Frank Rich on the National Circus: Edward Snowden Won’t Undo the Patriot Act

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Every week, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich talks with contributor Eric Benson about the biggest stories in politics and culture. This week: Edward Snowden ignites a debate, Chuck Schumer makes his LBJ play, and the Tony Awards defy the prognosticators.

Late last week, we found out that the source of the major NSA leak was a 29-year-old, Ron Paul–supporting defense contractor named Edward Snowden. Both John Boehner and Dianne Feinstein have labeled Snowden a traitor. The Times editorial board has come to his defense. What do you make of him?
Isn’t it something of a commentary on the might of the American surveillance state that a 29-year-old high-school dropout could elude an international law-enforcement dragnet for as long as Snowden has? As Seth Lipsky wrote in the New York Post this morning, it’s a plot out of Catch Me If You Can. That said, it’s preposterous to label this 29-year-old IT guy a traitor at this point. As far as we can tell now, he hasn’t handed over state secrets to an enemy. The revelation that the government is using data mining in itself does not seem to have damaged our security; surely terrorists aren’t total idiots and have figured this out too. Nor is Snowden a hero. His leak is unlikely to rescue America from the Orwellian excesses of the Patriot Act that have haunted us for more than a decade. What Snowden has done instead is far more prosaic: He has revealed a post-9/11 security regimen that few sentient Americans seem to find surprising and that many seem to want. Snowden’s flair for self-dramatization, and that of his fans in the news media and politics, should not be confused with the somewhat more mundane reality of this whole incident. His main civic contribution thus far is — in the words of President Obama and countless others — to open up a debate about the state of privacy in America. I fear that debate will not survive August.

The tech industry is currently both wildly popular and widely trusted. Do you think that a scandal that involves such giants as Google, Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft will do serious damage to their clout and their bottom lines?
In a word, no. Americans love these companies — well, maybe not Microsoft — and spend much of their day handing over money and personal information to them.

The Senate voted on Tuesday to begin debate on bipartisan immigration reform. President Obama has staked a lot of political capital on this bill. Would its passage shift the narrative of his second term in a significant way?
Remember when there was all that hoopla and optimism about Senate Republicans voting to allow debate on gun-control legislation? It turned out to be a nonevent since the GOP had no intention of letting any supposed threats to the Second Amendment become law. So yesterday’s vote to advance debate on the immigration bill in the Senate may also prove much ado about very little. Even if the bill does get through that chamber, I have yet to see any persuasive evidence that a meaningful bill will get past the radical right GOP base in the House. We’ll see. What we do know is that politicians of both parties have a big stake in immigration reform. As you indicate, a solid law would be a boon to Obama: It would be a major achievement, defying the expected second-term doldrums, and would join Obamacare as a potential historical marker for his presidency. It’s also in the career interest of Senate Majority Leader–in-Waiting Chuck Schumer, the manager of this bill, to pull off an LBJ-like triumph. And it is in the interest of the Republican Party as a whole (and its putative presidential candidate Marco Rubio) to sign on to a law that has a shot at inducing Hispanic voters to give it a second look after a decade of Republican politicians smearing Latinos en masse as freeloaders, “wetbacks,” and thugs. As everyone knows, without Hispanic voters the GOP will be in the political wilderness for years to come. So the bottom line is this: Here is a rare example where it’s to both parties’ political advantage (not to mention the nation’s advantage) to get something done. If they fail on this one, it’s probably safe to assume that no governance will happen in Washington until another election or two shakes up the current political alignment. 

The Tony Awards were handed out on Sunday, with many of the winners defying predictions. Were all the surprises and the general dispersion of awards good signs for the health of Broadway?
I confess to watching the Tonys — old habits die hard for a former theater critic. Though Broadway has had a down season in terms of attendance, maybe (maybe) it’s a good sign that the Tony show itself had an uptick in ratings — a rare occurrence. As for the awards themselves, betting types should note that of all of the frontline drama critics and reporters who made predictions, only Patrick Healy of the Times and our own Jesse Green foresaw that Kinky Boots would beat Matilda for best musical. Another wrong prediction — by seemingly everyone — had it that Tom Hanks would win Best Actor for Lucky Guy. Against that conventional wisdom it was rather remarkable that Tracy Letts won for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? — doubly so given that (a) that revival closed months ago, and (b) Letts’s performance actually deserved the recognition; for all the good actors I’ve seen play George, he was in a class by himself. (And so was the production surrounding him, also justly recognized by the Tonys.) By the way, for those who missed the Tony broadcast, it had the usual surfeit of close-ups of Les Moonves (whose network, CBS, airs it), among other laughs. The most notable innovation was the deployment of Mike Tyson as a running gag. Surely it’s only a matter of time before he’s cast as the emcee in the next Roundabout revival of Cabaret.