Just Above Sunset
Volume 5, Number 10
March 11, 2007

That's Rich

 The world as seen from Just Above Sunset -

"Notes on how things seem from out here in Hollywood..."

That's Rich - Bush as Tom Cruise, or Hamlet

Frank Rich, the columnist for the New York Times, is one of us. He's a Gemini - born June 2, 1949. That means, in the terms Isaiah Berlin once used, he's no hedgehog - he's more of a fox, jumping from idea to idea, flexible and mercurial (Mercury is the Gemini planet, after all). No one big "fixed idea" for this guy, or for any Gemini.

His beat now is American politics and popular culture - his column used to run on the front page of the Sunday "Arts and Leisure" section. It did from 2003 to 2005. Now it now appears in the expanded Sunday op-ed section. He's pretty much moved to politics. And it's been a long strange road - he graduated from Harvard in 1971 with a degree in American History and Literature (and he was editorial chairman of The Harvard Crimson), and before he joined the Times he was a film critic for Time Magazine. At the New York Times he was their chief theater critic - "the Butcher of Broadway." He wasn't very nice at all - his review of Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Starlight Express" said it was the perfect show "for the kid with everything except parents." Huh? But he liked Stephen Sondheim, and said nice things "Miss Saigon" and the musical version of "Les Misérables" when no one else would. His reviews are collected in Hot Seat: Theater Criticism for The New York Times, 1980-1993 (1998), and there's his memoir Ghost Light (2000). The first tries to prove he wasn't that mean - or that what he said really had to be said - and the second explains he was really the unhappy kid of divorced parents so you should cut him some slack.

But he still is mean. Only now he's not mocking pretentious, multi-million-dollar, fourth-rate Broadway musicals. Who really cares about such things? Yeah, they are a unique aspect of American culture - there's nothing like them anywhere on earth - but it's all pretty much silliness. Rich has moved on. Perhaps he came to wonder why he cared about the frivolous at all. Now he's after the administration.

This is a world where the drama actually matters. The words and action lead to war and such, and the denouement involves real dead people, in the sand of Iraq or Afghanistan, or in the case of New Orleans, bloated bodies floating face down in the toxic water. So it's "give my regards to Broadway and remember me to Harold Square," but like, who cares? Real life matters a bit more.

So Rich has become a "must read" for political junkies and those who wonder just what's going in this country.

But then, unless you buy a physical copy of the newspaper, or pay big bucks for access to "Times Select" on the web, you cannot read what he writes. The policy of the Times is that no one reads the good stuff unless they pay. The idea seems to be to restrict readership as far as you can, to pay the bills for running a first-rate newspaper. Think "elite exclusivity" - and it works for Tiffany and Ferrari, so why not? And reporters and foreign bureaus cost money, so they need there bucks, particularly for their new eight hundred eighty million dollar new headquarters going up in midtown Manhattan.

Of course the web is a tricky place, and Rich's Sunday August 27th column, "Return to the Scene of the Crime," is here, screwing up everything for the Times and violating all sorts of copyright law. Of course, the folks at the site, Welcome to Pottersville, could claim fair use, but they don't really comment on the item - they just present it in full. They're in trouble, but they probably know that and don't care much.

But the column is good, and you might read it, if you don't mind abetting a crime. It's his column on the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, commenting on the president's upcoming trip to the Gulf Coast, where he senses the real mission is "to try to make us forget the first anniversary of the downfall of his presidency."

That's the old Butcher of Broadway warming up -

    The ineptitude bared by the storm - no planning for a widely predicted catastrophe, no attempt to secure a city besieged by looting, no strategy for anything except spin - is indelible. New Orleans was Iraq redux with an all-American cast. The discrepancy between Mr. Bush's "heckuva job" shtick and the reality on the ground induced a Cronkite-in-Vietnam epiphany for news anchors. At long last they and the country demanded answers to the questions about the administration's competence that had been soft-pedaled two years earlier when the war first went south.

So if you think about, this drama had a turning point - that one moment in the action where everything changes, and the terms all shift. In Hamlet it's when he stabs Polonius in his mother's room - the wimp who just cannot act on anything does something impulsive and it changes him, he's wimp no more and becomes a clever avenging plotter. Here is kind of the reverse. Our hero doesn't act, for whatever reason, until it's far too late, and the audience realizes he's somewhat a passive and dangerous fool. It's the reverse of the Shakespeare play, of course.

The problem is our hero doesn't see any of this. Think dramatic irony - where the audience realizes what the character cannot or will not realize.

Rich puts it this way -

    What's amazing on Katrina's first anniversary is how little Mr. Bush seems aware of this change in the political weather. He's still in a bubble. At last week's White House press conference, he sounded as petulant as Tom Cruise on the "Today" show when Matt Lauer challenged him about his boorish criticism of Brooke Shields. Asked what Iraq had to do with the attack on the World Trade Center, Mr. Bush testily responded, "Nothing," adding that "nobody has ever suggested in this administration that Saddam Hussein ordered the attacks." Like the emasculated movie star, the president is still so infatuated with his own myth that he believes the public will buy such nonsense.

Yep, that's high drama - the irony is clear. Rich didn't think he was writing a drama review, but he was.

And as for the Hollywood comparison, Digby over a Hullabaloo writes this -

    I hadn't thought about the similarities between Bush's plight and that of Tom Cruise before and I should have. After all, Bush consciously adopted the Cruise Top Gun persona for the most audaciously over-the-top performance of his presidency. And here they both are today: absurd, clownish versions of their former selves, rejected by the masses who once worshipped them. The only difference is that Cruise was massively successful at everything he did until he fired his amazing publicist Pat Kingsley and turned into a freak a couple of years ago. Bush's Pat Kingsley, Karl Rove, hasn't been nearly as successful over the long haul.

No, no - be that as it may, this is not Top Gun, is the reverse Hamlet thing.

And the Polonius here, the avuncular advisor to the King, is the reverse of the one in Shakespeare, not bumbling at all, but just nasty. Rich explains what he was up to, selling the war that the president now says had nothing to do with 9/11 -

    To achieve this feat, Dick Cheney spent two years publicly hyping a "pretty well confirmed" (translation: unconfirmed) pre-9/11 meeting in Prague between Mohamed Atta and a Saddam intelligence officer, continuing to do so long after this specious theory had been discredited. Mr. Bush's strategy was to histrionically stir 9/11 and Iraq into the same sentence whenever possible, before the invasion and after. Typical was his May 1, 2003, oration declaring the end of "major combat operations." After noting that "the battle of Iraq is one victory in a war on terror that began on September 11th, 2001," he added: "With those attacks, the terrorists and their supporters declared war on the United States. And war is what they got." To paraphrase the former counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke, this was tantamount to saying that the Japanese attacked us on Dec. 7, 1941, and war with Mexico is what they got.

Indeed that is "as ludicrous as Bill Clinton's doomed effort to draw a distinction between sex and oral sex." Except this time people died.

And Rich predicts the president will forget what he said -

    Mr. Bush's press-conference disavowal of his habitual efforts to connect 9/11 to Saddam will be rolled back by the White House soon enough. When the fifth anniversary of 9/11 arrives in two weeks, you can bet that the president will once again invoke the Qaeda attacks to justify the Iraq war, especially now that we are adding troops (through the involuntary call-up of reservists) rather than subtracting any. The new propaganda strategy will be right out of Lewis Carroll: If we leave the country that had nothing to do with 9/11, then 9/11 will happen again.

Okay - Through the Looking Glass, Top Gun and Hamlet. This is getting confusing.

But the topic here actually is what Rich calls "next's week's Katrina Show." And the obvious question is clear - "How do you pretty up this picture?"

There's theatrics, or really, political theater in defined acts -

    As an opening act, Mr. Bush met on Wednesday with Rockey Vaccarella, a Katrina survivor who with much publicity drove a "replica" of a FEMA trailer from New Orleans to Washington to seek an audience with the president. No Cindy Sheehan bum's rush for him. Mr. Bush granted his wish and paraded him before the press. That was enough to distract the visitor from his professed message to dramatize the unfinished job on the Gulf. Instead Mr. Vaccarella effusively thanked the president for "the millions of FEMA trailers" complete with air-conditioning and TV. "You know, I wish you had another four years, man," he said. "If we had this president for another four years, I think we'd be great."

    The CNN White House correspondent, Ed Henry, loved it. "Hollywood couldn't have scripted this any better, a gritty guy named Rockey slugging it out, trying to realize his dream and getting that dream realized against all odds," he said. He didn't ask how this particular Rockey, a fast-food manager who lost everything a year ago, financed this mission or so effortlessly pulled it off. It was up to bloggers and Democrats to report shortly thereafter that Mr. Vaccarella had run as a Republican candidate for the St. Bernard Parish commission in 1999. It was up to Iris Hageney of Gretna, La., to complain on the Times-Picayune Web site that the episode was "a huge embarrassment" that would encourage Americans to "forget the numerous people who still don't have trailers or at least one with electricity or water."

But it was great theater, and show the Times did the logical thing in letting their star, acerbic theater critic cover the big drama of our times.

But back to the Hamlet thing, or the anti-Hamlet - not the one that is transformed from someone who cannot act into a clever follow who gets things done, but the guy here who everyone thinks just does things and doesn't agonized at length over what could happen and what it all means but turns out to be passive and rather useless.

Rich offers this -

    Douglas Brinkley, the Tulane University historian who wrote the best-selling account of Katrina, "The Great Deluge," is worried that even now the White House is escaping questioning about what it is up to (and not) in the Gulf. "I don't think anybody's getting the Bush strategy," he said when we talked last week. "The crucial point is that the inaction is deliberate - the inaction is the action." As he sees it, the administration, tacitly abetted by New Orleans's opportunistic mayor, Ray Nagin, is encouraging selective inertia, whether in the rebuilding of the levees ("Only Band-Aids have been put on them"), the rebuilding of the Lower Ninth Ward or the restoration of the wetlands. The destination: a smaller city, with a large portion of its former black population permanently dispersed. "Out of the Katrina debacle, Bush is making political gains," Mr. Brinkley says incredulously. "The last blue state in the Old South is turning into a red state."

It's all in the "not doing." This drama moves from action to passivity as a way to get what you want in the world.

"If it be now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all." Not exactly. That's not how this guy operates.

Okay - Through the Looking Glass, Top Gun and Hamlet. Just for giggles Rich throws in another movie -

    … with no plan for salvaging either of the catastrophes on his watch, this president can no sooner recover his credibility by putting on an elaborate show of sermonizing and spin this week than Mr. Cruise could levitate his image by jumping up and down on Oprah's couch. While the White House's latest screenplay may have been conceived as "Mission Accomplished II," what we're likely to see play out in New Orleans won't even be a patch on "Mission: Impossible III."

Well, far more people are familiar with Tom Cruise than with Hamlet, and that's a snazzy ending, for the masses. Fine. Some of us Gemini's just see the angry, moping and petulant Hamlet of the first two and a half acts, saying he'll do all sorts of things and doing jack shit. It doesn't matter.

But more drama critics should cover national politics. It's a natural fit.

[That's Rich]

Last updated Saturday, March 10, 2007, 10:30 pm Pacific Time

All text and photos, unless otherwise noted, Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 - Alan M. Pavlik