In 2000, the same year George Bush was elevated to the Presidency, Random House published Ghost Light, Frank Rich’s memoir of his early years. It was during his childhood, nurtured and facilitated by his mother and step-father Joel, that Rich developed a life-long interest in and passion for the theater. Ultimately it led him to what, thanks to notable predecessors like Brooks Atkinson, had become the principal aisle seat of power on Broadway, chief drama critic for The New York Times. So synonymous had Rich become with the theater after 13 years of writing, that many of his readers were no doubt surprised when he changed seats and turned his attention to broader matters, first in a regular Sunday column in the arts section and ultimately reaching an even broader audience on the paper’s op ed page. In fact, the transition was seamless because his attention far from being averted from his first love had merely been turned to another piece of theater played out on what has been called (no more aptly than in the last six years) the “world stage”. Ghost Light refers to a light left on when the theater goes dark, supposedly to ward off ghosts that might inhabit the unlit place. I like to think of it more like the Eternal Light that burns in a darkened synagogue to symbolize an ever present God. The theater endures. Perhaps there is one significant difference between the Broadway and world stages, because where Frank Rich now occupies an aisle seat, no ghost light is needed. The stage lights never really get turned off; the play is unending even when it presents itself as some cheap rerun of the past.
Frank Rich has his own and unmistakable style, something I think of as Rich-speak or probably more accurately Rich-write. It is deceivingly easy going and conversational which serves him well in delivering a profound, often searing message. Rather than dipping into what so often comes of as pretentious references to classic literature (look at how much I have read), his columns are full of allusions to theater and pop culture which makes them all the more accessible, not to mention appropriate to his subject matter. Even the title of his present book (the subject of this writing), The Greatest Story Ever Sold is a not so subtle, and appropriate, homage to George Stevens’ cinematic epic. That its star Charlton Heston morphed from Hollywood leading man into right wing Republican activist and NRA flack, as Rich would call him, only reinforces the link. Rich-write is dotted with words like flack, bloviator, blogisphere and, my very favorite, mediathon (which I think he coined). He uses them not to be sensational but to unmask the real role or motives of those described. Mediathon, for example, characterizes the single focused (usually on the unimportant or beside-the-point) theater that 24/7 and to a lesser extent network broadcast “news” has become and to which other media, even his own newspaper, are not immune.
There is something else that characterizes Rich’s writing both on Sundays and in this book. To use an appropriate reference point in describing it, Frank Rich much like Sgt. Joe Friday, is obsessed with the facts. His contentions, even when rightly read as opinion, are always backed up by chapter and verse. This book is heavily end noted and includes 76 pages of time lines following the narrative. That attention to facts, more than anything else is what makes his weekly writing so compelling and this book so illuminating and disturbing at the same time. The Greatest Story Ever Sold is full of solid information, but if you’re looking for some headline grabbing revelation, you’ll be sorely disappointed. In fact, any news junkie is unlikely to come across a single piece information she had not known before and Rich is careful to give full credit to those who uncovered it or who, by their testimony, brought into the public domain. What this book does is put it all together into a cohesive narrative and it is the whole rather than any single fact or event that makes it so stunning.
From the start, the Bush people have systematically and more overtly than any of their predecessors, used the “live picture show” as a, and perhaps the. primary tool of governance. They have taken the cliché “a picture is worth a thousand words” to new and heretofore unimagined heights. Their carefully concocted images often use the very military that they so brazenly have put in harms way as unwitting backdrop scenery for dissembling speech making. Supported by the picture, they don’t merely mislead they consistently ignore settled fact in promoting self serving policy to this day. Rich takes our hand and leads us through the maze of make believe from the air craft carrier to the fast changing slogans and taglines and the unending appearances before friendly or captive audiences. Script and control are the order of the day and we are given front row seats not merely to watch the show but, with him as a guide, to see beyond its unmistakable fiction. We know that their reality lies in a largely fabricated docudrama, albeit all too real including its very lethal consequences.
There is no doubt that Frank Rich is no friend of the Bush Administration, but he is no less critical of its fellow travelers who have willingly facilitated making the sale. Those include the hapless loyal opposition with an emphasis on “loyal”, the suppliant and thus enabling press both broadcast and print (including again his own Times) and perhaps most of all us – you and me, the willing and gullible public. They put on the show and together we all sang in the chorus. But for worse and in this case for better, the American public tires easily and, as Rich contends in his second section it has slowly but surely suffered buyer’s remorse. The painted scenery and oft repeated melodies aren’t playing that well any more and an administration that has placed such an emphasis on faith, if the polls are correct, can count only on a diminishing number of believers. The slide began as the body count, now working its way toward 3,000, grew and as the suicide bombs were proliferating. Its coda came with Katrina which even more than the now transparent lack of planning for the day after in Iraq, lay to rest any pretence of Federal preparedness. Gerry Ford was probably unfairly characterized by Lyndon Johnson, but these guys really can’t chew gum and walk at the same time.
While having his suspicions about how history will judge George Bush’s Presidency, Rich knows that in such matters the jury is still out. What really motivated Bush and his partners in deception the Cheney, Rice, Rumsfeld and neo-con cabal presented on stage by producer-director Karl Rove may always be a mystery. Perhaps it was some underlying philosophical belief, perhaps pure greed and politics but whatever the case it was sham and whatever price Bush may pay in the history books will pale in comparison to what the country has paid. It is we who have picked up the tab expressed in dollars and perhaps more so in reputation for what has been a very unsavory meal.
Frank Rich was not the first New York Times columnist to write a childhood memoir. Back in 1983 Russell Baker gave us Growing Up recounting his and it remains one of my favorites. Baker was blessed with an ever critical mother and nothing he could do was enough for her. When it became clear that he had established himself, albeit not necessarily to her liking, she grudgingly told her son that perhaps “something will come of you” after all. In recounting that, Baker was obviously letting us know that something indeed had become of him. Frank Rich is not given to such claims. Unlike some of his colleagues like Bob Woodward who seems to vastly prefer publicized access to the high and mighty to the unidentified sources in dark garages that made his reputation(and is taken to task for it in this book), or even some of Rich’s own op ed colleagues, the personal pronoun I doesn’t creep easily into his vocabulary. Rich’s mom, a central character in Ghost Light, loved the theater and most assuredly relished their shared interest and, I would think, his accomplishments. Not having known her, that’s only an assumption. What I am confident about is that any regular reader of his Sunday columns or of this important book knows that something indeed has also come of Frank Rich. The quality of that something is nowhere better expressed than in his touching tribute to his family and most of all to his wife in the acknowledgements found at the end of the book.