Frank Rich on the National Circus: The NSA Ruling Was a Heartening Moral Victory—and Not Much Else

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WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 14:  Kwazi Nkrumah speaks while joining protesters rallying outside the U.S. Capitol against the NSA's recently detailed surveillance programs June 13, 2013 in Washington, DC. Members of various action groups gathered to protest the ?National Security Agency's abuses of law abiding Americans.  (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Photo: Win McNamee/2013 Getty Images

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: A federal judge rules against the NSA, John Boehner rants against the tea party, and this year's Oscar films prove Hollywood can still make quality work.

On Monday, Federal District Judge Richard J. Leon, a George W. Bush appointee, ruled that the NSA's metadata collection was likely in violation of the Fourth Amendment, the first legal defeat for the program unmasked by Edward Snowden. This is a preliminary injunction, and it's not going to force an immediate change in NSA surveillance. (Appeals will almost certainly drag it to the Supreme Court.) Still, does it matter?

For anyone who is outraged by the NSA’s egregious snooping, Leon’s ruling was a heartening moral victory: His own outrage at our government’s “almost Orwellian” technology — I’d drop the “almost” — gave eloquent and official voice to the NSA’s critics. But as a practical matter, Leon’s action has no effect, and there’s no known reason to hope that his ruling will be upheld once it lands in the Roberts court. And beyond the legal issues, there’s the political question: Is a large enough segment of the American public angry enough to demand that its leaders start guarding its privacy? Or is a citizenry that thinks nothing of yielding its secrets daily to social media and shopping portals already so deeply cocooned by an Orwellian culture that it is too docile, too drugged by the joys of public narcissism and consumer convenience to protest? The fact remains that the Democratic Establishment (typified by Barack Obama in the White House and Dianne Feinstein, the intelligence guru of the Senate) countenances the NSA’s activities. The president’s promise of reforms in the New Year — in response to an as-yet-unrevealed report by a panel of experts — sounds hollow. The GOP national-security Establishment that congregates in The Wall Street Journal opinion section is just as vehement in defending government surveillance. So is some of the so-called liberal media: Witness last Sunday’s 60 Minutes' lengthy report (not by Lara Logan but by John Miller, soon to join Bill Bratton in Bill de Blasio’s police hierarchy) that was essentially an NSA apologia. So who in the political arena is going to take on the fight against government snooping? Let’s not forget that the lawsuit that prompted Leon’s ruling came from a fringe player: Larry Klayman, a longtime “lunatic” (in the apt epithet of Jeffrey Toobin), birther and tea party firebrand who has called Obama a “half-Muslim, anti-white, socialist fraud.” If Klayman is by default the most effective protector of civil liberties in America, we’re in even more trouble than we had thought.

Last week, House Speaker John Boehner decided to get his feelings about the tea party off his chest, ranting to reporters that hard-right groups had "lost all credibility." His anger was sparked by those groups’ criticism of the Patty Murray–Paul Ryan budget compromise he supported. But clearly Boehner’s patience had been wearing thin for a while. The tea party patriots returned fire by blasting the reliably right-wing congressman as a "tax-and-spend liberal." You've argued before that the GOP's hard-liners are its future and its power. Will Boehner regret dissing his party's most fervent followers?

Boehner had nothing to lose, and few doubt that his perch in the House is secure. What’s been most interesting about his long-overdue public expression of anti-tea-party pique is that so many commentators have suddenly noticed that, hey, there is a civil war in the Republican Party, and they have regarded his outburst as some kind of turning point. That civil war has been going on for a long time, and Boehner’s bombast is no turning point. The state of play remains unchanged. To reiterate: the tea party is not a fringe group in the GOP – it is the base of the GOP. It has the passion, the ideological conviction, the foot soldiers, and plenty of money (not just from the Koch Brothers) to force the Establishment to its knees. Indeed, even as Boehner was supposedly putting his party’s radicals in their place, they were pulling strings on Capitol Hill. All three senators considered likely presidential aspirants in 2016 – Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, and Ted Cruz – voted with the radical right against the modest Ryan-Murray budget compromise that’s been hailed as some kind of bipartisan breakthrough. So did Boehner’s Establishment counterpart, Mitch McConnell, who needs to protect his right flank from a serious primary challenge from a tea partier as he seeks reelection next year. Boehner can rant against the hard right as much as he wants, and belatedly deplore the tactics that led to the government shutdown, but those forces remain as dug in and powerful as ever within the GOP.  They could threaten another shutdown as soon as March, when the next deadline for a debt-ceiling extension is expected.

Last Oscar season, you praised Hollywood for producing four films — Django Unchained, Lincoln, Argo, and Zero Dark Thirty — that “provoked animated, often rancorous public debate.” Outside of 12 Years a Slave, this year's likely Oscar crop seems to have generated fewer headlines and think pieces (although many have been lavishly praised). What do you make of this year's awards-season favorites? 

I think that 2013 is a remarkable year for American movies. Over the weekend, I went to three in a row that I admired greatly (I list them in no particular order): Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, Joel and Ethan Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis, and David O. Russell’s American Hustle. None of them have subjects that might inspire op-ed think pieces, and indeed that’s one thing I love about them: They are deeply idiosyncratic films about characters who live on the edge or fall through society’s cracks and who are often unsympathetic. All three are gorgeously made and acted and eschew sentimentality. They have all been well reviewed, but a number of my friends don’t like Llewyn Davis: its protagonist, a drifting, narcissistic folk singer in the pre-Dylan Village bohemia of the early sixties, treats almost everyone shabbily or even cruelly, and the film’s structure seems as rambling as a folk song with countless verses. Yet the Coens portray the guy with an inscrutable sympathy that stops you from dismissing him  – so much so I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the film in the three days since I saw it. 

Maybe this confluence of good movies is a passing coincidence — I have no idea — but for the moment I can’t remember seeing a run of American movies this bracing since I was a film critic in the sevenites, when every week seemed to bring a startling new work by Scorsese or Altman or Coppola or Spielberg or Ashby (among others). And to think that this season there are still new films by Scorsese (The Wolf of Wall Street) and Spike Jonze (Her) to look forward to. Not to mention the not-so-guilty pleasure of Anchorman 2! Perhaps none of these movies are noble enough in civic virtue to inspire punditry, but they are collectively a startling sign of cultural health and vitality in an art form that was thought to have ceded much of its seriousness to top-tier television.