Frank Rich on the National Circus: What Philip Seymour Hoffman Left Behind

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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: the death and legacy of Philip Seymour Hoffman, the new Congressional Budget Office report about Obamacare and employment, and Obama's combative Super Bowl interview on Fox.

Philip Seymour Hoffman died on Sunday of an apparent heroin overdose, at the age of 46. Hoffman was one of the great actors of our era on both the stage and the screen. How can we make sense of his legacy and his death?

It will always be easier to make sense of Hoffman’s legacy than of his death. This tragic loss doesn’t fit the Kurt Cobain/Jim Morrison — or James Dean/Heath Ledger — template of a brilliant (and glamorous) young performer self-destructing or being struck down, leaving behind a relatively brief and stunted career and reveries of what might have been. Hoffman was not a romantic heartthrob. He was the same age as David Foster Wallace, and like Wallace, left behind a mature, epic-sized canon of such variety and complexity that it’s hard to fathom how he could produce it while wrestling with such vicious and debilitating demons. The Internet Movie Database lists 63 film appearances. And what’s remarkable is that even the small and early roles — especially those in Scent of a Woman, The Talented Mr. Ripley, and the incomparable Boogie Nights — are as indelible as his Oscar and post-Oscar star turns.

Audiences will always be able to revisit those Hoffman achievements. What will be lost to memory, sadly, is his nearly as voluminous and no less prodigious stage work. Such was his dedication to the theater that he made the time to serve for a while as the artistic director of an Off-Broadway company, the LAByrinth, for which he also acted and directed. His remarkable appearance in the 2000 Matthew Warchus production of Sam Shepard’s True West — in which he and John C. Reilly alternated in the very different roles of the play’s fractious siblings — was as much of a feat as Mark Rylance’s current Shakespeare double-header. And then there was Death of a Salesman just two years ago. At 44, Hoffman was young for the role on paper, but not on stage, where his Willy Loman was “tired to the death” down to his core. I saw this Mike Nichols production early in its run and at the last performance, and it was amazing to see how much Hoffman had kept working in the interim, adding details and layers of sadness and neurosis to a characterization that had seemed to be fully realized at the start. It’s mind-boggling to imagine anyone doing Willy Loman eight times a week, let alone at this level, playing in a Broadway-size house, while fighting addiction. But it was all there, and it was quintessential Hoffman. Loman is a failure on every front — an inattentive and insensitive father, a philandering husband, a failed breadwinner. And yet you love him anyway and follow him into the depths of his inner ruins, and then mourn deeply when, in the end, he kills himself.

The Congressional Budget Office released a report on Tuesday in which it estimated the Affordable Care Act would reduce the workforce by over two million full-time positions by 2024. Republicans, of course, jumped on the report as evidence of the law's failure, and Democratic West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin went so far as to dub the report the law's "Waterloo." How concerned should Obamacare's supporters be? 

What the CBO actually said was that more than two million workers would choose to leave their jobs precisely because of the law’s success: If you have affordable care, and can’t be denied insurance because of a pre-existing condition, you may want to leave a job, or cut back in hours, if you are staying in that job mainly to get employer-based health-care that Obamacare renders obsolete. Of course the Republicans immediately distorted what the CBO was saying to portray it as evidence that the law is a “job killer,” and even worse, they were aided and abetted in this ruse by the so-called liberal media, which garbled what the CBO said. Even the Times had to yank and then run a correction for its inaccurate original homepage headline, “Health Law to Cost Millions of Jobs, Federal Study Projects.” (The replacement headline was: “Health Law Seen As Leading to Two Million Fewer Workers.”)

None of this has any effect on the implementation or future of Obamacare itself. It’s just the latest chapter in the Republicans’ political strategy to make Obamacare the main bogeyman in the 2014 midterms. That effort may well succeed in the short term if the law’s successes are not real and pervasive by November. As a political matter, the Affordable Care Act still has to overcome the lousy rollout and the president’s bogus statement that no one would lose their existing health-care plans. But the GOP has not begun to address what happens after 2014, when it no longer has Obama and Obamacare to run against, and when its own cupboard of achievements and policies is revealed to be bare. In the long term, the most consequential piece of political news over the past 24 hours was not the CBO ruckus, but Mitch McConnell’s declaration that immigration reform is an “irresolvable conflict.” The longer the GOP stays its course on immigration and remains the xenophobic party, the more its prospects shrink in national elections.

Last week, you wrote about the waning influence of Fox News. On Super Bowl Sunday, President Obama was interviewed by Bill O'Reilly and declared the anchor's treatment of him "unfair." (For good measure, Hillary Clinton tweeted that she was happy to see "someone else being blitzed & sacked" on Fox — she meant Peyton Manning, not the president.) Would the Democratic Party's two most prominent figures have risked those statements four years ago? And what does their combative approach to Fox News say about them and the network?

First, let’s stipulate that the interview was pointless, serving mainly to rile up the political bases of both men while generating no actual news (now and never the point of Fox News in any case). O’Reilly simply repeated his party’s usual talking points (Benghazi, IRS, Obamacare). As I wrote in my piece, liberals, the president included, would be better off just letting Fox rant on to its self-selected audience: a paltry average viewership of a bit over one million in prime time, with a median age of 68 — a virtually all-white retirement community that will vote Republican no matter what, often in red states and districts that are safely Republican in any event. To let O’Reilly sit in front of a White House backdrop elevates him in a way unmerited by his “journalism.” But what was good about the interview was that Obama manifestly didn’t take him seriously and brushed off his fisticuffs sardonically. The president came off as dignified, O’Reilly as a cranky, disrespectful bull in the White House china shop.

As for Hillary Clinton, there’s a whole other issue involved. As Gabriel Sherman reminds us in his new biography of Roger Ailes, she let Rupert Murdoch, Fox News’s proprietor, give her a fundraiser in 2006. So when Hillary Clinton, the prospective presidential candidate of 2016, publicly mocks Fox News on Twitter, it’s yet another of her attempts to repackage herself for the Democratic base by de-accessioning her past concessions to the right on a myriad of issues, much as she tried and failed to airbrush her support of the Iraq War in 2008.