In New York, Times columnist Frank Rich is a local hero. If he lacks the national profile of Times stars Maureen Dowd and David Brooks, and the liberal bloodlust of Paul Krugman, then his column is nonetheless a beloved Manhattan institution. Part of it is that Rich is a genuine New York celebrity, dating from when he was the Times’chief drama critic, the celebrated “Butcher of Broadway.” And part of it is that the critical voice Rich honed on the theater beat, and now uses in his column, is perfectly tuned to the voice of Manhattan liberalism. In Rich’s column you hear the mantra of the Upper West Side: a despair at the current liberal predicament, leavened by self-righteousness. “The answer is not complicated,” Rich wrote last month. “When people in power get away with telling bigger and bigger lies, they naturally think they can keep getting away with it. And for a long time, Mr. Bush and his cronies did. Not anymore.”
A few weeks ago, I went to see Rich among the faithful, giving a talk at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan. Each year, the 92nd Street Y brings in a roster of eminences, from Alan Alda to Barbara Boxer, designed to draw out the old lions of Manhattan liberalism. A sign of Rich’s star power is that tickets for his “evening with” had sold out well in advance, as they do every time he visits the Y. The lobby had the giddy buzz of a rock concert, and I spotted an elderly woman, suffering from age or just desperation to see her hero, attempt twice to sneak into the auditorium without a ticket. Inside, the audience hung on Rich’s every word, nodding vigorously when he skewered George W. Bush (“I think he has lost the trust of the country”) and resignedly when he skewered the Democrats (“I think the Democrats are pathetic”). Within a half-hour the synchronous head-bobbing had reached a level achieved only by a few rock acts; I imagine the aging ladies in the front row were ready to pelt Rich with their underwear, if only they had been able to stand.
The role of lefty hero is essentially Rich’s third act in journalism. In 1994, after 14 high-octane years as drama critic, Rich began to write what you might call cultural op-eds. In these, Rich would stroke his chin about Oprah Winfrey’s Beloved or David Hare’s The Blue Room—each cultural exemplum supposedly containing clues to desires of the polity. The theorizing had its limits—what, in the end, did Beloved tell us about society? (And Rich has unfortunately produced a crowd of imitators, including Dowd at the Times.)But Rich also had his share of triumphs. In 2003, after moving his column to the “Arts & Leisure” section, he was one of the first journalists to call Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ anti-Semitic. Played out in print and on TV, the Gibson-Rich feud both anticipated the cultural rift of the 2004 presidential election and was sensationally entertaining to boot. After Gibson expressed his desire to see the columnist killed along with his dog, Rich deadpanned, “I don’t have a dog.”
Since returning to the op-ed page in April, Rich has transformed himself into a more conventional left-wing animal. Gone is the snarky, channel-surfing sociologist; in is the defiant liberal champion who produces headlines like “Dishonest, Reprehensible, Corrupt” (Nov. 27), “The Mysterious Death of Pat Tillman” (Nov. 7), and “Karl and Scooter’s Excellent Adventure” (Oct. 23). The column remains about the culture only in its shocked discovery, two weeks out of three, that some evangelical supporters of the GOP do not admire gay people, artists, or Jews.
What is Rich’s niche? Though he grew up in Washington, D.C., Rich does not aspire to the capitolesque wonkery of David Brooks or the savage caricatures of Maureen Dowd. Nor is he a big-ideas man, like globalism evangelist Thomas L. Friedman. Rich’s methodology is more like a blogger’s—he gathers up a week’s worth of lefty outrage. An inveterate media junkie, Rich harvests morsels from the Huffington Post, Daily Kos, the New Republic, Slate, newspapers, and cable-news channels (always with generous citations). He fashions these small thoughts into a sprawling 1,500-word polemic—a sort of liberal call-to-arms. What Rich brings to the mix are muscular adjectives—”odious image-mongering,” “sordid shared past”—and the willingness (one might say brazenness) to draw connections between the various GOP outrages. Rarely in his recent columns has Rich been able to write about just one appalling GOP scandal. He has assured readers that Bush’s botched response to the New Orleans flood is tied to his botched prosecution of the Iraq war; that the Tyco scandal is really about the corrupt culture of K Street; that the Plamegate scandal is really about WMD—as he puts it, “There are no coincidences.”
As someone who shares Rich’s politics and appreciates his bruising style, I find his column to be a strangely unsatisfying experience. For sure, there’s a small thrill in watching Rich turn the decaffeinated Times op-ed page into an outlet for liberal id. But it’s possible to cheer on Rich’s crusades and feel that his column leaves you short.Rarely does he offer much more than illuminating rage. It’s the kind of closed-minded liberalism that, at its heart, is the antithesis of liberalism.
In some sense, Rich is still operating as the Times’chief drama critic. He doesn’t cover politics as theater—he leaves that to Dowd—but he approaches his work with a similar mandate. If you think back to Rich’s Broadway tenure, from Cats to Angels in America, his reviews are not especially memorable. It’s his advocacy that sticks in memory—his willingness to insist that you must see ’night, Mother, that you mustn’t see Merlin, etc. In the 1980s, interest in Broadway fare dwindled to such a degree that what Times readers wanted from their theater critic was the force of an Ebert-like thumb. Similarly, while some New Yorkers may balk at the intricacies of national politics—which so rarely penetrate the heat shield of Manhattan, anyway—they crave the issuance of a crisp verdict. “There were no weapons of mass destruction,” Rich wrote in October. “There was no collaboration between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda on 9/11. There was scant Pentagon planning for securing the peace should bad stuff happen after America invaded.” Now that that’s settled, shall we all go to the theater?
One of Rich’s colleagues offered me a theory about his place in the Times universe. The writer said that whatever grief the Times catches for being too liberal is counterbalanced by the grief its New York-based correspondents get for not being liberal enough. New Yorkers assume most Timesmen share their lefty political inclinations but are too constrained by balance and integrity to smear it all over the news pages. Therefore, it is the opinion pages—Rich and Krugman’s columns in particular—where they turn for reaffirmation. It’s a kind of airtight ideological bunker that, under slightly different circumstances, would make for a great Frank Rich column.