So, Like Frank Rich Is Down With Al Gore, Yeah, NOW He Is, Part 2
Whenever I, or any other blogger, takes on someone like Maureen Dowd or Andrew Sullivan, inevitably a number of commentators question why any of us bother to pay attention to these media absurdities. Why not just ignore them?
The short answer: Because they and their ilk rule our discourse, politically, surely, and even, in many ways, culturally. On any list of what got George Bush elected, both in 2000 and 2004, appearing right below Bush-Rove would surely be the performance of the SCLM.
It has been the aim of this two-part post to show that even a writer as apparently "liberal" as Frank Rich is a fully committed member of the SCLM club, all dues paid up, which means that Rich is just as likely to include clueless dissing, in his columns, of all Democrats and all liberals and progressives, using the same fictional narratives and unexamined tropes as a Chris Matthews, or a Joe Klein, or any of the other names on that despairingly long list of media whores you might care to name.
Below the fold we will examine Frank Rich's response to Al Gore's October 2002 speech on Iraq, which presented a thorough, nuanced, unapologetic critique of the Bush administration's obsession with Iraq, and the consequent failures of its foreign policy initiatives everywhere. As a strident critic of the Bush administration, who had, himself, written negatively about the Bush drive to invade Iraq, you might have thought that Rich would have welcomed Gore's speech.
Part One of this post can be found here.
Instead, he ignored it. Though not because he ignored Gore. No, indeed; Al Gore was back on the political scene, and there was fun to be had.
In his New York Times column of November 23rd, 2002, Rich begins his examination of Gore's reemergence on the political scene thus:
'Tomorrow night Liza Minnelli returns,'' said Larry King on Wednesday night. But while America held its breath, Al Gore was getting more airtime than ''The Bachelor.'' You could wake up to him and Tipper on the ''Today'' show. You could drift off to dreamland watching him with Charlie Rose. The man who went AWOL in defeat was back -- to sell not one but two new books (Mr. Gore can leave no lily ungilded) and, of course, himself.
The books celebrate The Family, the one cause every Democrat feels compelled to embrace after Monicagate. The reviews for the author are thumbs up. ''He's even, if you can believe it, funny,'' said Barbara Walters. ''I think you've gotten funnier in two years,'' gushed David Letterman to the former vice president. The new, post-wooden Gore is determined to be spontaneous if it kills him, and us. ''I am just letting my hair down,'' he says, as in interview after interview he quotes a boomer mantra: ''Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose.'' From now on, he is going to ''just let it rip'' and ''let the chips fall where they may.'' Next month he's a host on ''Saturday Night Live.''
So, the Al Gore who gave that speech at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, which earns him at least some respect, even if heavily laden with caveats, from Rich in this Sunday's column, in 2002, only weeks after the speech, was being compared by Mr. Rich to Liza Minnelli; like Al Gore is this pathetic, neurotic has-been with a cult-like following of people who are attracted to bad auto accidents.
Not only are those two paragraphs over-run with cliches, unlike most cliches, these manage to be tired and untrue. Take that dismissal of the Gores' book about families, with its suggestion the book derives from a pandering political impulse to reassure America that the Gores aren't anti-family values. What Rich doesn't tell you is that the book, which features Tipper Gore's quite remarkable photographs, emphasized and celebrated the new face of American families, gay, inter-racial, single-parent, blended, i.e., hardly the kind of book likely to appeal to the "pro-family" crowd.
Rich also implies that Gore's attempts to be humorous and relaxed were painful exercises in false consciousness; by definition, Gore can't be relaxed, or funny, the kewl kids have deigned it so: Who does Gore think he's fooling?
Another failure of Rich to fully inform his readers -- when Letterman made that remark about Gore seeming funnier than he did two years ago, which got a big laugh because Letterman did not "gush,"(and when have you ever seen Letterman "gush" about anything?), Al Gore got an even bigger laugh by observing that Letterman seemed to have gotten funnier, too. And in each of Gore's public media appearances, the audience responded, not with groans, but with genuine laughs and genuine interest. So much for the Gore determined "to be spontaneous if it kills him, and us." Note the easy arrogance with which Rich assumes he speaks for some sort of "us."
The heart of that November column emerges when Rich moves to Katie Couric's interrogation of Gore on the Today show.
It takes the powerhouse that is Couric "all of three minutes to uncover the old Al Gore lurking inside the latest model."
Then came the Gore equivocation and hair-splitting that he perfected in the 2000 debates. Ms. Couric had to ask seven questions to pin him down on how he would ''handle Saddam'' if he were president. The answer? He said that President Bush was taking ''the right course of action'' by winning a unanimous Security Council vote. And now what? ''I don't know where this goes from here,'' said Mr. Gore.
It doesn't occur to Rich that Al Gore might have thought that neither the Today Show, with its tightly timed segments, nor Katie Couric as inquisitor, were the best environment for a detailed discussion of Iraq, especially since he'd given just such a full-throated, detailed discussion of his own view of where American foreign policy ought to be heading less than a month earlier.
In fact, nowhere in Rich's November 2002 column is their a single reference to that speech, or a single sign that Rich has any awareness of its existence. But there is no way Frank Rich could have been unaware of it; it was too well covered. I think it's this fundamental dishonesty that produces, through-out the column, a strange incoherence.
Rich assumes that Gore is still running for President, Gore's insistence that he hadn't made up his mind, notwithstanding. The CW is that Gore's a loser, but then again, as Rich pointed out then, and again in his current column on Gore, Nixon was written off, too. But what will Gore stand for, Rich wonders?
Yet if Mr. Gore -- or the tongue-tied party he all too perfectly embodies right now -- is going to be taken seriously by voters, ''I don't know where this goes from here'' will hardly do.
What will suffice, Rich wonders, and mentions that his own readers have suggested to him that Democrats have to go back to their fundamental values, pro the little guy, and all that good stuff. Here's how Rich responds:
That traditional party ethic is embryonically reflected in the domestic policy staples emerging so far among pundits and most Democrats running for president, Mr. Gore included: some kind of universal health insurance (bothersome details and price tags to come during primary season), a fast Democratic tax cut for the non-rich in lieu of the slo-mo Bush windfall for the upper brackets, fights for the environment and civil liberties and against hard-right judicial appointments and corporate malfeasance.
Don't know about you, but that strikes me as an entirely prescient list, and, by the way, Gore was the only Democrat, back then, willing to talk about the possibility that the only way to get hold of spiraling health care costs and at the same time, provide universal coverage, might just be a single-payer system, which seems to me to have been a damn specific position for him to have taken.
What's missing from the Democrats' discussion, according to Rich, is a serious concern with or position on the core issue of our time, the issue of national security.
Oh, not every Democrat is "unserious"; Rich praises Senator Bob Graham, for instance. Now, I like ex-Senator Graham, and I liked him in 2002, but the particular positions Rich highlights in his 2002 column, in hindsight seem curiously unprescient.
Senator Graham has been demanding concrete action, especially from an F.B.I. that he discovered still had not completed a strategic plan for coping with terrorism within the United States, first ordered up by Congress in 1999.
He further warns that Hezbollah and Hamas are at least as threatening as Al Qaeda to Americans both at home and abroad, especially once the war on Iraq is fully joined. In league with his Republican counterpart on the Intelligence Committee, Richard Shelby, he calls for the war on terror to be extended without further delay, whether by diplomacy or force, to Hezbollah training camps in Iran, Syria and the Syrian-controlled areas of Lebanon.
Okay, so the WOT should be extended, but then there is this curious comment by Rich.
There might yet be a Democratic foreign policy to complement a national security policy. But at this point an antiwar policy is hardly in the cards; the only party leader who voted against the war resolution, Nancy Pelosi, is so easily distracted by predictable attacks on her as a ''San Francisco Democrat'' that she is too busy defending her own family bona fides (five children, five grandchildren) to say much coherent about Iraq or anything else.
See what I mean about incoherence. Then again, if you're a member in good standing of the SCLM, a knock on Nancy Pelosi always makes sense.
Referencing the SCLM meme that Democrats voted for the "use of force" resolution as a way to get national security issues out of the way so that they could concentrate on domestic policy in the 2002 congressional elections, Rich, using Richard Holbroke's ideas as a screen, accuses Democrats of failing to strengthen the United Nations:
But such was the desperation of Democratic leaders to ''move on'' from Iraq and talk about the economy during the campaign that it is Colin Powell and Tony Blair, not they, who are now identified with pushing the administration toward the tough Security Council resolution it at first so strenuously resisted.
Of course Democrats had been vociferous in their criticism of Bush's ideas on preemptive war and his anti-internationalist policies, and most Democrats made it abundantly clear that they were voting for the use of force resolution to strengthen Bush's hand against Saddam, in order to avoid war, now that Bush had finally announced that he would go to the United Nations to seek international support; there is also the fact that even back then, it was clear that both Colin Powell and Tony Blair were in the tank for Bush's policies, even those of which they disapproved. That the SCLM didn't notice it is hardly the fault of the Democrats, not to mention that the Democratic leadership tried to get the Bush administration to put off voting on a use of force resolution until after the 2002 congressional elections.
When facts get in the way of a good SCLM meme, eighty-six the facts.
Still, there could be a role for Democrats of which Rich, back then, tells us he would approve.
But the Democrats who signed on to this war have an opening now to stake out a position on where and how it will end. The Bush administration is internally conflicted on this crucial point -- witness the mixed signals and frightening disarray in post-Taliban Afghanistan. When will we have won the war on Saddam? What kind of nation-building are we in favor of, and at what sacrifice? What is Plan B if the Middle East doesn't fall into place after regime change in Baghdad? The list of questions crying out for Democratic answers is as long as the list of fears that shadow America during holiday season 2002. At the very least Mr. Gore, the only Democrat to command a media spotlight at this pivotal moment, might speak up about ''where this goes from here'' rather than playing peek-a-boo about where he goes from here. Even if he is on hold, history is not.
Is Rich implying that such are the issues that Democrats should have pursued in the elections of 2002? How could they have? The Bush administration was adamantly insisting they were hopeful that inspections could avoid war. Many Democrats were raising questions about what happens after Saddam's regime falls. Wasn't it already clear to Frank Rich that the Bush administration listened to no one, not even Colin Powell?
Nor was Al Gore "on hold."
One indication of the remoteness of the members of the SCLM from us, ordinary American citizens, is how clueless their predictions usually are. Remember those endless predictions that Bill Clinton's long-winded SOTU addresses would bore the hell out of their intended audiences? Except they didnâ€™t bore ordinary Americans, just the stars of American punditry, who consider wonkisness to be for nerds. Pundits began to turn on Americans; what was wrong with the rest of us, why the hell werenâ€™t we bored?
Just so, Frank Rich's smug assurance that of course Al Gore had already decided to run for President in those final weeks of 2002. Here's the rest of that quote about what the mighty Katie Couric was able to unearth from Gore:
But it took Katie Couric all of three minutes to uncover the old Al Gore lurking inside the latest model. When he protested that he wouldn't really, really decide whether to run for president until after the holidays, she spoke for many viewers by responding, ''Why am I having a hard time believing that wholeheartedly?''
Except Al Gore really really hadn't decided yet about running, and , in fact, shortly after the Christmas holidays, Al Gore announced that he would not run again.
Think Mr. Rich ever acknowledged he was wrong about any of this? See any pigs up in the sky? In fact, Rich tries to play the same card in his current column:
If "An Inconvenient Truth" isn't actually a test drive for a presidential run, it's the biggest tease since Colin Powell encouraged speculation about his political aspirations during his 1995 book tour. Mr. Gore's nondenial denials about his ambitions (he has "no plans" to run) are Clintonesque. Told by John Heilemann of New York magazine that his movie sometimes feels like a campaign film, Mr. Gore gives a disingenuous answer that triggers an instant flashback to his equivocation about weightier matters during the 2000 debates: "Audiences don't see the movie as political. Paramount did a number of focus-group screenings, and that was very clear." You want to scream: stop this man before he listens to a focus group again!
Well Frank, maybe you wouldnâ€™t feel like screaming such nonsense if you werenâ€™t pretending, or worse, still, werenâ€™t actually unaware of the series of bold, risky speeches on such subjects as the failure of the corporate media, the Bush administrationâ€™s contempt for the U.S. constitution, and so much else, that Gore has given since that 2002 speech on Iraq.
Nor does Rich acknowledge anywhere in his latest column, anything about that first column, and that among the many people who ignored Goreâ€™s speech on Iraq, Frank Rich goes unrivaled.
Richâ€™s critique of "An Inconvenient Truth," which is essentially that the filmmakers didnâ€™t make the film that Frank Rich might have if such was his wont, would be laughable if it werenâ€™t so dumb. Hereâ€™s a sample:
Though many of the rave reviews don't mention it, there are also considerable chunks of "An Inconvenient Truth" that are more about hawking Mr. Gore's image than his cause. They also bring back unflattering memories of him as a politician. The movie contains no other voices that might upstage him, not even those of scientists supporting his argument. It is instead larded with sycophantic audiences, as meticulously multicultural as any Benetton ad, who dote on every word and laugh at every joke, like the studio audience at "Live With Regis and Kelly."
For Godâ€™s sake, the filmmakers decided to do a film about Goreâ€™s personal crusade to inform people about what heâ€™s discovered; that is the filmâ€™s subject; to introduce different voices would have been to make a different film.
As for those multicultural audiences, apparently it is impossible for Mr. Rich, despite his long residency in one of the most multicultural cities in the world, to imagine that those happened to be the audiences who came to Al Goreâ€™s presentation, having made the decision to do so on their own, without either an art director or a film director shepherding them to their destination.
His criticisms of Goreâ€™s performance in the film are pathetic; why they are even there, I have no idea, except to reassure his buds in the SCLM club that he isnâ€™t going soft on Gore.
Does it ever occur to someone like Frank Rich that there are "unattractive" aspects to his own persona and performance as a writer and as a columnist?
A copy of the 2002 Rich column is saved to this archive, which I hope you will find accessible.