Truthiness 101: From Frey to Alito
Truthiness 101: From Frey to Alito
By FRANK RICH
IF James Frey hadn't made up his own life, Tom Wolfe would have had to invent it for him. The fraudulent memoirist is to the early 21st century what Mr. Wolfe's radical-chic revelers were to the late 1960's and his Wall Street "masters of the universe" were to the go-go 1980's: a perfect embodiment of the most fashionable American excess of an era.
As Oprah Winfrey, the ultimate arbiter of our culture, has made clear, no one except pesky nitpickers much cares whether Mr. Frey's autobiography is true or not, or whether it sits on a fiction or nonfiction shelf at Barnes & Noble. Such distinctions have long since washed away in much of our public life. What matters most now is whether a story can be sold as truth, preferably on television. The mock Comedy Central pundit Stephen Colbert's slinging of the word "truthiness" caught on instantaneously last year precisely because we live in the age of truthiness.
At its silliest level, this is manifest in show-biz phenomena like Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey, juvenile pop stars who merchandised the joy of their new marriage as a lucrative MTV reality series before heading to divorce court to divvy up the booty. But if suckers want to buy fictional nonfiction like "Newlyweds" or "A Million Little Pieces" as if they were real, that's just harmless diversion.
It's when truthiness moves beyond the realm of entertainment that it's a potential peril. As Seth Mnookin, a rehab alumnus, has written in Slate, the macho portrayal of drug abuse in "Pieces" could deter readers battling actual addictions from seeking help. Ms. Winfrey's blithe re-endorsement of the book is less laughable once you start to imagine some Holocaust denier using her imprimatur to discount Elie Wiesel's incarceration at Auschwitz in her next book club selection, "Night."
This isn't just a slippery slope. It's a toboggan into chaos, or at least war. As everyone knows now - except for the 22 percent, according to a recent Harris poll, who still believe that Saddam helped plan 9/11 - it's the truthiness of all those imminent mushroom clouds that sold the invasion of Iraq. What's remarkable is how much fictionalization plays a role in almost every national debate. Even after a big humbug is exposed as blatantly as Professor Marvel in "The Wizard of Oz" - FEMA's heck of a job in New Orleans, for instance - we remain ready and eager to be duped by the next tall tale. It's as if the country is living in a permanent state of suspension of disbelief.
Democrats who go berserk at their every political defeat still don't understand this. They fault the public for not listening to their facts and arguments, as though facts and arguments would make a difference, even if the Democrats were coherent. It's the power of the story that always counts first, and the selling of it that comes second. Accuracy is optional. The Frey-like genius of the right is its ability to dissemble with a straight face while simultaneously mustering the slick media machinery and expertise to push the goods. It not only has the White House propaganda operation at its disposal, but also an intricate network of P.R. outfits and fake-news outlets that are far more effective than their often hapless liberal counterparts.
The selling of Samuel Alito is a perfect illustration of how our world works. From the moment Judge Alito emerged from Harriet Miers's penumbra, his supporters' story line was clear: he'd be presented as a humble exemplar of American values too mainstream to be labeled "out of the mainstream" by his opponents. In his first courtesy calls on Capitol Hill in November, we learned, Judge Alito often cited his father as a proud immigrant who instilled in him empathy for minorities and the poor - an empathy not remotely apparent in the judge's legal record. A particularly poignant anecdote had it that his father had once defended a black basketball player from discrimination in college.
Yet David Kirkpatrick of The Times reported then that "some colleagues and friends of the elder Mr. Alito, who died in 1987, said they had never heard some of the stories his son has recounted, including the episode about his support for the black student and the fact that his father immigrated from Italy as a child." No matter. If such questions couldn't stop an Oprah Book Club selection, they certainly wouldn't stop a nominee to the Supreme Court.
Once Judge Alito came before the Senate Judiciary Committee, the Democrats decided to counter the Republicans' story by coming up with a fictional story of their own, or that's what they did once they stopped bloviating. Their fictional biography cast Judge Alito as an out-and-out bigot. The major evidence cited to support this characterization was his listing his membership in Concerned Alumni of Princeton (CAP), a conservative group founded in reaction to the upheavals of the Vietnam era, on a job application for the Reagan Justice Department.
Judge Alito testified that he had joined CAP because it supported the R.O.T.C. on campus, adding that he did not remember having "done anything substantial in relation to this group, including renewing my membership." The Democrats plunged on, betting the house (or the Supreme Court) on Teddy Kennedy's insistence that Judge Alito could be linked to what the senator described as CAP's "repulsive anti-woman, anti-black, anti-disability, anti-gay pronouncements." In one of only two dramatic moments in the whole soporific confirmation process - a "Sunshine Boys"-style spat with the committee chairman, Arlen Specter - Mr. Kennedy threatened to subpoena CAP "documents in the possession of the Library of Congress" to hunt down Judge Alito's bigotry.
There was only one problem with the Democrats' fictional story line: it had been exposed as fake on the front page of The Times weeks before Mr. Kennedy presented it to the nation. Mr. Kirkpatrick reported that he had examined the same papers Mr. Kennedy was threatening to subpoena - as well as some others at Princeton's own library - and found no trace of Judge Alito's involvement with CAP as either an active participant or a major donor. When the Senate committee did Mr. Kennedy's bidding and looked at those documents yet again, it found exactly what The Times had in November, calling the senator's bluff and ending any remote chance the Democrats had for keeping Judge Alito off the court. It says everything about the Democrats' ineptitude that when they spin fiction, they are incapable of meeting even the low threshold of truthiness needed to make it fly in this lax cultural environment.
THE Republicans would never have been so sloppy. Indeed, hardly had Mr. Kennedy's melodramatic stunt blown up in his face than they came up with a new story line prompted by the other dramatic incident in the hearings: the departure of Martha-Ann Alito from the committee room in tears. She fled while a Republican senator, Lindsey Graham, was mocking the Democrats, not when the eminently mockable Democrats were mounting their lame assault. Whatever. As Time magazine later reported, a P.R. outfit called Creative Response Concepts immediately pumped up the media volume of her supposed martyrdom, breathlessly producing a former Alito clerk to provide eyewitness testimony of her suffering at the hands of those Democratic brutes.
Creative Response Concepts did similar work for the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth during the 2004 campaign. Its roster of clients also includes the right-wing Media Research Center, itself the parent organization of something called the Cybercast News Service. For the new year, Cybercast News has an exciting fictional project of its own: just before John Murtha, the tough Congressional critic of the Iraq war, appeared on "60 Minutes" last Sunday, it started Swift Boating him by rewriting his Vietnam history to besmirch the legitimacy of his two Purple Hearts.
If Karl Rove's White House propaganda factory is the NBC Universal or Time Warner of G.O.P. fictionalization, then the Miramax and Focus Features of the right are such nominally "independent" satellites as Cybercast News, the Lincoln Group (which places fake news stories in Iraqi newspapers), the Rendon Group (which helped manufacture the heroic image of Ahmad Chalabi) and the now-dormant Talon News (the fake Republican-staffed news site whose fake White House correspondent, Jeff Gannon, was unmasked last year).
Fittingly enough against this backdrop, last week brought the re-emergence of Clifford Irving, the author of the fake 1972 autobiography of Howard Hughes that bamboozled the world long before fraudulent autobiographies and biographies were cool. He announced that he was removing his name from "The Hoax," a coming Hollywood movie recounting his exploits, because of what he judged its lack of fidelity to "the truth of what happened." That Mr. Irving can return like Rip van Winkle after all these years to take the moral high ground in defense of truthfulness is a sign of just how low into truthiness we have sunk.
To my readers: Starting next week, I will be on a book leave, writing nonfiction about our post-9/11 fictions. See you in the spring.