Monday, February 05, 2007

The World According to Frank Rich

Earlier this evening, I got the chance to see the New York Times Op-Ed writer and memoirist Frank Rich speak at Trinity University in San Antonio. Rich is truly now one of the giants of the Op-ed pages. In 1996, after years of theater reviews and increasingly political coverage of the culture at large, Rich was the first writer for the Times to receive a double-length column in the weekend Op-ed pages. He's that good a writer.

In person, Frank Rich comes across as a person you'd genuinely like to know as a close friend. As opposed to some other big gun pundits, Rich is comfortable with people, one on one, very personable, a real charmer, at once seeing the big picture in culture and politics yet, one on one, offering generously a twinkle of camaraderie, a smile of solace, even a shoulder of compassion. A friend who invited me to attend the event at Trinity is a Frank Rich groupie. She absolutely adores his columns and was quite moved before, during and after meeting him.

Rich's new book is his first book on politics, but he takes a big swing -- or is it stab? -- at the selling (out) of American politics and media. It's called The Greatest Story Ever SOLD: The Decline and Fall of Truth Between 9/11 and Katrina and appeared on bestseller lists last fall. In his talk, Rich started us off by going back to the pseudo-historical docu-drama "Roots," suggesting that that 1976 mini-series was the beginning of this culture's warping of history and truth, fact and fiction. As an American Studies student in the late 1970s, I recall "Roots" being mentioned in the same context, along with Truman Capote's coining of the term "non-fiction novel" a decade before and references to a most noteworthy take on this subject, Daniel Boorstin's 1961 book, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America. I wonder if Rich realizes how much his perspective aligns with Boorstin's bellwether book. Still, Rich has got it right, I think, and though in no way cutting edge, much less radical, he's a particularly palatable and personable town crier.

I think Rich's persona as well as his political coverage and cultural synthesis hinge on his early years as a theater critic. As a boy, to escape bitter domestic dramas, he was drawn to drama on the larger stage. And in time, he came to be drawn to the distinctions between actual events and the stories spun from those events. (For more on this, see Rich's acclaimed memoir, Ghost Lights.)

Plus, this guy's a real people person. So, as his themes send a chill up the spine, he himself comes across as warm-hearted. You're just getting a book signed, and you get this feeling he wants to clasp your hand longer and maybe give you a hug.

Now, at the height of his career, Rich appreciates and indeed plays up not only the dramatic but the cinematic in politics. He is sensitive to the timing, the production and the aesthetics of overt policies and covert politics, and even, luckily for us, purposeful propaganda. Thus, he's cutting deftly and somewhat deeper than many of his more short-sighted and surface-oriented peers into the TV Cheese we're being sold.

Rich says he's now become very cynical, but as he says this he leans in a bit with a 'what can you do' look and a grin, his twinkling sentiment on our side.

The bottom line: Frank Rich suggests we be wary and highly skeptical of any politicians who, as he says, "put their own political power above all else."


At 2/19/2007 6:46 AM, Anonymous Gago said...

thanks lawrence


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