Is Frank Rich America's most influential leftist columnist? Perhaps, but the longtime New York Times scribe doesn't see it that way.
"I don't think of myself particularly as a leftist," he says. "I certainly have views that track toward being liberal, but I'm not a part of either political party."
Rich, who'll speak in San Diego on Monday, May 14, as part of UCSD's ArtPower! series, has been writing his current column at the Times since April 2005, but he's been with the paper for more than two decades and was primarily known as the paper's theater critic for many years. Rich may have been the most powerful theater critic ever. A bad review from him had the power to close down a Broadway show. But, he says, his transition from theater critic to political writer was actually quite natural.
"I've always had this joint interest," he says. "Even when I was an undergraduate at Harvard, on the Harvard Crimson, I was both the lead theater reviewer and ran the editorial page my junior year and wrote editorials about the Vietnam War. [After graduation] I did various things, including some political writing in Virginia and so on, and then I became a film critic and then a theater critic, which had always been a dream of mine."
Rich was chief theater critic at the Times for more than a decade before his transition to the opinion page. "Several things happened," he says. "First of all, the theater was in terrible decline in New York, and the beat was getting less interesting. At the same time, my mother was killed in a car crash, and she had been a big part of my introduction to theater as a child, besides being someone I was very close to. And I just had nothing more to say about David Mamet and August Wilson and Stephen Sondheim."
Rich told the paper's managing editor, Joe Lelyveld, that he wanted to leave. Lelyveld told him he shouldn't make such a serious decision in a state of grief, but another season of covering the theater didn't change Rich's mind, so he returned to his boss' office.
"I said, "I don't want to do it anymore.' I was going to leave and probably write books. That was my intention. Basically, he and Howell Raines, who was then about to become the editorial-page editor, came up with the idea of my being a columnist. It had never really occurred to me. I think that they saw something in my writing that I didn't see. Part of it was that, more and more, particularly since I covered theater during the outbreak of the AIDS crisis, there was a political-sociological component to a certain amount of my writing about the theater. I also had developed a sort of sideline of writing essays for a couple of places-The New Republic and Esquire-that had to do with the connections between culture and the news. So they came up with this idea, and I thought about it and said yes."
Rich's pieces, which are published every Sunday in the Times' "Week in Review" section, often take a big-picture view of the week's events and place them into an overall cultural context. His writing retains the style and brevity that made him so successful as a theater critic and, before his tenure at the Times, as a film critic for Time magazine. It's as though he's looking at politics through the same sort of lens, which can be seen in exquisite detail in his recent book, The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth from 9/11 to Katrina. His former paper, the Harvard Crimson, recently called his current style "Reviewing "Reality.'"
Rich says the jobs are different, but the biggest divergence is actually in the numbers. "It's a much wider readership. It's shocking to me how many people who've read me as a columnist never even knew I was a theater critic. That's been true from the beginning. I'll never forget, two or three months after I started on the op-ed page, I ran into a congressperson at a cocktail party in New York, whose district, I think it's safe to say, would have a huge number of people who work in the New York theater living in it, and she said, "You know, I've been reading your column-where did they find you.'"
In many ways, Rich approaches the newer gig-political columnist-in the same manner that he did his theater criticism. "If there's anything analogous in both jobs, you want to be fair and accurate," he says. "You have to have a strong point of view or you shouldn't be a theater critic or a columnist. I don't want to overstress the similarities because they're very different in many ways, but there are a couple of overlaps. One of them is, when I was theater critic, to me, always the least interesting part of the job was the opinion. Anyone can dislike Andrew Lloyd Webber. So what's the fun of the job? It's not to give thumbs up or thumbs down but to try to make, in vivid writing, an arresting case for your position. In the case of my criticism of the Bush White House, for instance, first of all, it's now a majority opinion in the United States, but even if it wasn't when I sort of started taking them on, my responsibility to the readers is to try to find some things that they may not know about, to try to look at a bigger picture, to make an argument, not just to say, "I don't like George Bush,' or "I'm against the war in Iraq.'"
The 2008 presidential election is an ongoing focus of Rich's work. "It's so early, it's truly at some level absurd," he says. "People are so fascinated by this campaign and the fact that it's sort of wide open in both parties for the first time in decades. Really, no one knows how it's going to play out."
The earlier California-primary date will certainly carry some weight, he says, but don't expect the state to necessarily be a make-or-break win or loss for the candidates. "You can't really look at what happens in California in a vacuum, because it's not as if California isn't going to be shaped by what leads up to it," he says. "You could say that the whole primary system on some level is arbitrary, under any calendar. Why should New Hampshire and Iowa have such a disproportionate effect? Are they particularly representative of either party? I'm not sure that New Hampshire-and ditto for Iowa-is typical of anything, and I feel as though California, it's not as if it's all West Hollywood or downtown San Francisco."
In fact, the earlier primary dates in California and other states, Rich says, could be more of a problem than a benefit for the presidential hopefuls. "Much more concern to me is this incredibly long tale to get to the rush to decide," he says. "It's going to be interesting to see how it plays out. I was talking to one candidate, who is in this process, about the length of this. I mean, we've never seen a campaign this long, with this intense media, and you have to wonder if the front-runners, in both parties, are going to induce fatigue on the part of voters that could have unanticipated effects by the time we get to actual votes. Are people going to be so sick of Clinton and Obama and Edwards and McCain and Romney and Giuliani that something odd could happen? There's all sorts of weird jockeying going on-sometimes it's hard to figure out exactly what it's about."
But beyond the fibs and fallacies of the Bush administration, or singing the praises of Barack Obama's inexperience, Rich works hard on what he calls a "self-imposed mandate" to create a cultural narrative for the politics he writes about.
"To a certain extent," he says, "that's what I'm going to be talking about in San Diego. In essence, I believe in the well-made play and that there's a story beneath the story that's interesting to tell."
Frank Rich appears at UCSD's Price Center Ballroom on Monday, May 14, at 8 p.m. www.artpower.ucsd.edu. Rich's appearance has been rescheduled from its original Feb. 26 date.