Frank Rich on the National Circus: Gun Control Needs More Than Obama

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Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Every week, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich talks with assistant editor Eric Benson about the biggest stories in politics and culture. This week: Obama's gun control actions, the Manti T'eo dead girlfriend hoax, and Jodie Foster's quasi-coming-out speech.

Yesterday President Obama called on Congress to pass stricter gun legislation and initiated 23 executive actions designed to strengthen enforcement of existing laws. Obama said that to get the bills passed "we’re going to need voices in those areas and those congressional districts where the tradition of gun ownership is strong to speak up and to say this is important. It can’t just be the usual suspects." Is there any chance we're going to hear those voices?
Obama is right, of course. If the loudest political voices on gun control are mainly him, Biden, Bloomberg, Dianne Feinstein, and New York’s Senators and Governor, the cause is DOA. And already the signs are not promising. For all the Twitter flutter that one of the GOP’s most powerful puppetmasters, Rupert Murdoch, was softening on guns, the lead editorial in his Wall Street Journal this morning largely minimized guns and gun magazines (as opposed to mental health) as a factor in gun violence and helpfully identified seven red-state Democratic senators who could be defeated in 2014 if they challenge the right to bear assault weapons. Gun control is a nonstarter in the GOP-controlled House. The Democratic Senate leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, is in no rush to champion an issue unpopular at home. So who of consequence beyond what Obama called “the usual suspects” will join his effort?

After the Sandy Hook tragedy last month, you wrote "overthrowing America’s gun-worship is not a project that will be cured in a legislative session; it’s a struggle that’s going to take decades." If Sandy Hook and Aurora can't get stricter gun control passed, what can?
Another point Obama made is equally important: Change won’t happen unless “the American people demand it.” Though polls have shown renewed public support for tougher gun regulation post-Newtown, the new CNN-Time survey finds these numbers already starting to slip. It also found that only 39 percent of Americans believe that tougher laws would stop gun violence — which is actually lower than the more than 45 percent who believed so when Clinton tried to lead on the issue twenty years ago. So, in a country with a short attention span and chronic amnesia, you have to wonder how much real and determined will is out there for a sustained fight. I fear that this battle will take decades of brave political leadership, grassroots action, and civic education — tragically punctuated by more bloodbaths as horrific as Sandy Hook and Aurora. Resetting American policy on guns is nearly as fundamental change in our culture as the abolition of slavery, and today’s gun purists cling as tightly to the Second Amendment as slaveholders once did to their own constitutional rationales for the status quo. 

The NRA published an online ad before Obama's speech tarring him as an "elitist hypocrite" for insisting on Secret Service protection for his daughters while opposing armed protection for all schools. The NRA was widely derided for its tone-deaf response to Sandy Hook and this ad seems equally ham-fisted. Will their ineptitude damage their cause?
My guess is that the NRA’s outrageous actions change no more minds on either side now than they did in the fevered heyday of Charlton Heston. The NRA chose to target Obama’s family for a simple political reason: Even before Obama began his first term — when he was silent on nearly all gun-control issues — the gun lobby had identified him as Public Enemy No. 1. Obama hatred is a surefire fund-raising tool for all right-wing organizations.

Last month in your essay "Suckers for Superheroes," you discussed our cultural tendency to worship men like Lance Armstrong, Greg Mortenson, Joe Paterno, and David Petraeus who turn out to be, at least in part, frauds. It looks like Heisman trophy finalist and Notre Dame linebacker Manti T'eo may have become the latest to join that not-so-esteemed list, after Deadspin exposed the tear-jerking saga of the in-season death of his beloved girlfriend as a whole-cloth fabrication. (T'eo insists he was a victim of an online hoax.) Does the media's willful ignorance in perpetuating this myth surprise you at all?
It never ceases to amaze me that in an era when we have more news and information sources at our fingertips than ever before, we are consistently bamboozled, even when the evidence of fraud is hiding in plain sight — or not even hiding. T’eo’s claims about his girlfriend — that she went to Stanford, that she was in a serious car crash, that she died of leukemia — were all bogus and checkable. She didn’t even exist. And yet in the Deadspin chronicle we learn that some or all of these fictions were passed on unchallenged by not just the subservient Notre Dame hometown paper, the South Bend Tribune, but by ESPN, Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, Fox News, and CBS (among others). Is it any wonder so few Americans trust the news media? Whether it’s something as monumental as Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction or a manufactured celebrity soap-opera tearjerker, we keep getting it wrong.

Speaking of those "superheroes," Armstrong's doping confession to Oprah Winfrey will air later today. Is Lance's image reparable? And besides being able to compete in triathlons, what do you expect him to get from his mea culpa?
Whatever he turns out to have said to Oprah, she cannot grant him absolution. Armstrong is pursuing a public-relations strategy, not a serious attempt at redemption or contrition. To even start moving forward, he will have to face the full legal, financial, and moral consequences of his pathological lying — not just to himself, the public, and his sport, but to those in his circle whom he intimidated and threatened to keep silent. As the Times documented with new detail in a compelling investigative story this week, Armstrong also compromised the ethics of his now-reeling cancer charity, Livestrong, for personal gain. On the bright side, he will have an easier time repairing his image than the BBC sociopath Jimmy Savile.

The Golden Globes ended up getting more press than usual, largely for Jodie Foster's sort-of-coming-out, quasi-retirement ramble when receiving the Cecil B. DeMille lifetime-achievement award. Did you think Foster's speech was effective? And do you agree with her contention that gay public figures shouldn't have to speak out about their sexuality?
That speech was riveting television. What made it so — for me, anyway — was less what she had to say about her sexuality than the whole narcissistic, angry weirdness of her often elliptical rant. “Jodie Foster was here!” she said, speaking of herself in the third person, and ain’t that the truth. She seemed to be pouring forth a lifetime’s worth of grievances against her industry, the news media, and perhaps (if I understood her correctly) her mother (to whom she also paid tribute). Except when she was pledging fealty to the anti-Semitic homophobe Mel Gibson, I found Foster sympathetic: She has, after all, been in the limelight since age 3 (not a choice she made for herself), and she suffered collateral psychic damage in John Hinckley’s attempted assassination of Reagan (also not her choice). As for Foster coming out, she first did so at a little reported Hollywood Reporter breakfast event in 2007. Whatever. At this late date, with American public opinion moving rapidly toward an embrace of same-sex marriage, the politics of celebrities coming out increasingly resembles an arcane Kabuki drama. (For a lively discussion of Foster, Anderson Cooper, and other recent self-outings, see the conversation between gay journalists Tom McGeveran of Capital New York and Kate Aurthur of Buzzfeed.) My own feeling is that every person, regardless of sexuality, should make his or her own decisions about what to keep private and what to tell the world. That said, closeted gay hypocrites with political power — whether in elective office, corporate life, or the pulpit — who vilify or curb the rights of other gay people deserve everything that’s coming to them.