Frank Rich and Adam Moss Talk About Obama, Wall Street, and Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s Reversal of Fortune

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Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images, Paul Zimmerman/WireImage

Adam: Hi, Frank. I thought we'd start our conversation this week with a discussion of your cover story, "Obama's Original Sin," the first monthly essay you've written for New York. It's a pretty scathing indictment of the Wall Street culture that pulverized the economy. You make the case that the country hasn't been able to recover from the crimes — moral and otherwise — leading up to the crash. And you lay a considerable amount of blame for that on Barack Obama. I don't think I've ever read you be this hard on Obama before.

Frank: I have been hard on him at times, but I think what has increased the stakes is the reality, which I'd previously discounted, that he might actually lose the election. At least four swing states that he won last time, from Nevada to Florida, have higher unemployment rates than the national average.

Adam: So all right: a harrowing election, probably as close as the Bush elections — for Obama to win it, he's going to need a lot to go his way. That would presumably include a liberal base that turns out in significant numbers. When you write an essay like this, which paints Obama in less than inspiring colors, do you worry about the impact you might have in turning readers off of him? I mean, the election is sixteen months away, so the question is mainly theoretical. But you can already feel the anxiety wafting in. Obama diehards — and even those who simply feel, as I think you do, that the alternatives to Obama are pretty unpalatable — are beginning to worry out loud that the left will turn on Obama, weaken him, and reluctantly vote for him only after they’ve crippled him. Is that something you ever think about, or that you think a journalist should ever think about? In a sense, I'm asking in anticipation of the response I'm going to get to your essay from some of my more lily-livered liberal friends.

Frank: I don't really think about it for a couple of reasons. First, I don't believe that I, or perhaps any commentator, has that kind of influence. But more important, I feel my job is to honestly state what I think and believe. I am not part of the Obama administration or any political organization, and I wouldn't want to carry water for anybody. I think readers sense when a writer is being disingenuous, has a hidden agenda or loyalty, or is talking down to them. Honesty is the best policy. Back in my theater-critic days, some readers would complain that I was "hurting the cause of serious theater" when I panned any play with lofty intentions, but I always felt if I pretended to like a play in order to serve that cause (or any cause), the phoniness would be detectable in the review anyway — and would persuade no one.

Adam: Over the next few weeks, how would you like to see Obama handle the debt-ceiling negotiation? Should he take a hard line now, consequences be damned — or should he just get through this and take it to the Republicans on the campaign trail?

Frank: I still believe that if government shuts down in some chaotic or punishing way (to voters), the GOP will be blamed because their brand (particularly now) is the party that wants to end government. I think Obama is playing as if he has a weaker hand than he does (not for the first time) and should stick to what he has already laid out (hardly a hard line!). Let the GOP have a civil war between the Wall Street backers that want a successful negotiation and the tea partiers who are willing to risk Armageddon for ideological purity. Those tensions are already starting to explode.

Adam: Obama is, at the very least, an exasperating negotiator. My excitement on reading yesterday about his bid to raise gas mileage requirements — a cause that in my opinion is unarguably right — was immediately deflated when I reached those dreaded words, “opening bid.” Still, I find myself becoming much more forgiving — certainly to a fault — suppressing my frustrations with this administration because I'm so traumatized by the possibility of a return to something that resembles the last one.

Frank: I am with you up to a point, but when this administration's pragmatism risks losing the election anyway, some real course correction would seem essential. Otherwise we're just back where we started.

Adam: So I gather you’d like to see Obama be a “dick” — in Mark Halperin’s words — more often. What did you think of that little fracas?

Frank: It was the political culture at its most disingenuous. Halperin called Obama a "dick" on MSNBC because the president committed the shocking sin of actually standing up to and mocking the Republicans for once at his press conference. Then the hosts of Morning Joe — who sell their show as a rare island of civility in the pit of cable news — pretended to be shocked, even though they had egged Halperin on to let loose with his naughty word after he had pointedly asked them in advance if the seven-second delay was in effect. Soon we had the spectacle of Halperin self-importantly apologizing to the president — as if the president could give a damn. Hard to know who to root for in this orgy of self-promotion!

Adam: All right, enough Obama for this conversation. If they haven’t already, readers should find their way to your essay. There’s already a spirited discussion about it underway in the comments section, and the comments are a little more, let’s say adult, than usual. Many of the commenters even refer to you as Mr. Rich. How's your Fourth of the July weekend been?

Frank: No one in town, it seems, except us and the Strauss-Kahns (and they're probably in the Hamptons by now). Nice to have the Whitney Museum to ourselves, basically, on Friday night to see the affecting Feininger show.

Adam: Are you feeling any sympathy for Dominique Strauss-Kahn — or do you just feel he got lucky in his accuser? As plenty have noted, it’s been amazing how quickly the story line entirely reversed course, as if nobody could tolerate the ambiguity. The villain had become the hero, and vice versa, when in reality we still don’t know what happened in that hotel room, and they’re both pretty unsavory characters. Where is the hero in this story? I don’t see one.

Frank: I don't feel sympathy for Dominique Strauss-Kahn, though there will be no hero in this story. Agree with you that it is bizarre how fast the pendulum swung, and now the maid is evil incarnate. Ambiguity doesn't play in a tabloid culture. I mainly feel sorry for New York, which no longer has Bob Morgenthau minding the store. Can't picture this farce happening with him in charge.

Adam: Well, he seems to agree! It wasn’t a good week for district attorney Cy Vance, that's for sure — though I'm with those who admire him for coming forward quickly to admit the case had fallen apart. Interesting to me, by the way, how these stories continually play themselves out in theatrical terms - I was fascinated to read ex-sex crimes prosecutor Linda Fairstein’s description of the maid as being an exceptionally good actress, reducing all the prosecutors in the case to tears.

One quick reader question to finish this off: Do you watch reality television? This reader is particularly interested in what you think of American Idol and The Voice.

Frank: Embarrassed to say I have not seen The Voice and found some seasons ago that a little of American Idol went a long way. I don't have a favorite reality show, but my favorite reality show train wreck of last season was Bristol Palin on Dancing With the Stars.

Adam: You should see the new Transformers movie — not that you will. But David Edelstein got it right: The movie takes that peculiarly American art of blow-’em-up-ism to a maniacal and pretty pleasurable extreme. I am thoroughly ashamed to say I enjoyed the whole two-and-a-half-hour idiotic spectacle. Perfect waste of time.

Frank: You've sold me. I love idiotic Hollywood spectacle, particularly in the air-conditioned months. That's at least as much a part of summer as the Fourth of July.

Readers, write in to askfrankrich@nymag.com with your questions. That’s it for now.