by Victor Davis Hanson
Real Clear Politics
Americans who watched ABC’s The Path to 9/11 saw a well-crafted dramatic interpretation of what rendered the United States, both under the Clinton and Bush administrations, vulnerable to terrorist attack. Perhaps the producers were conservative, but no more so than most of their Hollywood counterparts are liberal — and not to the degree that their politics slanted the presentation of the narrative.
But why, then, the hysteria?
It’s hard to believe that Bill Clinton or the film’s numerous critics were objecting on any basis of principle — on anything other than furor at pre-election time because some Clintonites, like many others, were portrayed as either distracted or hopelessly naïve about the nature of Islamic fascism.
First, consider the ignorance about the genre of the “docudrama,” which is simply the video version of what journalism has been doing for decades — and even centuries. To read Bob Woodward’s “meta-histories” is to intrude into the inner thoughts, mental musings, and private conversations of those few Washington insiders who are willing to talk with him, and thereby ensure that their own whitewashed take on events is privileged and becomes the dominant narrative.
Very few of Woodward’s characters’ cobbled-together reflections can possibly be verbatim transcripts of recorded interviews. Rather in the purest Thucydidean sense, Woodward apparently attempts to “make the speakers say what was in [his] opinion demanded of them by the various occasions, of course adhering as closely as possible to the general sense of what they really said.”
Whether the result is factual goes back to the age-old Greek debate over subjective and objective truth. Always controversial is establishing the murky point at which an artist’s attempts to portray what “actually happened” so drifts from, or contradicts, what is known from other evidence that it leaves the realm of history and enters that of propaganda or fiction.
Recent tell-all books about Iraq, such as Cobra II, hedge as well, using footnotes that appear to reflect scholarly rigor, but, in fact, sometimes simply cite “unnamed” officials or “senior” officers. There is no chance to establish the veracity of these informants, but some reason to doubt the credibility of an apparently angry source that refuses to be identified. In any case, scholars do not write histories of the Peloponnesian War with footnotes such as “unpublished manuscript of Herodotus” or “unnamed Greek inscription,” whose contents are known only to the author and cannot be checked by his peers.
But more importantly, there were various disclaimers in The Path to 9/11 that repeatedly reminded the viewer of the “fictionalized” nature of the docudrama, that it was impressionistic entertainment drawn from various 9/11 sources. Given that warning, objecting to The Path to 9/11 is not that much different from lamenting that Steven Pressfield’s fine Gates of Fire, both for the sake of entertainment, and because of the paucity of information, deviated from the text of Herodotus concerning Thermopylae — although he could have hardly made the Greeks win or King Leonidas and his Spartans survive.
Then there is the second issue of hypocrisy. Few of the present critics worried that a recent fictionizalized film of Ronald Reagan sought to create dialogue that the screenwriter apparently “thought” might best represent what Reagan “might” or “should” or “could” have said — in light of the nature of the evidence and the author’s own predispositions. That all such dialogue proved negative to the former president was not so surprising given the political leanings of Hollywood, but still should not have earned such anger from the Right to the point of demanding a cancellation. And such clear bias was not true of The Path of 9/11, in which Clinton’s successors often fared little better in confronting the terrorist challenge.
What are we to say about throat-clearing historians who damned the docudrama (often without seeing it) on grounds of the lack of historical integrity, this from a discipline where postmodernism — there is no objective truth, just rival discourses and narratives constructed on class, race, and gender — was not only appeased, but nearly destroyed the profession.
And what are we to think of Bill Clinton lamenting the movie’s supposed deviation from the “truth”, or Sandy Berger’s concern about protocols, or Madeline Albright’s apparent charge of partisanship, this from a former Secretary of State who has traveled the globe plugging her book by faulting her successors to foreign media in a time of war. Although I’m not a fan of docudramas, I found The Path to 9/11, with its disclaimers, far closer to the “truth” about the saga of bin Laden than what turned up in Bill Clinton’s “factual” autobiography.
When ABC cut portions of the most controversial segments before airing the film, there was no outcry from the American Civil Liberties Union that has so often and so loudly lectured us on the dangers not merely of government censorship, but of insidious self-censorship as a result of public pressures.
Nor did the New York Times or the law faculty of Harvard University rush to the producers’ defense, despite the long-held and self-acclaimed commitments of both to free speech and the First Amendment at nearly all costs. And, of course, we heard none of the current furor when Oliver Stone produced his wacko conspiracies on the Kennedy assassination and the life of Richard Nixon.
Third, a far greater problem, contrary to the current noise, is not with the docudrama per se — especially when the viewer is clearly and often apprised of this new genre’s nature and limitations — but rather with documentaries that do not list any such disclaimers and yet distort truth through clever editing of film clips. A great deal of Michael Moore’s documentaries was composed of drive-by interviews of the surprised, senile, or bushwhacked. Many interviews encouraged false impressions, and, unknown to the viewer, were not natural or impromptu, but propped or staged, and so taken out context as to imply the very opposite as intended by the speaker.
Note again, for all this, Mr. Moore was not condemned by historians or lawyers, but rather rewarded with a prominent seat at the Democratic National Convention. Even Bill Clinton would confess that Fahrenheit 911 was intended to do far more damage to George Bush than The Path to 9/11 was to himself.
In this regard, concern could be far better voiced about onslaughts against other traditional and trusted genres — Dan Rather’s presentation of the news based on forged documents, or Reuters’ publishing photo-shopped pictures. And these are neither isolated lapses, nor in the mainstream media do they cut both ways equally against liberals and conservatives. Rather these distortions are concrete manifestations of a long-standing effort on the part of the more theoretical Left to subordinate the means to the ends, as if progressive spirits are to be granted some exemption from bothersome scrutiny and archaic protocols given their purportedly superior moral mission.
There is a final consideration. We are at war. Unlike Fahrenheit 9/11 that is referenced ad nauseam by the jihadists and still a favorite among al Qaedists, or the current film portraying the imagined assassination of President Bush that played to recent applause in Canada, but gained little condemnation here in America, The Path to 9/11 won’t be popular with our enemies. And that might tell us something. If we know one thing about bin Laden and al Qaeda, they hate the truth and love the lie.
©2006 Victor Davis Hanson