Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Return of Frank Rich

Maybe you have to live in New York, but in my neighborhood the return of Frank Rich is news.

A few months back that the famed New York Times columnist disengaged from the Gray Lady-- New York’s term for the Times-- and jumped  to New York Magazine. Presumably, the magazine was going to provide him the opportunity to write longer essays... though one doubts that the New York Times Magazine would ever have denied Rich anything.

Let’s stipulate that Frank Rich is an excellent writer, in the sense of being a prose stylist. While his thinking rarely rises to the level of his prose, he is still terribly influential among the New York cognoscenti and the pseudo-cognoscenti.

Nowadays I see Rich as a cultural artifact, a way to glimpse the mind of the liberal intelligentsia, the mind that gave us Barack Obama.

When you read Frank Rich you should always remember that he is, by training, a drama critic. He sets the stage very well, and he milks scenes for all of their drama. Yet, he is so concerned with dramatic gesturing and posturing that he rarely provides the kind of insight that would really show us how to solve a problem.

When Rich entitles his first New York Magazine article: “Obama’s Original Sin,” you know that you are entering the world of grand drama. You may recall that “original sin” refers to Eve and Adam’s inability to resist eating the fruit of the tree of good and evil. If you had forgotten the Biblical reference, the backdrop of the magazine story offers a glimpse at part of a painting depicting the momentous event.

Later, the term came to refer to the fact that human reproduction necessarily involved a sinful act, the act of coitus.

You also recall that many Americans have long considered slavery to be America’s original sin. Those who believe in dramatic solutions to problems promoted the presidency of Barack Obama because they believed that he would redeem the nation from the sin of slavery.

To their limited minds, a dramatic solution would heal whatever has been wrong with America.

We haven’t been hearing very much about this lately. The liberals who were trafficking in these myths seem to have discovered that Barack Obama has not been quite the Messiah they imagined.

So, Frank Rich writes a long article about Obama and original sin, without mentioning the notion that slavery was America’s original sin. That means that the earlier narrative is no longer useful.

It’s time for a new narrative. This new one is not about how to get Barack Obama elected. Rich doesn’t quite say it, but it’s about protecting liberal New Yorkers from having to recognize how wrong they were about Obama. It’s also about protecting liberalism from one of its great failures.

Rich sets the stage well. He opens his article at the rededication of the New York Public Library, an institution that symbolizes what Mayor Bloomberg called: “free and open access to information....”

Here we find the New York intelligentsia congregating, in an atmosphere that fulfills the requirements of multiculturalism-- there’s a choir from the Abyssinian Baptist Church-- and that includes great writers like Toni Morrison, lesser writers like Jonathan Franzen, journalists like Frank Rich, and, by the by, representatives of the financial class, like the CEO of Bank of America, Brian Moynihan.

The only dark side was the presence of a diabolical force, private equity magnate, Stephen Schwarzman, a Republican whose name had been forever graven into the library building. As Rich puts it: “At the centennial gala, you couldn’t escape the paw print of Stephen Schwarzman, the Blackstone Group billionaire whose library gift had entitled him to blast his name on any stray expanse of marble on the 42nd Street building.”

When you compare someone to an animal, you are putting him on the side of the devils. In recognition of Schwarzman’s enormous donation to the library, the liberal elites treat him with undisguised contempt.

By now Rich is getting into his subject: “On that Monday night, the Republican Schwarzman was a political outlier in the crowd, which was dominated by New York’s liberal elite, financial and cultural divisions. Even Moynihan has been a faithful Democratic donor. These were Obama’s people (myself, yes, among them), and the worldly, let’s-turn-the-page spirit in the library that night uncannily reminded me of the hubristic vibe of Obama’s White House: The worst of the downturn is past, the wobbly economy will eventually creep forward, let the healed too-big-to-fail banks move on, and pray that the lagging indicators (i.e., employment) will catch up. Indeed, it’s a certain swath of the New York liberal elite that helped reinforce that Obama mind-set to begin with. Uncorrected, it could lead the president to defeat in 2012, even against a roster of opponents that almost everyone there that night would cavalierly dismiss as clowns.

With the exception of Stephen Schwarzman, this is the crowd that brought you Barack Obama. To maintain your status within the group, you must dismiss all Republican presidential contenders as clowns.

But, if the Republican contenders are clowns, Barack Obama is a joke. If Rich is any indication, the group is none too proud of itself today. After all, it elevated a man without qualifications, though not without qualities, to the American presidency. It failed to understand that such a man could only run the country on his own hubris.

Perhaps, these great thinkers are not quite as smart as they think they are.

If you think that they are going to arrive at such a realization, you have a long wait.

Rich explains that Obama’s problem is America’s problem: there has been no reckoning for the financial crisis of 2008. No one has been held responsible; no one has paid for his role in the debacle; nothing has been done to prevent another crisis from descending upon us.

In Rich’s words: “What haunts the Obama administration is what still haunts the country: the stunning lack of accountability for the greed and misdeeds that brought America to its gravest financial crisis since the Great Depression. There has been no legal, moral, or financial reckoning for the most powerful wrongdoers. Nor have there been meaningful reforms that might prevent a repeat catastrophe. Time may heal most wounds, but not these. Chronic unemployment remains a constant, painful reminder of the havoc inflicted on the bust’s innocent victims.”

Regardless of whether you believe that the leaders of the great Wall Street financial institutions belong in jail, Rich is right to say that most of them have not paid any real price for the crisis.

Forcing them to pay a price, either through the criminal or civil courts, might well be great political theater, but one doubts that it will solve the country’s more basic problems.

Anyone who imagines that it will has not gotten over the notion that politics is theater, and that the grand dramatic gesture of electing Barack Obama would save America from its original sin.

Why has the Obama administration failed to hold the financial class to account? Rich seems to know it without really knowing it, but the people who brought us the financial crisis, the people whose companies and agencies were most intimately involved with the great mortgage scam, were, in large part, Democrats. They were major donors to the Democratic party and to the Obama election campaign.

To imagine that Obama is going to turn on the people who financed his campaign and whose support gave him credibility is like saying that he would sell out the labor unions, trial lawyers, government bureaucrats,. and left-wing activists who also supported him.

To his credit, Rich traces much of the problem to policies enacted during the Clinton administration. In some ways the strangest part of his article is what Sherlock Holmes called “the dog that didn’t bark:” Rich does not blame the Bush administration.

This does not mean that he does not blame the Bush administration. It means that he recognizes that the blame-Bush narrative has outlived its usefulness.

Who does Frank Rich blame? None other than Robert Rubin: “The roots of Obama’s capture by the corporate axis of influence inexorably trace back to his own personal Zelig, the former Clinton Treasury secretary and Harvard Corporation stalwart Robert Rubin. In The Audacity of Hope, published in late 2006, Obama called Rubin, then busily cheerleading the excessive risk at Citigroup, ‘one of the more thoughtful and unassuming people I know.’ Two years later, when Citi cratered and threatened to take the economy with it, Rubin demonstrated his unassuming thoughtfulness by denying that he had anything to do with the toxic investments that cost taxpayers a $45 billion bailout and 52,000 Citi employees their jobs.”

Rich is disappointed in Obama. I am convinced that, among the New York intelligentsia, he is not alone. Take the full measure of his condemnation: “But Obama is the chief executive. It’s his fault, no one else’s, that he seems diffident about the unemployed. Each time there’s a jolt in the jobless numbers, he and his surrogates compound that profile by farcically reshuffling the same clich├ęs, from ‘stuck in a ditch’ to ‘headwinds’ (first used by Geithner in March 2009—retire it already!) to ‘bumps in the road.’ It’s true the administration has caught few breaks and the headwinds have been strong, but voters have long since tuned out this monotonous apologia. The White House’s repeated argument that the stimulus saved as many as 3 million jobs, accurate though it may be, is another nonstarter when 14 million Americans are looking for work.”

Of course, Rich is still a true-blue liberal Democrat. He may be willing to label Obama a failure, but he is no fan of Mitt Romney.

In his words: “If any belief unites our polarized nation, it’s the conviction that Romney is the most transparent phony in either party, no matter how much he’s now deaccessioning hair products. It’s also been a Beltway truism that a Mormon can’t win the Republican nomination, let alone a Massachusetts governor who devised the prototype for ‘ObamaCare.’ But that political calculus changed overnight. That this poseur could so quickly gain traction, even if evanescently, should alarm Obama.”

Any Republican primary voters who think that Mitt Romney will be a formidable candidate should pay special heed to what Rich is saying here. He is pointing out that liberal Democrats are not afraid of Mitt Romney.

What are they afraid of? For the most part, they are afraid of being held accountable for the political failure that is Barack Obama. Above all else they do not want to pay the wages of their own sins, and they despair at finding a new savior who could redeem their guilt.


David Foster said...

There were many causes of the financial crisis--one that should not be ignored is the excessive credence placed in faux or overstated expertise--in this case, financial models which claimed to be able to assess the risk of aggregates of mortgages.

Quanta with IQs of 150 and MBAs with IQs of 130, mostly with Ivy League degrees, made mistakes that a traditional banker with an IQ of 110 would have been unlikely to make.

Anything that challenges the role of theory-based expertise is a threat to today's Left.

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