DATE September 20, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: New York Times columnist Frank Rich discusses his new
book "The Greatest Story Ever Sold"
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily
News sitting in for Terry Gross.
New York Times columnist Frank Rich writes frequently on media, culture, and
politics. Regular readers of the Times won't be surprised at the title of his
new book about the Bush administration. It's called "The Greatest Story Ever
Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth from 9/11 to Katrina." Rich argues that
President Bush and his team have put politics and the preservation of their
own power at the center of national policy decision. And he says they've
proven themselves master of spin and media manipulation. Rich is also hard on
what he calls "sleepwalking journalists" who failed to question the
administration's case for war in Iraq. Frank Rich was The New York Times
drama critic for 13 years. Since 1994 he's been a columnist for the newspaper
and he's written three previous books.
Well, Frank Rich, welcome back to FRESH AIR.
Mr. FRANK RICH: Thank you.
DAVIES: Your book deals in part with the Bush administration's skill at
managing media images, and I thought we would look at one of the more famous
of those. That's the "Mission Accomplished" news conference aboard the
aircraft carrier the USS Lincoln, one which I'm sure the administration no
Mr. RICH: Right.
DAVIES: Tell us a little about the planning and execution of that event.
Mr. RICH: Well, to me, this is sort of a classic and indeed it's the perfect
one to choose as sort of a metaphor for their brilliance at this. As you may
recall, it actually was almost a double feature. It began with the president
dressed not unlike Tom Cruise in "Top Gun," landing a jet on the aircraft
carrier, you know, in full regalia and being, as if in a World War II movie,
being swarmed by, you know, troops congratulating him on this victory, the
victory being the war in Iraq, which was essentially going to be ended on this
day--not officially ended but was basically just a mopping-up operation was
the idea. This was of course almost three and a half years ago, or almost
three and a half years ago.
But there was also the second part which was the speech itself, and that's the
one where the banner Mission Accomplished was posted above him. That happened
later in the day. By then the president had changed into a business suit and
the set had been redressed. Now there were troops very carefully arranged in
color-coordinated dress uniforms that they wouldn't necessarily always wear on
this occasion or wear in such neatly colored ranks. The way the president
spoke, the way that the aircraft carrier the Abraham Lincoln was positioned,
deliberately made it impossible for cameras that were there to see the San
Diego skyline, which was in fact only 30 or 40 miles away, but this--by not
showing it, you got a sense almost of victory at sea. It heightened the
drama. It heightened the selling of the story. What was the story? Mission
accomplished as in the banner, but also the president said that major combat
operations had ended in Iraq.
The other thing about the speech that's so interesting is that the hour they
chose--for instance, he could have given the speech earlier in the day, once
he had arrived. He could have given it at any time because the whole thing
was essentially staged when they were going to use this aircraft carrier. But
they deliberately chose that hour, late in the afternoon, that in Hollywood is
known as "the magic hour," when everything looks golden, right in the world.
You know it from a million Hollywood movies. It's when the couple's having
the romantic kiss, it's when the hero is coming home from the war. It's that
great moment. All of these were choices. This didn't happen by happenstance.
The administration, like others before them, but perhaps they had better
versions of them, have people who manage this image, including the set
decoration, the staging. They tried--after it turned out that major combat
operations had not ended, they tried to sort of kick it away. At one point in
a press conference the president said, `Oh, people thought everyone of my
staff was so ingenious to put Mission Accomplished up there and they weren't
so ingenious.' But in fact, of course, it was his people being in charge, but
it was the font used on the banner. It was not some amateur font. It was
consistent with fonts used on other backdrops the administration had used. It
was sort of...
DAVIES: Was he saying that, what, that the sailors aboard the USS Lincoln had
wanted that banner up or that was their idea?
Mr. RICH: Right. In fact, at the time Jon Stewart made a gag about it,
saying, you know, `Those pesky sign makers in the Navy, they just cannot stop
themselves. Their irrepressible banner making abilities and talent.' They
ultimately dropped that. For a while someone in the administration was
saying, `Oh we just meant the mission was accomplished for that one aircraft
carrier.' And then sometime later, in a--speaking to an editorial board at a
newspaper in the Midwest, on the record, Karl Rove said, `Well, we probably
made a mistake with that Mission Accomplished thing.' Now, what was the
mistake? Well, the mistake was one of PR. It wasn't--forget about the fact
that this war had been mismanaged. The mistake was that they had staged too
elaborate a scene that came back to haunt them.
DAVIES: You know, I've spent a lot of time in the newspaper business,
covering mostly local issues, but I've covered a number of presidential visits
going back to the '80s, visits from Reagan and the first Bush administration
and President Clinton and from George W. Bush, and I have to say, they are
all stage managed.
Mr. RICH: Mm-hmm.
DAVIES: I mean, the visuals are carefully crafted to convey the message.
And, you know, the so-called ordinary citizens are usually screened so that
they're on message. That's pretty typical. I mean, is this administration
doing anything any differently.
Mr. RICH: First of all, they're doing it better, and that's sort of the
point of my book. Let me walk through a couple of aspects of this. Certainly
what you say is completely true. And I grew up in Washington, not in a
political family, during the Kennedy and Johnson years, and some of my most
vivid memories are of Kennedy stage managing his presidency in Washington.
That really is a modern-age sort of, you know, was the beginning of this kind
of showmanship in the electronic age and the television age. Eisenhower
didn't give a damn about it. But it's gotten more and more sophisticated, and
to my mind, reached sort of an apogee with the Reagan administration, because
first of all, you had an actual Hollywood actor at the center of it...
Mr. RICH: Maybe not the world's greatest but pretty good. And you had in
Michael Deaver a brilliant stage manager who famously would always arrange
photo ops that would drown out bad news. But even Deaver, as I quoted in my
book, is on record as saying, you know, he was just blown away by the Bush
administration's sophistication at this. It's much, much more
elaborate--witness Mission Accomplished. It also benefits from many more
tools which were not available to previous administrations because it was
really only in the late 1990s that the Internet became a mass medium, that CNN
had competitors for the first time and cable news grew exponentially, you
know, the number of channels that it eats up and the number of people who
At the same time, also, news divisions at most networks were swallowed up
by--as the networks themselves were--by entertainment companies which
increasingly took the already blurred lines of "infotainment" and blurred them
more and more. The Bush administration has been brilliant at capitalizing on
this and exploiting it and coordinating it, but there's a second part of it
DAVIES: Well, let me ask you, I mean, suppose you were the producer of a
network nightly news program, and an image comes across like Bush landing on
an aircraft carrier or one of these others. I mean, clearly what the
president does on a big moment like this is going to be news. How should they
handle these moments differently?
Mr. RICH: They should at least ask the questions. And that's what didn't
happen. They may not be able to get answers, particularly with an
administration as secretive as this, but you know, again, with Mission
Accomplished, if something looks that set up, you can say, well this is a fine
moment for the president. You don't have to be critical. You don't have to
be unpatriotic, which in this atmosphere particularly then you'd be accused of
being for saying anything that wasn't with the program. But you can ask
questions. You know, `Are major combat operations really over? What is going
on in Iraq?' A study that was done during the height of the first few weeks of
the war in the period of, for instance, the falling of the Saddam statue in
Baghdad, discovered that there were reporters for the networks who were blocks
away from that statue being knocked down who were telling their producers,
`There's some kind of insurgency or something going on. There's fighting
going on in the streets, you know, several blocks away from this cheering and
this wonderful tableau.' But with rare exceptions, they didn't get on the air,
and they certainly--their pictures did not get on the air.
DAVIES: Now do you think--was that because of an ideological commitment to
the patriotic message or was it because they couldn't get pictures of the
Mr. RICH: I don't know. I think it was a combination of the two. I
wouldn't use the word "ideological." I would use the word "patriotic," which
is in the sense that--it's not, that you didn't want to get in the way of the
celebration, and the press repeatedly in that period did not want to get away
of celebratory events that might have been questioned, you know, the rescue of
Jessica Lynch was another. Eventually news organizations had to take back
most of the original accounts of that because there was so much fiction
stirred into it. It's skepticism that the press, I feel, failed on. The
press doesn't have to be anti-the president, anti-America, anti-the Iraq war
or anything else, but you have to ask questions. When you're presented
something that is a show, why not ask the questions and let the chips fall
where they may? But a lot of that did not happen until much later.
DAVIES: New York Times columnist Frank Rich. We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: My guest is New York Times columnist Frank Rich.
His new book about the Bush administration is called "The Greatest Story Ever
Well, Frank Rich, apart from managing images, your book argues that this
administration has done something kind of more fundamental and deeper, which
is to cynically misuse information, even secret intelligence, to mislead the
American people. For example, you cite a number of occasions where warnings
of terrorist attacks, or terror alerts, seemed to be timed to sell a political
point or distract the public from an unhelpful story. Maybe give us an
example or two of that.
Mr. RICH: Well, one of my favorite examples--it sort of explains the whole
picture. During the Ashcroft era there was a lot of bad news coming out, some
of it, particularly about the lack of attentiveness to warnings before 9/11 by
the government and by the administration. Those, you know, famous signals we
now know about during the summer of '01. And this was coming out--starting to
come out and particularly Colleen Rowley, a whistleblower from the FBI in the
Midwest, was getting ready to testify in Congress, and there was a whole bunch
of other stuff like that going on around that time.
At one point John Ashcroft was in Moscow on a routine, you know, attorney
general's conference, and he suddenly called a televised press conference
announcing that we had arrested Jose Padilla, a former Chicago gang member in
the process of preparing some kind of plot to unleash a dirty bomb in a
major--an unspecified, I think, major American city. Well, it's a pretty big
deal if the attorney general sort of plays top FBI man and announces this from
Moscow in the middle of a trip that had nothing to do with terrorism. We
later found out that Padilla had been arrested in fact a month earlier. There
was absolutely no reason for the announcement to be then. It could have been
right after it happened. It could have been three weeks later. But there
just always seemed to be this announcement of some kind of terrorist threat.
And like in the case of Padilla, we still don't even know if this guy had
anything to do with a dirty bomb at all. He's never been charged with that
kind of thing, all these years later. There seem to be an almost cynical use
of this to upstage bad news and also, ultimately in the 2004 campaign, to
upstage the Democratic Convention.
And, you know, even now, I mean, Barack Obama said this week, you know, `Why
is it we're always fighting terrorism most in even years in the fall?' There's
something--there's always been something off about it, and plots that--we now
know of a lot of plots that were announced and terror threats that were made
were based on very, very little. Even, you know, recently this Miami cell
to--I think it was a Miami cell to take down the Sears Tower in Chicago was
on. And the price we pay for this is that Americans tune out of the
really--you know, we are threatened by terrorists. This is no joke. But it
becomes the "boy who cried wolf" and it seems so manipulative that people just
don't know what's real and what isn't anymore, and I don't think that serves
DAVIES: You know, you're very tough on the mainstream media in your book,
perhaps most of all on your own publication, The New York Times, you know, for
kind of missing the story on Saddam Hussein's alleged pursuit of weapons of
mass destruction. I wonder, have you talked to reporters and editors in your
building about this? If--why do they think they got it wrong?
Mr. RICH: We talk about it all the time, and you know, it's a very
complicated story. And I have to say it still remains to be told what the
full story was. And, of course, a lot of people involved, including some of
the editors involved, are no longer at the paper. But if you had to look
broadly and guess to a certainly extent, I don't think it was necessarily
ideological. I do think--and interestingly it didn't just happen at The New
York Times, although The New York Times certainly was, you know, significantly
off. With variations on a theme it happened at other papers as well, but not
at every news organization. There were some exceptions. But what seems to
have happened is that some top reporters given access to sources that came
from high levels, whether related to the Iraqi National Congress or related to
the administration, very credulously reported in the papers the most ominous,
you know, as we now know, fake, pseudo nonexistent evidence of WMD activities
At the same time, at these same newspapers for the most part, there were
reporters who were getting it right, or at least finding people somewhere in
the chain of intelligence saying this stuff may not be right. This may be
overestimated. They may be manipulating the intelligence, and such stories
did run, particularly in the Washington Post, to some extent in the Times,
even as the other stories dominated and got better play. Indeed it was Dan
Okrent who was the public editor of the Times who's done the most thorough
investigation so far of the Judy Miller stories, and our coverage of WMD's
found. There were some good stories. They were held forever. They were
buried in some cases. What was that about? I still don't know the motives of
everyone involved. I think a lot of people at the paper still debating what
happened and it becomes, at a certain point, `Who shot John?' Many of the
people are gone, but there was for some reason a willingness on the part of
editors to press down the accelerator of these stories that now, of course,
have blown up in our faces and the world's face.
DAVIES: Well, you know, it strikes me that historically journalists are often
a step behind the government when government is selling bad fish. I mean, you
know, if you looked at coverage of the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964...
Mr. RICH: Mm-hmm.
DAVIES: ...which Lyndon Johnson used to justify the Vietnam war, I mean, the
press then, you know, didn't get to the bottom of what had really happened
then. I mean, the My Lai massacre wasn't uncovered by Seymour Hersh until
some time later. I mean, is it not the normal thing for people to kind of
report the official version and then eventually kind of...
Mr. RICH: Get the real version. Yeah. And, of course, journalism, as we
all know, is the first draft of history.
I think in this case, it's more complicated because first of all some people
did get the right version. For instance, the Knight Ridder Washington
bureau--that's now McClatchy newspapers because those papers have since been
sold since, you know, in the last year or so--they by, as they put it, by
going to blue-collar sources within the intelligence and military very
consistently and--as these reporters said, they had it all to
themselves--found that something was going on and that this stuff was being
manipulated. They wrote it in papers that are not in Washington and New York,
which may--it's no excuse for no one noticing it. They're, you know, major
newspapers of a major newspaper chain, but it sort of passed underneath the
radar of a lot of that mainstream media even though certainly Knight Ridder is
mainstream media itself.
And indeed, in writing this book, one of the things that I consistently found
is in the runup to the war in Iraq, there was a lot of evidence hiding in
plain sight, often in newspapers, that suggested that there was--you could
smell a rat here. For instance, you know, 10 days or so before the invasion,
Mohamed ElBaradei of the UN Atomic Energy component saying that these
documents that are supposed to show that Saddam was getting uranium from Niger
are frauds. They're obvious frauds. Well, it appeared on a couple of front
pages of major papers, not, I think, on the Times, as I recall. It was inside
the Times. It was not picked up--I checked the day it happened, March 8th
'03--by any of the three network newscasts, and so it's almost--there's a
failure there that's pretty obvious, and it may be years before we find out
why there was such a failure. But I think that's a little bit different from,
say, the Gulf of Tonkin where it really was, and in fact even now, we're still
finding out stuff about what happened during the Gulf of Tonkin. Documents
are still being released in the past year, but here a lot of it actually was
in public. And that's one of the points I try to make in my book. It just
was ignored or disregarded or badmouthed.
DAVIES: Frank Rich's new book is called "The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The
Decline and Fall of Truth from 9/11 to Katrina." He'll be back in the second
half of the show. I'm Dave Davies and this is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, sitting in for Terry Gross. My
guest is New York Times op ed columnist Frank Rich. He writes frequently on
media, culture and politics. His new book about the Bush administration is
called "The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth from 9/11
There have been a couple of cases where it was revealed that the Bush
administration may have actually paid journalists to carry their message or
planted fake journalists to advance their cause. What do we know about this
activity and who was responsible for it?
Mr. RICH: Well, this remains, I think, an unfolding story. It's absolutely
fascinating. And see that's the other half of the equation here. If on one
hand you have the administration staging productions and you have a
professional news press that is compliant, you also have an administration
that's hostile to a professional press, want it to be compliant and want to
destabilize it, attack it--for instance, sometimes attacking, you know, the
liberal press, i.e., The New York Times and others--but also creating its own
news mechanism that actually infiltrates that media. So we found out that
Armstrong Williams, a television pundit, was on the government payroll through
various intermediaries and PR firms and so on to plug No Child Left Behind.
Ostensibly that's what the money was for, Bush administration education
program, but in reality was a pundit about many things that favored the
administration over the airwaves while receiving, you know, a grant.
There have been many, many documented examples of all sorts of departments and
millions of dollars, tens of millions of dollars, if not hundreds, being spent
on these video reports that The New York Times and others have found went
right into local newscasts--whether they be about how great the prescription
drug program is or how well things were going in the war--and just aired by
local news stations as if they were network reports, And in some cases local
news stations were embarrassed when reporters from the Times and others
confronted them about this because they didn't even know where they came from.
But this is a message...
DAVIES: Is this new in Washington? Have other administrations...
Mr. RICH: New on this scale...
Mr. RICH: This kind of mass video news release in this quantity, this many
departments of the government. It's--you want to laugh because at a certain
level it's a farce. And if you see some of these spots, you know, and they
have Karen Ryan reporting, they have a reporter named Garcia, so they have,
you know, it's like eyewitness news team, you know. They even have it
demographically balanced so that they can hit everybody in a market. It's so
cynical and silly at some level and yet not in terms of the fact that it could
so easily permeate the culture and present propaganda's news. You know, where
Tommy Thompson was the head of, what, Health and Human Resources is the one
expert quoted in one of these news stories that's produced by the government,
but the public doesn't know it's produced by the government. It's not
presented as a public service commercial. It's presented as, you know, `We'll
toss to you, Karen, and hear the latest about the, you know, prescription drug
DAVIES: Well, you know, Frank Rich, you were described in a recent piece in
Slate as being perfectly tuned to the voice of Manhattan liberalism. You
know, and your column on Sunday, I often look at it and I think, well, here's
Frank Rich, picking out another piece of lumber to go after the Bush
administration. Do you talk to conservatives to get another point...
Mr. RICH: I do. I actually have a number of conservative friends, and I
sort of take exception to that characterization of me. I'm certainly--my
views are largely liberal but not doctrinaire so. And I, you know, it would
be like saying that Slate is the voice of neoconservatism--you know,
Washington neoconservatism. You can easily generalize in that way. And
some--and by the way, in this crazy world we're in now, there are a lot of
places where so-called conservative views and so-called liberal views meet.
I mean, I feel, for instance, perhaps more than any Democrat, the most
eloquent person in public office about the failings of the war in Iraq and the
problems going is Chuck Hagel, who's essentially a conservative Republican,
obviously, a senator who, if you read what he said, in the Walk up to the
World, he voted for the resolution as most of the Senate did. He pinpointed
on the floor of the Senate most of what was going to go wrong, way ahead of
McCain, let alone Democrats who largely, particularly in the Senate, just
wanted to run away from the whole thing. And so, I don't, you know, I don't
consider myself the voice of Manhattan liberalism in that sense.
DAVIES: I guess what I was really getting at was whether you, you know, when
you look at the week's events and pick out, you know, the information you want
to present and give it the analysis that you give it, I mean, do you run that
past somebody who has a different perspective and say, you know, let's vet
this. Let's make sure I'm not in an echo chamber here reading people I
disagree--I agree with.
Mr. RICH: Yeah, I do sometimes and I talk about it constantly with people,
friends of mine, liberal and conservative. And I have to say, what really
interests me about it anyway is not so much the ideology but the story. I'm
very interested in the narrative of what happens in a given week, or in the
case of this book, in the past few years, and I'm trying to figure out what
the story is, because I think the story is the key to what's going on in this
time of massive production facilities. And by the way, the Democrats try to
do much of the same production values that Republicans do, it's just
incredible that they're so incompetent at it, particularly given all their
connections, you know, their much-vaunted connections to Hollywood.
But I'm trying to figure out the through line and I do debate that a lot with
people I talk to as well as debating with myself and changing my mind about
things. I'm never going to believe that the Iraq war was a good idea, but
what I'm trying to do anyway is--that's obvious. That opinion's obvious. And
if you support the war, that opinion is obvious too. I'm trying to get at the
underpinnings of the mechanics that make it work and make it continue to go
astray, if in fact it is going astray, and the motives of people involved and
what it tells us about not just politics but our culture and our values to
DAVIES: Well, you know, at the end of your book, I mean, you pose the
question if the Bush administration couldn't have really believed that Saddam
Hussein was building nuclear weapons and pursuing weapons of mass destruction
as you believe, why did Bush take the nation to war with Iraq? Explain your
answer to that question.
Mr. RICH: First of all, we don't know. History is going to have to tell us,
which, as I say, indeed, Richard Haass who worked at the State Department and
is now the head of the Council on Foreign Relations, I think has described it
as the...(unintelligible)...of wars. What I feel in the end is that there
were a number of things going on. There was, of course, the neocon clique and
the Cheney clique that had its ideological reasons for going to war in Iraq
which had nothing to do with 9/11 but with their vision of the Middle East and
their other views about, you know, making good on what wasn't finished in the
1991 Gulf War. You had other concerns about oil, about protecting Israel
perhaps, foreign policy issues. You did not have nation building. Nation
building the administration was against. Rumsfeld gave a speech against
nation building a month before the invasion. That's something that's been
grafted on now. That was never a reason.
So you had all these reasons and yet you also had, in my view, administration
that puts politics over everything and in--when this was going on, it was 2002
is when they started selling the war. Several things had happened. We had
won the war in Afghanistan, or so we thought at the time. We had successfully
and, in my view, it was very important, taken out this regime that sheltered
al-Qaeda and other Islamic terrorists. But what hadn't happened, was we
hadn't found Osama bin Laden, who'd been lost in Tora Bora sometime in
December of '01, possibly, seemingly through incompetence and bad decisions.
That, however, was not quite yet known to the public. We also had the
beginning of waning polls for the president coming down off those huge highs
and polls showing that the war on terrorism was beginning--people were
beginning to have some doubts about it, about how long it should be fought,
and so on. And we had a midterm election coming up.
And if you look at this incredible rush to war, it now seems ridiculous given
what we know now, it all started happening in the summer of 2002. That's when
the White House formed something called the WHIG Group, the White House-Iraq
Group, largely PR oriented with people like Karen Hughes and Andy Card, and
Mary Matalin was in it to, to sell a war, even as we pretended publicly that
no decision had been made. Well, decision had been made and I feel that the
political aspect of it played a role as Bush's ratings started to fall and
that Karl Rove was on record at the beginning of that year saying that, as he
still is, that war is the best political prescription he had for this
presidency, which really didn't have much on its mind before 9/11 except tax
cuts which had already been accomplished.
And so I think there was a lot of festering to go after Iraq anyway. We know
that from a lot of inside accounts, starting with Richard Clarke's. But I
think the catalyst that finally pushed it forward, if there was any doubt, was
it was an election year and this rattling up, as Andrew Card put it, rolling
out a new product. And I wonder now if we're seeing a little bit of history
repeat itself because we're in another midterm election year and we're talking
about Iran with a kind of deja vu all over again about some of it.
DAVIES: Well, you know, it seems as I read that final chapter, I mean, it
seems to me you come down pretty hard on the conclusion that this war was
really an election strategy, in effect, by Karl Rove. We needed a war to kind
of do a simple, quick easy way to make sure that this administration had the
high ground on the war on terror.
Mr. RICH: Absolutely, and it was predicated on the false premise that it
would be a fast slam-dunk war. It wasn't predicated on there were WMDs. We
now know that there was too much intelligence telling the administration
otherwise, that there was no smoking gun for a mushroom cloud, but there was a
sense that we would--and all the war planning obviously reinforces this--we
would just go in and knock out this jerk, criminal, Saddam, and mission
accomplished and go home. And it was sort of a--regarded as a cost-free
thing. And when people say now, `Isn't it great Saddam is no longer a power?'
Well, of course, it's great that he's no longer in power, but would that it
were that simple. And the real issue in my mind is we probably could have
contained him, and while he's horrible, the results of this adventure seem to
be far worse.
DAVIES: But I guess what struck me about this, it just seems like such a
deeply cynical interpretation of events, that all of this was to win
congressional elections. I mean, it just seems like a really extreme point of
Mr. RICH: I don't think of it as extreme. I guess it is somewhat cynical
and the cynicism has been, you know, fostered by the way they have just
misrepresented things to the America people from the getgo, probably lied or
certainly believed their own lies and foisted them upon us, and I wish that
they had just told us the truth. If they had a better record of telling the
truth, I guess I would be less cynical.
DAVIES: Well, Frank Rich, thanks so much for speaking with us.
Mr. RICH: Thank you.
DAVIES: New York Times columnist Frank Rich. His new book about the the Bush
administration is called "The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall
of Truth from 9/11 to Katrina."
Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead on a newly issued historical recording
by South African bassist Harry Miller. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Critic Kevin Whitehead enjoys "Which Way Now?"
DAVE DAVIES, guest host:
Our critic Kevin Whitehead says everybody knows jazz is an American invention
that mediates between African and European musical conventions. But for
decades African and European improvisers have been forging their own bonds and
hybrids without American mediation. As a case in point, Kevin reviews a newly
issued historical recording by the South African bassist Harry Miller.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. KEVIN WHITEHEAD: Bassist Harry Miller's sextet Isipingo, 1975. Miller's
band was half English and half South African, a perfect emblem of
bicontinental cooperation. In fact, Miller sort of initiated such contacts in
1961 when he, along with friend and future hit maker Manfred Mann, immigrated
from Cape Town to the UK. In 1965 Miller got some company with the
interracial Cape Town combo The Blue Notes turned up in London. From then on,
the South African's catchy easy chord tunes, layered riffs, and rolling
rhythms were an invitation to English players to join in. Jazz was their
common language and improvisation the glue.
Now African and European musicians were influencing each other long before the
transatlantic slave trade, and it's not like Subsaharan choirs or church-going
Europeans needed Americans to teach them call and response. That said, Nick
Evans' shouting trombone owes a lot to Texas field hollers. Even
Euro-improvisers exploring their own roots had African American role models.
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Mr. WHITEHEAD: Harry Miller's CD "Which Way Now?" on the Cuneiform label was
recorded live in '75. The sound isn't glorious but it more than doubles
Isipingo's recorded output. The sextet sounds like a pint-sized cousin to the
South African English big band Brotherhood of Breath. Like a steamship, it's
powerful but not geared for sudden turns. There's a joyful exuberance and
careful slapdash quality that are hard to separate. Those twin tendencies are
personified by trumpeter Mongezi Feza, like Isipingo drummer Louis Moholo, a
member of the Blue Notes. Feza has his technical shortcomings, but sometimes
he gets the most beautiful ragged sound this side of Don Cherry.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. WHITEHEAD: That's band leader and King Crimson sideman Keith Tippett on
piano. Isipingo's other Englishman is alto saxophonist Mike Osborne, who had
a trio with bassist Miller and drummer Moholo and really dug into their
rhythmic concept. His well-turned solo on the tune "Which Way Now?" wittily
combines woodwind practice drills and Ornette Coleman's slippery blues
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Mr. WHITEHEAD: Isipingo issued only one LP in the '70s, which makes this
belated sequel especially welcome, even if they're not always in tune and do
let things run on. The band only lasted a couple more years. Harry Miller
moved to Holland in 1977, helping to incite a vogue for South African style
tunes over there. He died following a post gig road accident in 1983. The
last surviving member of The Blue Notes, drummer Louis Moholo, now known as
Louis Moholo-Moholo, recently retired to his homeland, bringing this era of
international cooperation to an informal end.
DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead teaches English and American Studies at the
University of Kansas and he's a jazz columnist for eMusic.com. He reviewed
"Which Way Now?" the historical recording by Harry Miller sextet Isipingo.
It's on the Cuneiform label.
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DAVIES: Coming up, a review of the debut novel by Nell Freudenberger, best
known for her award-winning short story collection "Lucky Girls." This is
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Review: Maureen Corrigan finds Nell Freudenberger's novel "The
Dissident" not as good as short story collection "Lucky Girls"
DAVE DAVIES, host:
Nell Freudenberger lived every young writer's dream when her first short story
was published in the New Yorker magazine. She was 26 at the time and an
editorial assistant at the magazine, writing fiction in the morning before
work. Her award-winning short story collection, "Lucky Girls," was published
in 2003 and made our book critic Maureen Corrigan's best books list that year.
Freudenberger has just published her first novel, "The Dissident." Maureen has
Ms. MAUREEN CORRIGAN: The plot of Nell Freudenberger's debut novel, "The
Dissident," has all the makings of a classic screwball comedy. Allowing for
racial differences, you could even see Cary Grant in the title role. A
Chinese artist named Yuan Zhao, who spent time in prison for staging
politically incendiary performance pieces, is invited to be a visiting scholar
at a posh girls academy in Los Angeles. Mr. Yuan, as the dissident is
called, is put up for the year in a pool house on the estate of the Travers
family, whose troubled teenage daughter attends the school.
In exchange, Mr. Yuan is supposed to teach a class there and create new art
works. Except, as the months go by, our artist-in-residence doesn't seem to
be producing much, except copies of other people's paintings. Maybe there are
just too many emotional distractions in the wacky Travers' mansion. Gordon,
the father, is an obtuse psychiatrist, whose only passion is genealogical
research. The fluttery mom, Cece, has been carrying on a long affair with
Phil, her charming, shiftless brother-in-law. And the adolescent son of the
house, Max, has been arrested for weapons possession and is doing community
service in the barrio. Or perhaps the problem lies with the evasive Mr. Yuan
himself who confides in us readers at the outset of the story that he's really
expert at only one thing, counterfeiting, a crime that's after all a snap to
pull off amidst a crowd of self-involved Westerners who merely glance at their
Asian guest and take him at face value.
The madcap possibilities in this setup are obvious, but "The Dissident" isn't
funny enough to be a comedy. Nor is it profound enough to be a commentary on
cross-cultural blindness. Nor, I'm sorry to say, is it as compelling as
Freudenberger's amazing short story collection "Lucky Girls," which deservedly
made her the literary wunderkind of 2003. Freudenberger tackles the same
themes in this novel as she did in "Lucky Girls," namely people from disparate
cultures trying and failing to only connect. And to give "The Dissident" its
due, the sudden cruel plot twists and offbeat but precise way with words that
distinguished "Lucky Girls" are also present intermittently throughout this
novel. I can and will quote some fine writing, like in this shrewd
observation from Yuan Zhao at the beginning of the novel about the aura of
cultural superiority exuded by his American hosts:
"The Travers were not at all surprised by my excellent English. If anything
they were disappointed by the force of my accent, which they assured me I was
losing almost from the day I arrived. To them, English wasn't really a
language. It was a genetic gift, present in everyone but unfortunately latent
in some people. Like biceps, it only had to be strengthened and drawn out."
But proportional to its 400-plus page length, there just aren't enough of
these shimmering moments to really lift "The Dissident" into the exalted
literary league of its predecessor. And the characters, particularly the
Travers clan but even the enigmatic Yuan Zhao himself, are pretty much Johnny
One-Notes, who aren't interesting enough to sustain this long tale.
Enough. It's a commonplace piece of wisdom among writing teachers that the
hardest student papers to improve upon are not the C-range disasters, but
rather those pesky B-plus essays that are good, just not good enough. That's
what "The Dissident" feels like to me. Good, but especially in light of
"Lucky Girls," just not good enough.
DAVIES: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed "The Dissident" by Nell Freudenberger.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: For Terry Gross, this is Dave Davies.
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