Rich delivered the spring 2008 Atkinson Lecture March 12 in Smith Auditorium. His topic was the intersection of culture and politics and how mass media has been manipulated to shape American politics.
In his 13 years as The New York Times’ chief drama critic, Frank Rich reviewed the first Broadway runs of everything from Cats to Angels in America, making him both revered and despised in theatre circles and earning him the nickname “Butcher of Broadway.”
But in 1994 he left his childhood dream job to become a Times political commentator. Today his Sunday op-ed columns sharply analyze government, politicians and the media as much as they consider pop culture’s impact on our society.
It may seem an unlikely change of focus, but not to Rich. He grew up in the 1950s and ’60s in Washington, D.C., where he viewed the drama of politics with the same eye he turned toward his heroes on the theatrical stage.
“One thing I was always aware of in Washington was the discrepancy between the theatre of the nation’s capital and the reality of what was there,” he says. “Tourists would come and tour the great monuments, but even as a child, I realized this was sort of a Disneyland-like version of democracy that was presented theatrically to Americans who passed through. There were incredible inequities in the city itself that no one ever saw, such as rampant segregation and extreme poverty in black areas.”
Rich vividly remembers the person who actively brought the elements of show business into the political realm: President John F. Kennedy. “Kennedy brought a certain kind of showmanship that was startling to anyone who lived in Washington, which had been this sleepy, provincial, Southern town under Eisenhower. Suddenly you had a president who knew how to present himself on television.”
This change became apparent to Rich when his parents had the luck of attending Kennedy’s inaugural gala. They vividly described to him the excitement of the event. “I remember my parents going to that gala to see the Rat Pack and Leonard Bernstein and other show biz people I was very interested in as a theatre nut. They were anointed to inaugurate the Kennedy presidency.”
Rich earned a bachelor’s degree in American history and literature in 1971 from Harvard College, where he was editorial chairman of The Harvard Crimson and wrote about both theatre and politics at the height of the Vietnam War. He worked as a film critic at The New York Post and a film and television critic at Time magazine before landing the drama critic job at the Times in 1980. It was a role he relished for years, until he started burning out on it in the early 1990s.
“I was getting bored, and I felt that, particularly in New York at that time, the theatre was sort of drying up in terms of new work. I became captivated by the fact that my generation was coming to the fore in politics. More and more of the elements of show business were being appropriated by candidates, regardless of their parties or ideology.”
It was during the 1992 election season that he started delving into political commentary — just in time for the election of a president who skillfully crossed over into pop culture: Bill Clinton.
“Clinton was playing with pop culture in a way that no mainstream candidate really ever had. He played the sax on ‘The Arsenio Hall Show.’ He went on TV and answered the famous boxers versus briefs question. On the other side you had Dan Quayle, who had a running debate with a fictional sitcom character, Murphy Brown. It was around then that I started to pivot toward looking at the intersection of culture and news.”
Throughout the history of modern electronic communications, politicians have used mass media to shape American politics, Rich says. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was among many to use radio, with his famous fireside chats in the 1930s. In 1980 America elected a former Hollywood actor to the presidency. President Ronald Reagan, with the help of Deputy Chief of Staff Michael Deaver, became the genius of the photo op.
In Rich’s latest book, The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth from 9/11 to Katrina (2006), he argues that the current Bush administration took media usage to a new level. “Bush inherited a whole new media world — the world of cable, the Internet and 24-7 news — and it gave him more theatrical opportunities than even Reagan and Clinton had.”
“I became captivated by the fact that my generation was coming to the fore in politics. More and more of the elements of show business were being appropriated by candidates, regardless of their parties or ideology.”
Whether the media successfully covers politicians’ actions is an issue Rich consistently confronts in his writing. His greatest concern is that media “too often fall for propaganda, for storylines that are laid out for them.” As an example he cites coverage of the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign, which put forth the idea that it was inevitable she would get the Democratic nomination. “The idea was very cleverly presented by that campaign to close off serious debate about the other contenders…. Too much of this is accepted at face value when we should look at it as skeptically as anything else that’s being sold to us.”
Rich provides a similar critique of media coverage of President George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign. “No one really questioned that his ranch, which he used to present himself as a plain ol’ Texas guy out pruning the brush, was actually a home purchased not long before he decided to run for president. It was purchased exactly for the purpose of creating an image. That issue was never penetrated. It was easier for the media to catch Bush doing a ‘Bush-ism,’ making some ridiculous statement on the trail.”
A parody of Bush’s time on the ranch by comedian Will Ferrell quickly made the rounds on the Internet in time for the president’s re-election campaign. Rich says it’s not surprising that people turn to cultural icons like Ferrell, Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert to know what’s going on in the world. “In some ways, the people who come out of the culture are better equipped at exposing its workings than the conventional journalists who often are tone deaf to these issues.”
While the connections between pop culture and politics may not be easily recognizable to some people, Rich says each is critical to the other. “The tools of pop culture are very powerful, and they’re used to sell ideas, policies and politicians to the public. I’ve made it part of my theme as a columnist to show people how propagandizing by politicians and governments works to sell us things. In the end, what they sell is often as faulty as that wonderful car we’ve been told about that turns out to be a lemon.”