Marriage, New York Style: Frank Rich and Adam Moss Talk About Andrew Cuomo, Larry Kramer ... and Alice Playten

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Photo: Konstantin Sergeyev

Frank: Hi!

Adam: Hi, Frank. When you came over to New York, we said we’d try a weekly dialogue of some sort. Right now you’re closing next week’s cover story and we haven’t figured out how these dialogues are going to work, but I thought maybe we’d sneak a kind of trial one in, given the passage into law in New York of gay marriage. Since you’ve written so passionately on the issue, and I have at least some personal stake in it (though what exactly I’m not yet sure), it seems an appropriate subject for us — so here goes. For starters, why does it matter so much?

Frank: It matters on so many levels. First, it's justice done. Second, if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere. Not to be a Pollyanna about it, but I do believe that New York's victory will push public opinion along in other states faster, at least those already nearing the tipping point. And I think it is going to be harder for Republican leaders, Chris Christie notwithstanding, to evoke their belief in "traditional marriage," a religious matter, as cover for treating gay Americans as second-class citizens.

Adam: I hope so, especially at the federal level where it would make a tangible difference. At the state level, the practical benefits are few. For a long time, I was relatively indifferent to the campaign — for it, obviously, but my support didn't have much feeling behind it. So I was a little shocked by how great I felt Friday night, elated in a way that took me mostly by surprise — not that I suddenly wanted to get married (though my parents stunned me even more on Saturday morning with a hyperexcited phone call urging that Daniel and I get married at their house, and soon. Daniel, so readers know, is my boyfriend — a phrase I cling to though we've been together for 27 years).

Frank: I wondered how this would affect you and Daniel! Speaking as someone who is a piker compared to the two of you — my marriage is just twenty years old (though, granted, my second marriage) — I have to say that my wife, Alex, and I were also elated and incredibly moved on Friday night, and I think to some extent on our own behalf, not just because of what this means to so many friends of ours who have a direct stake. I am still trying to parse it, but I think part of it is that it just makes you feel good to reconnect with that often obscured (and betrayed) idealism at the heart of the American idea. And proud to be a New Yorker. It's just a tremendous feeling — I don't know, I can't quite articulate it all yet.

Adam: Yes, the sheer idealism of it — the way it carries the general civil rights movement of the last 50 years forward — matters a lot. Social-justice movements haven't had a significant step forward in some time, and it just feels good. Politics is obviously about so much more than tangible benefit — symbolism means an awful lot. I think for most people the big political moments in their lives are not the ones that change their lives in a practical way, but ones that make them feel a part of something — and not incidentally make them feel the world is with them rather than against them.

Frank: Yes, and I just hope that the tough history that led up to this feel-good moment is not forgotten. When Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart was first produced in 1985 at the height of the AIDS crisis, I could not use the word "gay" in my review for the Times, unless I was referring to, say, the Gay Men’s Health Crisis. I mention it not as a terrible crime in itself but as an indicator of how even so-called liberal New York was not that long ago on the wrong side of history on this civil rights issue.

Adam: That's just amazing — really, the mid-eighties weren’t that long ago. The speed of this movement is incredible — or at least seems so to me. Forty-two years from Stonewall to gay marriage in this state: Historically, that’s nothing. My view is similar to the one Frank Bruni expressed in Sunday's Times — until recently, to imagine gay marriage in my lifetime (and I'm old but not that old — I hope I have a lot of lifetime left) would have seemed like a hallucination. Of course younger gay people don't feel this at all. They're impatient for progress and feel entitled to it. And you know, I’m thrilled by that. But many also have little sense of what got us here. There was a story in the Times recently about many gay people in their twenties who go to The Normal Heart and are hearing this history for the first time. Did you see this production of The Normal Heart? Like it?

Frank: I did like the production quite a bit, and if memory serves, it's superior to the original in many ways. But it is fascinating to me that it now, however inevitably, plays as a piece of history. At the time it was shocking in a way that can't be imagined now. The carton of milk exploding on the stage was like a bomb going off in how it captured the rage of the moment. And there was something naked about Brad Davis's performance as Ned Weeks. When he died six years later, we learned he had AIDS — don't know if he did at the time of Normal Heart — a haunting postscript still.

Adam: That's how I felt too. The original production riled me up and upset me — less as a piece of art and more as a deeply effective polemic. This production was more admirable in dramatic terms, because the stagecraft was impressive and the performances mostly strong — but its appeal was to evoke old feelings that were very powerful to reexperience. But man, all that yelling. I feared for Ellen Barkin and Joe Mantello's vocal cords. And of course I've been yelled at by Larry Kramer several times in real life, so hearing his words screamed from the stage invoked other feelings for me as well. But Larry Kramer's enormous role in this movement cannot be denied. I was thinking this weekend about the yin and yang of Kramer and Andrew Sullivan, whose writings were also essential to Friday’s vote. I imagine Sullivan and Kramer can't stand each other.

Frank: I would not want to be an arbiter between the two of them, and God knows I've had my innings with Larry Kramer too. There are many heroes in this story, and certainly Sullivan (and others, like Evan Wolfson, the legal mind behind Freedom to Marry) played a big role in marriage. But long before marriage was an issue at all, or even much of a thought, simply being gay was in itself a crime in America, and the battle to end that in all its iterations was long, hugely difficult, and sometimes literally dangerous for those who fought it. There were also few straight allies — even on the left. Kramer and a few others who predated and prefigured him were the leaders in that marathon struggle for fundamental gay rights, without which the marriage movement would have been unthinkable and impossible.

Adam: Absolutely. Men and women of remarkable courage — for whom, by the way, marriage was hardly a goal; for many it was the last thing they were fighting for. Marriage was a straight institution they wanted no part of. Which I felt too. Not to be too glib about it, but I was more interested in being an outlaw than an in-law. Which is why I’ve been thinking about Andrew, and his fairly radical idea that there was — as he called it in 1989 (!), in a cover story for The New Republic — a conservative case for gay marriage.

The fact that significant money behind this campaign came from rich libertarians — how the gay cause was reframed as a case for family values — there was truth to it of course, but it was also a very shrewd political move, and it worked. But not to say the obvious (or to say the obvious): All movements need the radicals and conservatives, the fighters and freaks, screamers and the strategists; every act builds on others; movement is zigzaggy and comes in fits and starts. Still, that the gay rights hero of this moment would turn out to be Andrew Cuomo — would you have imagined that?

Frank: Never. I know some liberal Democrats (straight and gay) who were so distrusting of Cuomo that until Paladino entered the fray were seriously thinking of sitting on their hands in the last race, so this is a huge sea change. Fairly or unfairly — I don't know which — Andrew Cuomo was associated with the "Vote for Cuomo, Not the Homo" ugliness in his father's campaign against Koch ... so what a shift! And what's behind it? Presumably we'll find more out. But whatever: His actions speak for themselves, and not only do they boost him, but he has set a standard that other politicians, starting, as many have remarked, with the president, will now be under great pressure to match.

Adam: Political oratory has always meant a great deal to me — I don't dismiss it as mere rhetoric; I think it has real meaning in changing condition and context and helping people become their better selves — and one reason I have been less moved by Cuomo over the years is that he seems so artless. And in his remarks Friday night, he confirmed my view. I mean, you can just imagine what his father would have made of that moment. Andrew said what he needed to about New York being once again a "beacon for social justice," but really, not a lot of poetry there. And yet, to hell with poetry. Cuomo made this happen, it took courage and awesome political skill; it wasn't a necessary issue for him. I don't really care what his motives were (and I'm sure they weren't entirely pure), it was an accomplishment few politicians can claim, and only six months into office. I did love the theater of it — an eleventh hour (truly) cliffhanger on the weekend of the anniversary of Stonewall, Cuomo striding into the chamber with a pen instead of a sword to sign the bill before midnight. But it was the action, not the theater that mattered. And yep, it made Obama look chicken-shit by contrast. Anyway, enough about this subject. Let me steer this conversation to the actress Alice Playten, who I think you knew, and who died this weekend.

Frank: Although I knew Alice Playten only fleetingly — alas — I always had a crush on her as a theater kid growing up in the audience while she did on stage. She was a replacement Baby Louise in the original Merman Gypsy (which I didn't see), but I discovered her when she was a big-voiced teenager in the original Broadway casts of later David Merrick musicals like Oliver! and Hello, Dolly! (They always had exclamation points!) On YouTube, by luck, you can see what made Playten so special: a clip of her showstopper, "Poor Little Person," from a flop, Henry, Sweet Henry, that she performed (at age 20) in 1967 on The Ed Sullivan Show. Not irrelevant to our previous discussion: The number is a sparkling snapshot of the evolving, pre–Chorus Line choreographic inventiveness of the young Michael Bennett, whose career would be ended in its prime by AIDS twenty years later, when he was only 43.

Adam: I should mention that you asked me to plant that Playten question because you wanted to link to that video. Nice! We’ll have to do more of that. Here’s something else I’m going to want to try: readers asking you questions. But since we don’t have readers for this yet, I had a colleague make a couple up (notice how they sound just like readers!).

Here's one. "Why is it that the GOP seems to have more plausible (okay, perhaps "plausible" is a stretch) female candidates for president than Democrats have had. If Hillary doesn't run at some point, which female politicians do you see on the Democratic side who could have the best shot in 2016 or beyond?"

Frank: The GOP female candidates are novelties — they're truly fresh American characters, not your father’s Republican women, like the genteel old-school moderates from Maine or the strident anti-feminist Schlafly ideologues still relitigating the sixties. They're politically unpredictable at times, for all their conservatism, and brilliant entertainers. It doesn’t hurt, either, that they have dullards like Romney and Pawlenty as foils. You can find them compulsively watchable even if you despise everything they stand for. There's not a Democratic woman politician on the scene as galvanizing, Hillary Clinton included, unless you count Michelle Obama.

Adam: Okay, here's another: "What's the last best book you read?" Mine incidentally is the book I'm reading right now called The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy, a very funny novel, written in 1958 and periodically rediscovered, about a young and somewhat madcap actress and her expatriate set in Paris. I hope it holds up, but I'm loving it.

Frank: You can't go wrong reading any novel that has been brought back into print by the New York Review of Books imprint. Not the last best book I read, but another of theirs I can't stop recommending to anyone in earshot is L.P. Hartley's The Go-Between. Also British — of the same period (1953) — but far more melancholy than Dundy. One of the fabled opening lines in modern literature: "The past is a foreign country: They do things differently there." The NYRB paperback has a superb new introduction by Colm Toibin, but don't read it until after you've read the book itself.

Adam: Okay, thanks. Next week we'll switch it up, add some gizmos or something — or invite Michele Bachmann to join us. And maybe readers will supply some real questions of their own. That’s it for now.