Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Rich from the trenches

Columnist Frank Rich gets inside people’s heads

Express Staff Writer

New York magazine writer Frank Rich talks politics in Ketchum this weekend. Photo by Fred Conrad of The New York Times

    Writer Frank Rich once traveled to Pocatello. It was at the height of the “militia horror” in the 1990s and it was to put a face on a tenacious few Idaho Jews moved to protect their right to live free in America in response to antagonistic Aryan Nation neighbors.
    “It was a fascinating piece because it showed these people’s capacity to remain faithful while being forced to be watchful,” he said.
    The New York magazine writer has made humanizing a story standard operating procedure, whether covering theater for The New York Times or writing opinion pieces. At his root, his style is weaving the facts into a truer story with enough legwork behind it to be able to break it down for access by any reader. His job is not to tell readers what to think, but to guide them to why they should have an opinion.
    Rich is traveling to Idaho again, this time to the Sun Valley Center for the Arts, on Sunday, Oct. 14, at 6:30 p.m. at the Presbyterian Church of the Big Wood in Ketchum, where he will create a tapestry of the upcoming election, including the tiniest of wayward strands.  
    “I grew up in Washington in a non-politics family,” he said. “It’s kind of like growing up in Beverly Hills and not having anything to do with Hollywood.”
    Then first lady Bess Truman shopped at his father’s shoe store, and he watched in awe the pomp and security surrounding the Kennedys when they attended the same theater.
    “From the outside looking in, I was captivated by theater and the politics all around me,” Rich said. “I was always aware there was a theatrical aspect to politics. The monuments sitting in the middle of the pockets of poverty that are the city are the ‘sets of democracy.’ There is a theatrical quality to democracy that doesn’t match the demographics.”
  The decorated writer became first a theater critic for The New York Times, focusing on how and why a show worked without telling potential audiences to see it or not. He gave the same approach to his unique op-ed column at the Times.
    “I think what interests me most is trying to get my head inside both sides and see how it is,” he said. “Sometimes there is not another side. It’s easier to like and not like something, but I am fascinated by America and what makes it tick and what forces are at work making it so.”
    In covering politics, he said, “it would be boring to write about if the heroes and the villains were clear at all times.”
    Rich is particularly enjoying this less deadline-driven gig with New York Magazine, where he is able to produce longer articles worked on for a longer time, as well as dabble back in the theatrical side of things. His work as executive producer of HBO’s “Veep” with Julia Louis-Dreyfus got her an Emmy nod and she gave him special thanks in her acceptance speech.
   The actress similarly was raised in D.C. with nonpolitical parents and shares his sense of the parallels with Hollywood.
    Rich is sticking to his style of “looking for a narrative, for big patterns, some theme or unifying story that might unite a lot of events that might seem random,” and then digging in the trenches for the reporting to flesh it out.
    He has been accused at times of being caustic, especially in his book, “The Greatest Story Ever Sold,” about the decline of truth in government from 9/11 to Hurricane Katrina.
    Still, he maintains in a column explaining his departure from the vaulted Times, “for me, anyway, the point of opinion writing is less to try to shape events, a presumptuous and foolhardy ambition at best, than to help stimulate debate, and, from my particular perspective, try to explain why things go the way they are and what they might mean and where they might lead.”
    He admits trying to be persuasive, and even, taking a gamble by leaning on his predilection for theater to imagine scenarios, predicting things here and there.
    “Right now I am looking past the election to see who will be standing and what will and what won’t. As a writer, it is very interesting.”
    What he considers not entertaining is how angry Americans are.
    “There is a universal feeling that government doesn’t give a damn about who’s struggling,” he said. “This squeeze on the middle class has picked up tremendous steam in my lifetime. People feel stultified economically, and there is a very real sense that the system is not only unfair, but that the ones who gained by the system have skated unscathed. The banks are bigger than ever and no one was punished. There is a sentiment that the political system can’t and won’t ameliorate it, and they feel that neither party is addressing it.
    “This is a problem for democracy as a whole.”
    He said the time for an independent press is more essential than ever, yet fewer media are objectively reporting the facts.
    “We have more news sources than ever before, but there is not a lot of agreement on the facts,” he said. “We are at war and we can’t afford [economically] to have media on the ground to cover it. It’s tough to hold a mirror to a democracy to watch it work.”

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