is a didactic one. As Simons’ puts it: “Boorstin calls on us to ‘try to reach outside our images’ to reality, recommending that each of us must ‘disenchant himself’ (1992: 260). His book, a product of typographic culture, is the means to disenchantment” (176).

7 Powers’s observations on Rich’s work as a New York Times columnist are informative for what he does in Story as well: Rich, Powers writes, “took a lot of grief” for recognizing and commenting on “the interplay between popular culture and public life.” He wrote “less about events than about the perception of events, the meta-media madness that fills our heads” (32).

8 Cf. also Greenberg: “As in his columns, Rich uses cultural touchstones such as Philip Roth's novel The Plot Against America and the movie ‘Chicago’ to help us see how populist demagoguery works or how a huckster can con a press pack“ (BW04).

9 Cf., among countless others, Klaus Theweleit’s collection of essays addressing the “disappearance of reality” on 9/11 and Slavoj Žižek’s assertion that for “the great majority of the public, the WTC explosions were events on the TV screen” (11).

10 In fact, the notion of a Katrina narrative is not Rich’s alone. Cf. for example the back cover to Spike Lee’s documentary on Katrina that calls the film (or the storm?) “A Requiem in Four Acts,” “An HBO Documentary Films Event,“ an “unfolding drama,” a “modern American tragedy,” “a morality play,” and sells the DVD as “[telling] personal stories,” “to tell the tale of misery, despair, and triumph.”

Works Cited

Boorstin, Daniel Joseph. The Image. New York: Vintage, 1973.

Buruma, Ian. “Theater of War.” The New York Times 17 Sept. 2006. 20 Nov. 2008 <http://www.nytimes.com/2006/09/17/books/review/Buruma.t.html>.

Greenberg, David. “Spin Doctors.” The Washington Post 24 Sept. 2006: BW04.

Lee, Spike. When the Levees Broke. Warner Home Video, 2007.

McGinniss, Joe. The Selling of the President, 1968. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1969.

“New York Times Best Seller Number Ones Listing.” 17 Nov. 2008 <http://www.hawes.com/no1_nf_d.htm>.

Powers, John. “Not the President’s Men.” The Nation 23 Oct. 2006: 31-36.

Rich, Frank. The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth in Bush’s America. New York: Penguin, 2006.

Simons, Jon. “Popular Culture and Mediated Politics: Intellectuals, Elites and Democracy.” Media and the Restyling of Politics: Consumerism, Celebrity and Cynicism. Ed. John Corner and Dick Pels. London: Sage, 2003. 99-116.

Theweleit, Klaus. Der Knall: 11. September, das Verschwinden der Realität und ein Kriegsmodell. Frankfurt/M.: Stroemfeld, 2002.

Žižek, Slavoj. Welcome to the Desert of the Real! Five Essays on September 11 and Related Dates. New York: Verso, 2002.


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