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Rich in spirit 

New York Times columnist Frank Rich discusses politics and ideals

click to enlarge Frank Rich brings his analysis to CC just as election frenzy peaks. - FRED CONRAD
  • Fred Conrad
  • Frank Rich brings his analysis to CC just as election frenzy peaks.

Bill O'Reilly hates Frank Rich. Well, maybe not Frank Kelly Rich, creator of Modern Drunkard magazine, but definitely New York Times columnist Frank Rich, who's had the audacity to write columns like "America's orgy of schadenfreude."

Let's skip that East-Coast-elitist headline and move right to the opening line, in which Rich cherry-picks a quote from O'Reilly's beloved tome, The O'Reilly Factor for Kids. In it, the feisty FOX ranter offers this valuable talking point for his young male acolytes: "Guys, if you exploit a girl, it will come back to get you. That's called 'karma."'

The irony, of course, is that O'Reilly was hit with a sexual harassment suit, since settled, involving vibrators, phone sex and loofahs (or as O'Reilly would have it, "those falafel things").

Four years after that column ran, Frank Rich is still taking on emerging hypocrisies. In his Oct. 12 Times column, he noted that in her Republican National Convention speech, vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin quoted a "writer" praising small-town America.

The problem is that the quote came from Westbrook Pegler, whom Rich describes as a "mid-century Hearst columnist famous for his anti-Semitism, racism and violent rhetorical excess." Rich goes on to cite Pegler's inflammatory and eerily prescient '60s wish for Bobby Kennedy, that "some white patriot of the Southern tier will spatter his spoonful of brains in public premises before the snow falls."

If anything, Rich's writing has only become more potent and incisive, his use of a rhetorical scalpel more effective than the hatchet jobs being perpetrated by proponents of John McCain's campaign.

Last week, Rich talked to the Independent about the state of political journalism, his former life as a theater critic and his views on the current campaign season.

Indy: In yesterday's column, you wrote about the eviction of a black reporter from a McCain rally, the threats against Obama from McCain's supporters, and a Sarah Palin quote in her convention speech from the columnist who advocated for the assassination of Bobby Kennedy as well as Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Do you think such things are being underplayed by most media? And if so, why?

FR: Well, it's a good question, and it's hard to generalize about the media. Some of these things have been reported elsewhere, and actually in the online column, I link to places where they might have turned up. For instance, it was a local paper in Florida ... that first reported about the ejection of the black reporter from a McCain rally. But I guess when we talk about the media, we talk about the national media. I do feel that a lot of things just sort of sit there, and aren't observed or given proper attention.

Indy: Do you think Palin knew where the quote came from?

FR: I sincerely doubt it, since she's been on the record as saying at least the first time around that she couldn't name a newspaper or magazine that she had read. So to me, the question that's raised by it is: What does it say, that there are people around her who are putting it into a speech for her, that they would think that someone like Westbrook Pegler is a legitimate source to be quoted in a national convention speech before the entire country?

Indy: Barack Obama has what seems like a decisive lead at this point. What factors do you think could turn that around between now and election day?

FR: You can never say never, and we've learned one thing in the 2008 election: Every prediction has been wrong. You know, there have been predictions that Hillary Clinton was inevitable, McCain was counted out before, white people were not going to vote for a black candidate.

I think time is running out, but there are all sorts of external events that could have an effect; particularly anything obviously involving national security might have an effect. There might be yet some final roll of the dice that McCain hasn't thought of, that could shape events. I don't know what it is. It'd take a great deal of creativity to top either making Sarah Palin your vice president or suspending your campaign and threatening not to go to a debate. Or Obama who, generally speaking, does not seem to make mistakes, may yet make a mistake.

Indy: You spent a long time writing about theater before moving to politics. Which do you think conveys more truth?

FR: Oh, the theater conveys more truth. That's not even a close call. You know, one thing that's wonderful about the theater is that great theater, which is often, almost always, fictional, even if it's based sometimes on real life history, takes you to a place of truth. And truth in politics is often just an accidental byproduct that's quickly snuffed out when it arrives. And that's true of both parties and all candidates.

Indy: What do you expect the months after a new president takes office will be like?

FR: I think whoever becomes president is facing a truly horrific situation, in terms of rebuilding this country, rebuilding the economy, rebuilding America's reputation and alliances abroad, grappling with fresh eyes with Iraq, Iran and the Middle East in general, as well as China and Russia. And, you know, you have to say for whatever candidate wins, be careful what you wish for, because you're going to be inheriting a mess.

There's no question in my mind that the current administration has run this country into a ditch, as the clich would have it, and it's going to be hard to dig it out no matter who has the job. And we have to hope whoever it is gets all the bipartisan help that he can get, because they're gonna need it.

Indy: As a former arts writer, do you ever find politics disillusioning?

FR: I grew up in Washington D.C., not in a political family, but I've always been a political junkie and always written about it in some way or another. And it's part of the American cultural scene, politics it's not something that's divorced from it. And to me, even when I was covering theater, politics was part of covering theater, particularly in the 1980s, for instance, when the AIDS crisis was happening, and that was a big part of what was happening in theater as well as in the political world. You know, these two things were always intertwined.

So disillusioned isn't quite the word. I would say, I'm jaundiced about a lot because of politics, and I am cynical about the way the worst people in politics behave.

But fundamentally, I like our system. I think that while it has to be reformed from time to time, occasionally terrific people do emerge through it who are leaders who can help the country, and it's possible that some may emerge in this election, not just at the top level, but if there's a really big sweep through Congress, we may see some idealistic people and some younger people get in. We have a system that can produce that, it isn't static, and that's to be applauded.

bill@csindy.com

  • If anything, Rich's writing has only become more potent and incisive.

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