Writer Frank Rich

Originally aired on November 13, 2012

The former New York Times Op-Ed columnist gives his take on election 2012.

Since joining New York magazine last year, Frank Rich has written on politics and culture and engaged in regular dialogues on the news of the week as a commentator on nymag.com. He previously spent nearly 30 years with The New York Times, where he was an Op-Ed columnist, politics and culture critic and editor and the first to carry dual titles as "Arts & Leisure" front-page columnist and senior advisor to the culture editor. He's also a best-selling author, with titles that include The Greatest Story Ever Sold, and a creative consultant to HBO, where he is an EP of two projects, Veep, and a documentary on Stephen Sondheim.


Tavis: Tonight, though, we continue our look at the fallout from this year’s presidential election with Frank Rich. The former “New York Times” op-ed columnist is now writer at large for “New York” magazine. His piece in the magazine this week is called “Fantasyland: Denial has Poisoned the GOP and Threatens the Rest of the Country Too.”

He joins us tonight from where else, New York. Frank, good to have you back on this program.

Frank Rich: Great to be with you, as always. Thank you.

Tavis: I want to start with – well, I was going to say the news of the day. There is so much news of this day, but let me start with the fact that Congress is now back in session for this lame duck session, as it were.

Clearly, the top of the agenda for them, and I suspect for the nation, is how they keep the country from going over what has been referred to as the fiscal cliff, a lot easier to say than “sequestration.” But your thoughts tonight on how serious both sides have to be or in fact will be in coming to some grand bargain, some solution these days following the election.

Rich: I think they’ll be fairly serious. I think the first thing that has to happen is the Republicans have to get over their shock of losing an election they thought they were going to win, and realize that their leverage is rather limited. Already, we’re seeing certainly that in the case of John Boehner, and the big question, of course, for everyone is whether Boehner can get his rather radical troops in the House in line.

They have to make a deal. They will make a deal. The business community that supports both parties wants a deal, and I’m hoping that the president will hold to his principles this time and get a deal that’s good for the country. I think the Republicans will have to give up a lot, and we’re already seeing signs that they might.

Tavis: You’ve said two or three things now, as you often do whenever you open your mouth, that I want to follow up on. (Laughter)

Rich: Sorry about that. Sorry.

Tavis: So let me pick up on two or three things and get you to unpack it for me. In no particular order, number one.

Rich: Sure.

Tavis: Tell me why you believe that Republicans won’t do the exact opposite of compromise, which is to dig their heels in? When somebody takes this kind of shellacking, there are always two ways to respond – gracefully or arrogantly, or pompously. So tell me why you believe that they’re not going to dig their heels in, licking their wounds, after this election, versus compromising and getting along with the president.

Rich: Over the long term they may not. They may well dig their heels in. I think we don’t know yet, and of course I can’t predict what’s going to happen. Over the short term, I think there’s just too much movement. There’s too much concern, essentially from the Wall Street and business backers of the Republican Party – the people who wrote the checks and wrote big checks in this election that didn’t pay off.

I don’t think they want destabilization and uncertainty. That said, the heels could be dug in by the Tea Party Republicans, and I use the term loosely, whether they’re officially in the Tea Party or not. Some of them are already making noises that they don’t want to go along with anything.

But Boehner I think is trying to herd them once again. He failed last time. I think they’re somewhat chastened, and I think they may come up with a short-term deal on this. Over the long term, I think you’re exactly right. I think they’re going to be recalcitrant, feel that their principles weren’t rejected, and there’s going to be a long fight ahead, and liberals and Democrats are kidding themselves if they think otherwise in the flush of a victory.

Tavis: A question about John Boehner, the speaker, and then a question about the president. Mr. Boehner has tried this tack before, trying to herd these cats, as it were, in his party. What makes you think he will be successful? I hear your point about big business and I take your point. As is often the case, whether we’re talking Democrat or Republican in Washington, what Wall Street wants, Wall Street gets, much to my chagrin, oftentimes.

Rich: Right.

Tavis: But I digress on that point. What’s your sense of how or why this time Mr. Boehner again will get what he wants when he’s not been so successful at keeping his troops in line in the past?

Rich: Only because it comes off of a substantial loss. Not a landslide loss or defeat, but a substantial loss, and I think there’s a certain amount of shellshock. I think also if we come to the point of whether we’re jumping off the cliff or just in complete gridlock and we have a party of no situation, I just think it’s bad for the Republicans politically.

I think it’s entirely self-interest. I don’t think it’s national interest. I don’t think that they can afford it politically right now. They may feel different when they’ve regrouped in three or four months. But for this immediate fight, look, I may be deluding myself, but I do think they’re going to come up with a deal.

Tavis: Speaking of deluding yourself, maybe the president is deluding himself. It would not, respectfully, be the first time he has done so. You’ve heard me say before that part of what got him in trouble in the first place, part of what made this race so close, at least going into Election Day, was that too many people, certainly progressives, saw him too often compromise, capitulate, and cave, sometimes even negotiate against himself, when it came to Republicans, and they figured out pretty early on in that first time that they could push him to the wall on a variety of different fronts.

So why should I believe now that all of a sudden he’s going to come out with this Samson-like strength, draw a line in the sand, and fight? I heard you say you hope he’ll do that, but where’s the evidence? Why do we believe he’s going to do that?

Rich: (Laughs) Well first of all, let me say I completely agree with everything you said. I do feel he allowed himself to be rolled, repeatedly be rolled, and not just on fiscal negotiations. That’s why he got into this mess in the first place. Here’s what gives me some hope.

Tavis: Okay.

Rich: But again, I may be a Pollyanna here. The campaign that he ran ended up being a much tougher and if I may say so, more ruthless and focused campaign that I expected based on his behavior in office, the behavior that you describe.

So I’m wanting to believe that this is a turning over of a new leaf and forgetting this nonsense that we can just wave a magic wand and have bipartisanship and we’ll all get along and sing “Kumbaya.” One hopes that he’s learned the lesson. He’s a brilliant guy.

On the other hand, people don’t change. He likes to be a conciliator, and that may yet come to the fore. But I think so far, at least, he’s talking a tough line, leaving himself a little bit of wiggle room, but basically is saying my principle won.

Sixty percent of the country, more than even voted for him in the Democrats, believe that it’s time to end tax favors for the rich and unless he’s just being completely disingenuous, I think we have to give him a chance to make good on that. If he doesn’t, you and I and a bunch of others are going to call him on it very fast.

Tavis: So I think you’re right, that a deal is going to happen here. Not because it’s in the national interest all the way around, but because there is some self-interest at play here. These folk do have some skin in the game, so I think you’re right that there’s going to be a deal.

But let me just ask the other question, just in case. In case they can’t figure this out, in case there is no grand bargain to be reached, what’s the damage, what’s the impact to the DMOS (sp), to the nation?

Rich: Well, first of all, everyone will have, including middle class people, taxes will go up. Secondly, you’ll have this bizarre situation where there’s this big cut in defense spending, among other things. Now, I happen to believe defense spending should be cut. I think a lot of people believe that. But there’s a whole part of corporate America and of the Republican Party that’s not prepared for that.

So I think it will be very chaotic. I don’t think it’ll be the end of the country. I don’t think the stock market will crash. I don’t think we’ll necessarily immediately fall into another recession. But it would be very, very bad, and I think just the sheer anger in the country in both parties across the board would be huge and unpredictable.

Tavis: So, let’s talk now about this piece you have out which is looking back on the election and looking back on the campaign. You called the piece “Fantasyland.” I think I get it, but let’s unpack the title of the piece first and then we’ll go inside.

Rich: Well, I think one of the most interesting things about the election is that it was a further confirmation that you can really lie like hell in American life on a public stage and get away with it. All politicians lie, and certainly not every Obama ad was truthful or could past the fact check.

But we had a candidate in Romney who essentially lied constantly. One blogger whom I trust totaled it at more than 900 lies during the course of the campaign. He was a really pale sort of hollow figure. He did get 47 or 48 percent of the vote, which is kind of amazing that someone where there was really sort of no there there could get that far.

So that’s sort of a reflection on our culture, and to me it’s a reflection on the culture that allows us to mythologize General Petraeus, Lance Armstrong, Joe Paterno. We see this over and over again, where we sort of fall for fiction.

The other piece of it involves the Republican Party itself. It is in a fantasyland. It didn’t believe the polls. Instead, tried to demonize pollsters, including people like Nate Silver of “538” at “The New York Times,” and deny the numbers, just, by the way, as they deny the numbers in economic policy. There were no numbers in Romney’s economic policy. Or they deny climate change or a lot of science and empirical evidence.

So they sort of weirdly drank their own Kool-Aid and were poisoned by it. It was Jim Jones’ Kool-Aid in the end.

Tavis: Again, you’ve said so many things I want to go back and get you to kind of stretch out on for me.

Rich: Sure.

Tavis: Let me start with this, this beautiful phrase that you used, that we tend so often to fall for fiction. I get that. I don’t subscribe to it, but I get that where sports are concerned. I get that with Lance Armstrong, although I’m sickened by what he did. I get that with Lance Armstrong, I even get it with JoePa, Paterno at Penn State.

I don’t get it in our politics, because our lives really do depend on these decisions in Washington. My life doesn’t depend on whether Lance Armstrong wins another Tour de France, or whether Joe Paterno wins another football game.

So I don’t get how and why it is, and I’m not naïve in asking this, but why to your mind, Frank, are we so gullible, and why do we tend to fall for fiction where politics, decisions about our lives, are concerned? Why go for that nonsense?

Rich: You ask a question that’s not at all naïve, and it’s very difficult to answer. To me, there’s been a destabilization of facts in America, particularly over the past dozen years. A real turning point was when the Bush administration convinced Americans that the hijackers of 9/11 were Iraqis, which they were not, and that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction, which he did not.

Furthermore, some of the press, as we know, went along with it and helped to further this propaganda, and it took us to war. I feel – it’s a very strange phenomenon that we have more sources of information than when you and I were growing up we could have ever imagined.

You can get any newspaper on the Web, any magazine. You can get raw documents. We have this deluge of information, and yet we seem to know less. At the same time, we have this strange phenomenon in American culture where reality increasingly seems to mean reality TV.

Now, reality TV is fun, it’s entertaining, but it’s not reality. It’s staged stuff, it’s show business. So we sort of have a cultural problem that I think transcends the Bush administration’s Iraq run-up or Romney’s dissembling throughout the campaign, and it’s so pervasive that you have a whole political party, which is not full of idiots.

They’re very smart people in the Republican Party; some of their top commentators just simply refuse to believe the evidence in front of them about how this election was going and then were shocked when Romney lost, even though Obama essentially had been heading all the important polls for months.

So it’s a real cultural issue, and I don’t think there is a simple answer or explanation for it.

Tavis: The other thing you said, Frank, I want to go right to is this blogger who you referenced who you trust, and if you trust him, I trust him. But a blogger who you trust who cited, counted about 900 lies that Mr. Romney told during this campaign.

You didn’t say a writer for “The New York Times,” you didn’t say a news anchor for NBC. You said a blogger. You know where I’m going with this.

Rich: Right.

Tavis: The question is what has happened where the media ends up, wittingly or unwittingly, being complicit in these lies that are told because they don’t want to check the person on telling the lie? Tell me whether or not some of that has to do with Fox wanting to spend its own way.

So it doesn’t want to check the lies because the lies play into its narrative, but those of us who are part of the so-called “liberal media bias” don’t want to check the lies because we don’t want to be accused of being part of the liberal media bias. So who checks the lies in the mainstream media, Frank?

Rich: Well, a few brave souls do. This blogger, by the way, is affiliated in this case with MSNBC, which is a news organization. But that said, I think there are two things going on. First, exactly what you say, that the so-called liberal media, or so-called mainstream media, has been in a sense bullied by the Foxes of this world into feeling if they actually stand up and say something clearly that contradicts the other side, they’ll be massacred for being “liberal.”

That’s definitely what happened during the run-up to the Iraq war. Places like “The New York Times” and “The Washington Post” didn’t want to seem unpatriotic if they said on the front page wait a minute – maybe these aluminum tubes aren’t for weapons of mass destruction. So that’s part of it.

The other part of it is, particularly in recent years, the downsizing for economic reasons and digitalization of the news business in general. Most news organizations simply don’t have the personnel they had even five years ago. They don’t have the number of reporters; they don’t have the boots on the ground where news is being made.

So increasingly they don’t even have the infrastructure to respond in a fast way. As I point out in my piece, one of the weirdest developments is to find that fact-checking is now sort of a side business with independent fact-checkers. “The Washington Post” delegating it, and the “Times” too, to some extent, to a sidebar column on an inside page.

It used to be that was the news. Facts were the news. You didn’t have to go look for it elsewhere as if it were a restaurant review or a movie review. So we have an insecurity and destabilization of the news business from many directions, economically and politically, that also is not helping.

Tavis: You also suggested earlier that both sides lie, of course. We’re not naïve about that. Politicians oftentimes do lie, or certainly are footloose and fancy-free with the facts. So if both sides lie, then what’s wrong with picking the guy who’s telling lies that you want to hear, or a guy who may be lying about certain things but on the core issues that matter to you he’s on the right side of those issues? So what’s wrong with just picking the liar who you like the best?

Rich: Well, I think that’s a great question, and I think that’s what people did. I think – not to equate Obama’s lying at all to Romney’s, because Romney was in a class by himself by any election cycle. But there were things that Obama did that played with facts, particularly when they involved Romney.

I think that’s exactly what happened, and I think therefore as Democrats and liberals get excited about the Obama victory, they should remember that Romney failed I think in part because no one really knew where he stood. So while he was lying about his record, lying about Obama, I think Republicans and Democrats this election, we know one thing – no one could really say for sure where Romney was on any specific point or matter of concern in the election.

If he had been a stronger candidate, he might have won. If he’d have been a stronger – they didn’t have one, but if the Republican Party had a slicker version of Romney, a more human version of Romney, a less vague version of Romney, they might have gotten further and won. They didn’t have him. That was lucky for the Democrats.

Tavis: Like the great writer that you are, you have given me a wonderful segue to the next part of this conversation, (laughter) which is now what the future of the GOP is. What kind of person, persons, into the future are they going to have to put up, given the demographic shifts in this country?

Rich: Well, of course they’re running around now like chickens with their heads cut off. They don’t know what they’re going to do, so their first impulse is Marco Rubio for president, because hey, we need Latinos and he’s a Cuban American, so let’s put him up there.

I think that they’re going to have to realize that if they really want to be effective they’re going to have to change some policies. They can’t just find different messengers for existing policies. But I do think that they will cling to and believe in their core small-government beliefs, and what they’re now going to do is try to find ways to put a kinder, gentler, ideally for them Hispanic, female, African American faces on the same-old, same-old.

Certainly they’ve even tried in recent times, without particular success. But one thing to remember is that conservative principles and the conservative movement has been pretty resilient. In 1964, after Lyndon Johnson beat Barry Goldwater in an enormous landslide, far bigger than Obama’s victory this month, everyone announced that the Republican Party was dead; they were going to be in the wilderness forever.

The ideas of the Great Society and liberalism had won. Two years later, Ronald Reagan was elected governor of California; four years later, Richard Nixon was elected president. So you can’t count them out.

I’d say something else that they have that the Democrats don’t have so much – they’ve got a really good post-boomer generation bench. Whatever you think of them, Rubio, Chris Christie, Paul Ryan, whatever you think of their views, Bobby Jindal, that’s a pretty good bench of energetic, slick, youngish politicians.

When you talk about the Democratic Party, you basically talk about Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden. We may prefer them to the Republican contenders, but that’s an older generation. There isn’t this deep Democratic bench following Obama.

Tavis: Mr. Obama has obviously won a second term now. What’s your sense of the kind of legacy that he wants to leave in this second term? Is he going to be more progressive? Your piece is about the GOP, of course, and their future, but talk to me about Obama’s future right quick.

Rich: Well, I think that he wants to solidify healthcare, which now seems to have a fairly free path towards enactment. I think that he would probably like to fix the fiscal stuff that’s on the table even as we speak.

I want to believe, but I don’t have any reason to believe, that he also would want part of his legacy to deal with the inequality in this country, the short stick that the middle class and the poor, who as you know better than anyone and have spoken about more eloquently than anyone, have been completely forgotten in this election.

That they are given some degree of equity and help by our government. Whether he’s going to do it, I don’t know. There’s no evidence that he will, but I’d like to think that would be the big picture thing he’d work on, as well as winding down the war in Afghanistan, obviously.

Tavis: Not that there hasn’t been enough commentary about this already, but since you’re Frank Rich and I’m interested always in your opinion, we spent last night on this program talking to Tom Ricks about this issue, but your sense of what the political fallout will be, if there is to be any, from this David Petraeus matter.

Rich: I don’t think there’s going to be any political fallout. I don’t think there would have been even if it had happened before the election, because first of all, he’s someone, if anything, more admired by Republicans than Democrats, or at least is admired by both parties.

It seems to be a personal failing. It does not seem to involve Benghazi. It’s a weird story. We’re still filling in the pieces. There may be continued embarrassments within the bureaucracy of the CIA, the FBI, possibly the White House and possibly Congress, since we know that Eric Cantor seems to have known what was going on 10 days before most of the country did.

But I think in the end it seems, at least as we speak, a sex scandal, which is endlessly titillating, but not necessarily political. I do think it harks back to the original point of my “Fantasyland” piece, that we never question – Petraeus was this mythical superhero to everybody, and it turns out forget about him having an affair. That happens to lots of people in high places.

But it now seems that he was behaving in a somewhat, as far as we know, irresponsible, sort of goopy way in top jobs involving national security, and a lot of people in the press seem to have witnessed it and just given it a pass as they did sort of Lance Armstrong.

Tavis: He was must-read copy for years, of course, on “The New York Times;” now a writer at large for “New York” magazine. His piece is called “Fantasyland.” You have to read it. Frank Rich, as always, good to have you on this program. Thanks for your time.

Rich: Great to be with you. Thank you.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching. As always, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

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Last modified: November 15, 2012 at 1:18 am