In the Arena

Rich Poor

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Frank Rich is a former theater critic. As such, he’s been a valuable observer of the histrionic trivialization of our national politics, the scandalous metastasizing of infotainment over substance. But he also has a tendency to see everything as theater, to overlook the details of policy on some difficult issues…like health care, for example. Today, in an unusually foolish column in which he posits Tiger Woods as the Person Of the Year, he offers this paragraph as his peroration:

This can be seen in the increasingly urgent political plight of Barack Obama. Though the American left and right don’t agree on much, they are both now coalescing around the suspicion that Obama’s brilliant presidential campaign was as hollow as Tiger’s public image — a marketing scam designed to camouflage either his covert anti-American radicalism (as the right sees it) or spineless timidity (as the left sees it). The truth may well be neither, but after a decade of being spun silly, Americans can’t be blamed for being cynical about any leader trying to sell anything. As we say goodbye to the year of Tiger Woods, it is the country, sad to say, that is left mired in a sand trap with no obvious way out.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is irresponsible crap–the sort of false equivalency that Rich has rightly criticized in the past. 

Rich is right that Americans have grown cynical. But the extremists of right and left have exploited that cynicism, have raised big money by distorting the truth, have denigrated the slow, tortuous compromise that is at the heart of progress in any real democracy. Obama’s is the least cynical of the seven presidencies I’ve covered. It is a presidency that took effective action to prevent a depression, that has refused to engage in arrogant jingoism in its dealing with the rest of the world and–most important–spent its political capital on the most important piece of social legislation, health care reform, of the past 45 years.

That Rich would even implicitly compare Barack Obama, who has made a significant and very substantive intellectual effort to deal with every problem he’s faced, with an adulterous golfer is facile to the point of slander…And so is the judgment that the country is “mired in a sand trap with no obvious way out.” From where I sit, the country is facing very difficult problems–caused, in large part, by the right-wing extremism Rich seems to be crediting here–but it is in much better shape than it was a year ago. And the way ahead seems very clear to me: After a thirty year period during which the very notion of governance was ridiculed, we need to take the work of government seriously again. Barack Obama is doing precisely that.

You can disagree with Obama’s decisions and his philosophy. You can argue that that he has tried to take on too much. You can argue that health care reform was the wrong priority in the midst of a deep recession.  But you cannot gainsay the intensely serious nature of this presidency. And to give any credit to the notion that Obama is “spineless” requires a fundamental lack of knowledge about what he has been trying to accomplish this year…and about the limits of the possible.

Yes, Americans have grown cynical. The most toxic form of that cynicism is the know-nothing populism that Rich is celebrating here. Frank Rich’s value as a columnist has always been his willingness to push back against the carnival tide of ignorance that has washed over the country in recent decades. Today, he lazily went with that tide.  At a moment when the real voices of progress and sanity need all the help they can get, that is a terrible mistake.