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The Rich, Rich World of Political Theater

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When a government substitutes propaganda for governing, the Potemkin village is all,” New York Times columnist Frank Rich wrote last December. “Since we don’t get honest information from this White House we must instead, as the Soviets once did, decode our rulers’ fictions to discern what’s really happening. What we’re seeing now is the wheels coming off: As the administration’s stagecraft becomes more baroque, its credibility tanks further both at home and abroad. The propaganda techniques may be echt Goebbels, but they increasingly come off as pure Ali G.”

The column was vintage Rich, with its piercing critique of White House political theater and its pop culture reference to Ali G, the British comic whose real name is Sacha Baron Cohen.

Born in Washington, D.C. in 1949, Rich graduated from Harvard in 1971. By the end of that year he had published his first big story: a 10,000-word profile of Daniel Ellsberg that appeared in Esquire. After several years in Richmond, Virginia, where Rich and a group of friends founded a paper that combined muckraking with cultural and service journalism, he moved to New York. As he explains in his autobiography, Ghost Light (Random House, 2000), from an early age he was fascinated by the theater, which became a home away from home after his parents divorced. In 1980 at the age of 31 he was appointed chief drama critic at the Times , a position he would hold for 14 years before turning his attention to politics and the strange intersection of politics and pop culture, fact and fiction, that is so much a part of contemporary American life. As it happens, all those years as chief drama critic, all the preoccupation with stagecraft and what’s really going on in the wings, may be the perfect apprenticeship these days for a political columnist.

“It’s as if the country is living in a permanent state of suspension of disbelief,” Rich wrote on January 22. His column, “Truthiness 101: From Frey to Alito,” examined the Alito confirmation hearings, paired with the flap over fake memoirist James Frey. At the end of the column, Rich announced that he was going on book leave for several months, “writing nonfiction about our post-9/11 fictions.”

During a recent trip to Austin, he met with the Observer. The following is an excerpt of that conversation:

Texas Observer: For so many years your readers knew you primarily as a drama critic. But your first big break was a political story, a profile of Daniel Ellsberg that you wrote for Esquire right after college. How did that story come about?

Frank Rich: In 1970 I was the editorial chairman of the Harvard Crimson. Early that fall a guy who I had never heard of by the name of Dan Ellsberg started hanging around the Crimson. He was a fellow at MIT, an alumnus of the Crimson from the early 1950s. He was this obsessive guy with all these stories to tell about the Vietnam War and a lot of name dropping, in particular about McNamara and Kissinger. He wanted to speak to us about the war at our editorial board meetings. At that time there was a rule that non-staff people were not allowed to speak at the meetings. But he was so insistent, sort of charismatic and interesting—although we didn’t quite know what to make of him—and obviously brilliant. So he became a sort of unofficial hanger-on. We socialized with him and his wife.

That spring I was graduating and—I’ll never forget this—I was going to Class Day, a day-before-graduation event, where Jimmy Breslin was speaking. I got the Sunday Times and there was this lead story, which was the Pentagon Papers. Immediately I started recognizing that these stories overlapped the stories that Ellsberg had told us. Then I head off to Class Day and stop at the Harvard Square News Stand and see Dan buying about seven copies of the Sunday Times. He gave me this look and said something like, “I’m going to be disappearing for awhile.” And I said, “Well, can I get in touch with you?”

To make a long story short, I spent the entire summer doing this piece, a lot of which involved furtive conversations with Ellsberg, who was on the lam and would call me from phone booths. At the end of the summer I finished a 10,000-word profile, edited it in New York and then went to Europe. While I was in London, some FBI agents came to the door and asked me to come to the American Embassy. I remember them taking me down corridor after corridor after corridor. It really was like out of a bad movie. I ended up in a room that was completely decorated with J. Edgar Hoover memorabilia and mounted guns on the wall and they asked questions like, “Did Daniel Ellsberg live in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1970?”

I never heard from Ellsberg again until about a year-and-a-half ago. I got a call at the Times from someone, “This is Dan Ellsberg.” As if we were talking yesterday. And he says, “You know, in the fifth paragraph where you said I compared myself to Rosa Parks, I didn’t.”

TO: It seems fitting that Ellsberg would resurface at this time. Before the Iraq war began he was active, trying to get people who worked in Intelligence to speak out.

FR: I think we’re seeing something like that now—Lawrence Wilkerson is a classic example, Powell’s former top aide, who has really been ferocious. Keep in mind, [Wilkerson served] at a much higher level than someone like Ellsberg. Ellsberg was really low on the totem pole. I think we’re seeing a number of people—Richard Haass [former director of policy planning in the state department under Powell], has been talking about the war for quite some time now. Certainly as you read books like Larry Diamond’s book [Squandered Victory: The American Occupation and the Bungled Effort to Bring Democracy to Iraq], George Packer’s book [The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq], there are quite a number of people who are talking. And, of course, Joe Wilson, who in a way may be the closest figure—close in his role in the sort of unraveling of the Iraq war and in his public personality—to Ellsberg.

TO: In Ghost Life you lay out your early fascination with theater, which later would affect the way that you write about politics—the theater of politics. Where does your own politics come from?

FR: Here’s the thing: I grew up in Washington. My father was a shoe storeowner, a native Washingtonian. Politics would enter that part of my family’s life only if Bess Truman came in and bought a pair of shoes. My stepfather, as you know, was a major character in Ghost Light. Even several years after it’s been published, I’m still wrestling with him as an influence on me. He was a very difficult character, abusive to his family; on the other hand, he was this brilliant guy, very tough. He represented airlines that were not the big airlines. This is a world that no longer exists because it’s all been deregulated, but he represented Air India and Air France and British Airways, which were always fighting route cases, fighting hugely powerful airlines like Pan Am and TWA. What I realize now is a lot of it was what we call lobbying. A lot of it was about jollying up senators. He had worked as a secretary to Henry Wallace in the late ’40s and he worked in the Commerce Department. He really knew quite well people like Johnson, Humphrey, Scoop Jackson [the late Senator Henry Jackson of Washington], but he was very much against the status quo, so in that way he no way resembles lobbyists today. He thought the big companies were out to screw the little companies he represented. He was an authoritarian personality, but he hated authority. One of his very good friends was Bill Douglas, the Supreme Court Justice. He was also very friendly with two columnists. I’m convinced that he fed them items: One of them was Drew Pearson, the other was Leonard Lyons. Drew Pearson was about Washington political gossip and Leonard Lyons was about celebrity gossip. My stepfather always had this interest in theater, and one of his clients was New York theater producers’ trade association.

The other thing that had a huge effect on me was the lack of home rule in Washington. To this day, my father, who is turning 85 in April, is involved in DC Vote, an advocacy group—this clearly doomed effort to get home rule. I was always a theater fanatic; the theater and politics fused in my mind because if you are interested in the theater you always know that what you’re seeing on stage is a bunch of scenery and actors playing roles in what is essentially fiction. But as you learn more about it, you know there are stagehands, there are things going on in the wings. I think that informed my view of Washington.

On one hand, you’re presented with this official view of Washington as this cradle of democracy and this fantastic egalitarian place where all the principles in the constitution and the bill of rights are being upheld. On the other hand, I could see every day, these incredible inequities—the way black people were treated, the way the city was run. That discrepancy in the theater between onstage and off to this day has affected my view of politics: I’m always curious about what’s happening in the wings.

TO: It’s interesting hearing you talk about your stepfather’s cynicism, how that affected your perception. But once you get to that cynical stage—where a lot of people are now—what do you do with that?

FR: All I can do is write about it. I’m not a politician. I’m not a political activist. I’m lucky I found a career—this kind of strange, peripatetic career—where I’ve been able to fuse all my interests and write about it. What’s been brilliant about this administration is their ability to create a false reality. It’s not just about using fake numbers. It’s about creating absolute scenarios. Hiring people to carry them out. Somebody like [Michael] Deaver in the Reagan administration—an actual Hollywood administration—looks tame by comparison.

I really feel strongly that Katrina was the final moment when things sort of fell apart. A lot of the country just really turned the page about Iraq. Just tuned it out. Because what, one in 11 people knows someone who’s fighting there. In that way, it’s not like Vietnam. It’s like, “Agghh! Bad news. I’ll change the channel.” When this hurricane happened, you had actual Americans crying in anguish on national television. People talk now about a bounce in the polls. It may bounce up to 41, 43 percent, depending on which poll you read as he enters the lame duck part of his presidency. [But] I think Humpty Dumpty can’t be put back together again.

TO: Maybe not, but that whole culture of unreality is so entrenched—

FR: That’s a part of American culture that predates the ascendancy of George Bush. There’s a media structure that’s been created and it really took hold, in my view, in the mid-1990s. CNN became a big hit finally, after being a big joke, with the first Gulf War. You add to that mix competing cable networks of all sorts and the beginning of the explosion of the Internet as a mass medium. We’ve created this culture now, this sort of 24/7 culture I’ve written about a lot, where anything can be turned into a national soap opera and can be manipulated, particularly by people in power. We look back now at the Lewinsky scandal and it seems like whatever anyone thinks of Clinton, what the hell was that all about? How did that ever become a national soap opera? But we have the media in place to do it. What’s brilliant about the Bush people is that they’ve figured out how to manipulate it. There was a time when television, the way most Americans get their news, was considered a public service entity. It was like this public service fig leaf for people like Paley at CBS to the federal government: We’ll do “The Beverly Hillbillies,” we’ll do the game shows, because we’re giving you the evening news and “CBS Reports” and we don’t expect to make a profit. Now CBS as a whole is a small part of Viacom and CBS News is a tiny part of CBS, so that’s all gone by the wayside. It’s been replaced by news that is literally run by entertainment companies and is completely ratings-conscious. It’s not simply that FOX is right wing; that really isn’t the big point. The big point of all of them is that they’re going to give the audience what it wants and what gets the highest rating. So it will always be an abducted young woman, shark attacks, or Monica Lewinsky or O.J. Simpson.

TO: You really think the networks always give the American people what they want?

FR: Do I think that is there an audience for something higher? Of course there is. But it’s a niche audience. The audience of The New York Times, is what? A million people during the week. The printed word has to face the technological challenge and the economic challenge of the Internet. Leaving that aside for a second, print has much more freedom than television. The notion that on prime time people are going to watch ABC news, or a CBS news, or a FOX news hour about the future of Hamas is preposterous. It can’t compete; never could compete. It’s not like Edward R. Murrow had high ratings either. He had high ratings—as the movie Good Night, and Good Luck indicated—from when he interviewed Liberace. Not from talking about migrant workers or Joe McCarthy. The networks didn’t care. Maybe there was also a little altruism, although I think that movie captures very well that it was hardly altruistic.

Don Hewitt, who created “60 Minutes” makes the very good point that his show, which is one of the best things to ever happen to TV news, also creates its destruction. People forget that for eight, ten seasons “60 Minutes” had terrible ratings. By today’s standards it would have been cancelled in two or three weeks. But it was still the tail end of the public service period [of television history]. So CBS just kept it on and didn’t give a shit. Suddenly it became a big hit and set a new standard. My God, you can do this and make money too! In some ways that was the beginning of the end. Hewitt himself has said many times, “We created the monster.” Today if ABC, or CBS, or NBC wanted to start a new foreign policy “60 Minutes” or an investigative “60 Minutes”—even if [it] was allowed to get on the air on primetime on a big-three network—it would be cancelled as quickly as “The Boo
of Daniel,” the television series, because no one is going to stick around and wait a decade for the ratings to kick in. Wall Street won’t stand for it.

What gives me some encouragement is the generation coming up, maybe because I see this in my own two sons—one of them is 25 and one is 21—and their friends. They have been sold so much crap, so much more than we were. They’re so suspicious of everything and may yet think of a way to reinvent [news coverage]. They are a huge market. And I can’t imagine that they won’t have some impact when their moment comes.

We’re in a very odd situation right now; it’s almost as it was when talkies came into the movie industry. People went into a panic in the late 20s. You have traditional mainstream media terrified by the technological developments, intimidated by the government and the rise of the very vocal critics of the blogosphere. It can’t last indefinitely. There comes a point, for instance, when people are going to want news about what’s really going on in Iraq. They’re going to want news about what’s really going on with the next Enron. They’re going to want to know what is really going on with global warming. There is a market for that. It may not be in primetime, but people will want it. Someone will supply it, someone will figure out how to make money doing it and how to distribute it.

TO: I want to close with a question about your new book. How are you going about putting that together?

FR: I am trying to construct a narrative, to stand back, look at what’s happened since the summer of 2001 and try to tell the story. What it was like to live in this culture, to be somewhat innocent—not naïve—after this horrific attack and this feeling that everything had changed. That we had left the frivolous 1990s of Monica Lewinsky and the stock market bubble and Enron phoniness behind us and we had all this new realism. Try to tell the story bit by bit from my point of view of how nothing changed—just some very slick people created a false reality that essentially sent a country into a war that had virtually nothing to do with the attack on America.

Although this is a book implicitly very critical of Bush, I don’t want to write just about Bush or to argue about all his policies or any of all that. I feel what I have to bring to it is a cultural critique: watching the show. And then watching it implode in the past year, both in Iraq and in America.