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White Rabbits from the White House

by Christian Salmon Friday, May. 02, 2008 at 2:01 AM

"When politics threatens to destroy you, tell stories, stories of good and evil. Make every election into a morality play," Rove said. When politics becomes a spectacle and making more money out of money is stylized as the most noble pursuit, may our storytelling be life-giving!


Illusion artists helping the Bush administration

By Christian Salmon

[This article published in: Le Monde diplomatique, 12/14/2007 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,,a0059.idx,18]

A sensation occurred two weeks before the American presidential election on October 17, 2004 when a front-page article about George W. Bush appeared in the New York Times magazine. Pulitzer-prize winning journalist and bestselling author Ron Suskind told of a conversation with an important Bush advisor in the summer of 2002. “The advisor told me, we describe types like you as the reality-based community. You belong to the people who believe solutions are based on careful analysis of concrete reality.” [1] I moved closer and muttered something about the principles of the Enlightenment and empiricism. He interrupted me: “But the world does not function that way anymore. We are now an empire and when we act we create our own reality. While you analyze this reality with your usual thoroughness, we will act and create new realities that you can investigate. We are the actors of history. Nothing will be left for you besides analyzing what we do.” After Suskind’s article was published, commentators and bloggers took up the term “reality-based community” and spread it on the Web. At the beginning of November 2002, the first Wikipedia appeared. According to Jay Rosen, professor of journalism at New York University, “many leftists adopt the term in describing themselves on their blogs as “reality believers” while the right-wing make fun of those believing in reality.” [2]


The remarks about “reality believers” cited by Suskind probably come from Karl Rove, the most important political advisor of the president until the summer of 2007. Spoken a few months before the Iraq war, these statements worthy of a Machiavelli are cynical, theatrical and hardly fitting for an office in the White House. Rove exploited the well-known tension between pragmatists and idealists, realists and moralists, pacifists and war zealots or – as in the summer of 2007 – between defenders of international law and proponents of violent solutions. Isn’t this a reconfiguration of the relation of politics and reality? [3] At that moment leading politicians of the US superpower turned away from real politics and normal realism, soared to be creators of their own reality, masters of appearance, by confessing to a real politics of fiction.

The US invasion of Iraq in March 2003 was a spectacular proof of the White House’s determination “to create its own reality.” The masters in the Pentagon did not want to repeat the errors of the first Gulf war in 1991 and embedded 500 journalists in army units (the famous “embedded journalists”). The press center of the US army headquarters in Katar was equipped with all kinds of technical tricks. For a million dollars, an aircraft carried was converted into a super-modern television studio with podium, plasma picture screens and the necessary equipment for war reporting with a host of animations, maps and charts.

The press conference of commander-in-chief Tommy Franks alone cost 0,000. The stage designer who already arranged sets for Disney, MGM and the television show “Good Morning America” organized the set. Since 2005, he arranged the décor for the president’s press conferences in the commission of the White House. As everybody knows, the Pentagon has long had close relations with Hollywood.

On the other hand, the decision of the Pentagon to hire the magician David Blaine was astonishing. The young conjurer is famous in the United States for his spectacular stunts. In his tricks, he is seemingly liberated from the laws of physics. Once he put himself in a glass coffin for seven days – without apparent infusion of oxygen and food. In his 2002 book “Mysterious Stranger,” he describes himself as a successor to the legendary French magician Robert Houdini who in 1856 commissioned by the French government traveled to Algeria. With his tricks, he won the sympathy of the population and showed the superiority of the French. [4] The Pentagon may have hoped for similar effects from Blaine’s appearances. His illusionist talent could be useful for tricks or special effects.

Scott Storza, the former producer of the ABC television station who also worked for the propaganda machine of the republicans, arranged many of the backdrops for President Bush’s most important pronouncements in his second term in office. Storza directed when Bush spoke on May 1, 2003 on the aircraft carrier “USS Abraham Lincoln” before a banner “Mission accomplished”: “Essential military operations in Iraq are ended. The United States and our allies have carried off the victory in the battle over Iraq.”


Bush landed on the aircraft carrier on board a fighter jet renamed for the occasion “Navy One” with the inscription “George Bush Commander-in-Chief.” The television audience saw him in a flier’s garb with helmet in hand climbing out of the cockpit as though returning from an action in a remake of “Top Gun,” a film produced by that Jerry Bruckheimer who produced the reality TV series “Profiles from the Front Line” about the war in Afghanistan along with many other joint productions of Hollywood and the Pentagon. The commentator of “Fox News” enthused about the “fantastic theater.” This was actually meant as a complement. But the truth was hardly reflected here. David Broder of the Washington Post was also seemingly overcome by the “pose” of the president. [5] Storza had to skillfully select the stage design giving the impression that the aircraft carrier was in the open sea near the scene of combat.

Never was the visual staging of a presidential statement as clear as on August 15, 2002 when the US president spoke about “national security” before the Mount Rushmore memorial under the enormous heads of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln carved in stone. In the cinematic adjustment, Bush’s profile fused with the monumental portraits of his famous predecessors into a memorable picture.


According to the same model, Bush’s address was made into a show on the first anniversaries of the attack on September 11. The American public should be prepared for the invasion of Iraq, “the great battle that tests our power and our determination.” Storza rented three cargo ships bringing the president’s crew to the foot of the Statue of Liberty. While Bush spoke with the perfectly illumined landmark shining in the background, Frank Rich, columnist of the New York Times, revealed Bush’s stagings in his book “The Greatest Story Ever Sold.” He quoted Reagan advisor Michael Deaver in this context. In 1980 Deaver commissioned specialists to film the proclamation of Ronald Reagan’s presidential candidacy with the Statue of Liberty as the backdrop. “Like no one before them, they knew the power of the picture. They understood the background is just as important as the head.” [6]

Framing and mounting make the picture into a legend: “Mission accomplished,” the founding fathers and the Statue of Liberty. The picture engraved in the memory is upgraded to a story and history. For the viewer to feel in the picture, both moments, the situation represented by the picture and the moment of perception, must support each other. In 2002 no date had more emotional weight for Americans than the first anniversary of September 11. [7] The religion scholar Ira Chernus described Karl Rove’s communication strategy as a “strategy of Scheherazade.” “When politics condemns you to death, tell stories: stories so fabulous, captivating and enchanting that the king – in this case, the American citizens who theoretically at least govern our country – no longer think of pronouncing the death sentence.” [8]

In the campaign for Bush’s re-election, Rove diverted the atte3ntion of voters from the negative war balance by conjuring America’s collective myths. Karl Rove, as Chernus says, “knew voters are impressed by stories a la John Wayne in which real men fight the devil at their front door. Rove tirelessly invented stories of good and evil for the republican candidates. He did everything to make every election into a morality play in which the moral rigor of republicans faces the democrats’ lack of moral orientation. “The strategy of Scheherazade is a fraud based on the illusion that simple moralizing stories can give a sense of security independent of what actually happens in the world.” [9] In August 2007, democratic congresspersons forced Karl Rove to resign his office. Still he put his own stamp on his work when he declared: “I am Moby Dick, and they are behind me.”


(1) Ron Suskind, "Without a Doubt" ("Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush"), "The New York Times Magazine, 17. Oktober 2004,

(2) Jay Rosen, "The Retreat from Empiricism and Ron Suskind's Intellectual Scoop", "The Huffington Post, 4. Juli 2007.

(3) Vgl. Christian Salmon, "Eine gute Story. Die Macht ist mit dem, der die beste Geschichte erzählt", "Le Monde diplomatique, November 2006.

(4) David Blaine, "Mysterious Stranger. A Book of Magic", New York (Villard Books) 2002.

(5) Zitiert nach Frank Rich, "The Greatest Story Ever Sold. The Decline and Fall of Truth from 9/11 to Katrina", New York (Penguin Books) 2006, S. 89.

(6) Ebd., S. 57.

(7) Ebd., S. 58.

(8) Ira Chernus und Tom Engelhardt, "Karl Rove's Scheherazade strategy", 7. Juli 2006, www.tomdis

(9) Ebd.

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