Frank Rich on the National Circus: The GOP’s Inane Attack on ‘President Ebola’

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Photo: Pascal Guyot/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: The Ebola crisis gets politicized, the Supreme Court hands same-sex marriage a big victory, and playing “what if” with Jon Stewart and Meet the Press.

The death of Thomas Eric Duncan, the first person to be diagnosed with Ebola in the United States, in a Dallas hospital is furthering fears of a larger outbreak. Republicans — particularly 2016 presidential hopefuls Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal, and Mike Huckabeehave criticized President Obama for his handling of the crisis and called on the White House to consider travel bans. Has Obama’s response to Ebola been sufficient? And does it make any sense for the Republicans to attack him for a domestic outbreak that has so far claimed a single victim?
I am waiting for Donald Trump to weigh in so we can have the definitive explanation of how President Obama has masterminded the spread of Ebola. True, his birthplace of Kenya is in East, not West, Africa, but I imagine Trump’s investigators will discover some heretofore unknown Obamas in Liberia, including those who infected Duncan prior to dispatching him to the red state of Texas to target Ted Cruz.

While we wait for Trump’s Tweets on all this, let’s step back one moment and marvel at the way anything and everything can be politicized in America. A new Pew survey finds that only 48 percent of Republicans (as opposed to 69 percent of Democrats) have confidence in the ability of government to deal with Ebola. You’d think this might be because Republicans intrinsically are suspicious of big government, but Pew helpfully points out that when it asked the same question in 2005 during an outbreak of bird flu, 74 percent of Republicans had confidence in the government (as opposed to 35 percent of Democrats).

The good news is that Pew also finds that an overwhelming majority of Americans — 67 percent — does not fear being exposed to the Ebola virus. It’ll be interesting to watch that number between now and Election Day as the president’s political nemeses do everything they can to spread panic about Ebola and attach that panic to Obama. The right-wing Washington site Daily Caller has already dubbed him “President Ebola.” Mike Huckabee has found a link to Benghazi. Rand Paul has accused the president of pursuing a “politically correct” Ebola policy — presumably because Paul believes an African-American president would rather let an epidemic destroy America than offend anyone in his ancestral continent. All this fire is coming from self-styled Reagan Republicans. Let us not forget that Reagan legacy in reacting to a spiraling health crisis. The first cases of the AIDS epidemic in America were reported in 1981; he didn’t give a serious address about the disease until 1987, after thousands of Americans had died. Pat Buchanan, Reagan’s communications director, called AIDS “nature’s revenge on gay men.” There’s political correctness for you.

Let it be further noted that one Republican with presidential aspirations, Rick Perry, has departed from his party’s line and expressed confidence in America’s ability to deal with Ebola. Trustworthy veterans of the infectious-disease battles, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, a major figure in the AIDS battle, agree. Obama is doing all he can. It is Republicans in Congress who are blocking the full $1 billion administration request to speed American military assistance to West Africa.

On Monday, the Supreme Court let stand appeals court rulings that struck down gay-marriage bans in Indiana, Oklahoma, Utah, Virginia, and Wisconsin. On Tuesday, the Ninth Circuit struck down gay-marriage bans in Nevada and Idaho. Last week, gay marriage was legal in 19 states. It’s likely that the fallout from these rulings will nearly double that number by the end of this month. The marriage-equality fight appears to be ending in a swift, decisive rout. Is there a next battle in the push for gay civil rights? Or is the full acceptance of gay men and women in America now inevitable?
This is indeed a rout. Marriage equality has won. The relative speed of this victory continues to be an inspiring example, at a time we need one, of America at its best. And it is also a vindication of the notion that brave leaders for seemingly hopeless causes can still change this country by fighting step by step over years. When I first heard Evan Wolfson, the civil-rights lawyer of Freedom to Marry, outline his strategy to legalize same-sex marriage back in the previous century, I thought he was a dreamer. He was, but one who against so many odds (see Pat Buchanan above) made a big American dream come true.

Not every state is locked down yet, of course. According to The Advocate, once the legal dust settles in the various circuit courts, the final holdouts are likely to be Alabama, Georgia, Florida, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Arkansas, and possibly Missouri. As we know from the long tail of the black civil-rights movement, new laws do not guarantee new behavior. There will continue to be battles to end discrimination against LGBT Americans on a number of fronts — much as we are still battling over equal voting rights for minorities nearly a half-century after the Voting Rights Act of 1965. For starters, the Mormon Church, which played a big role in the passage of Proposition 8 in California, is still on the anti-marriage case.

And there will continue to be a political battle within the GOP. No Republican presidential aspirant for 2016 has endorsed marriage equality. Cruz and Huckabee are already expressing resistance. My guess, however, is that these efforts will hurt their party at the ballot box more than they will the cause of gay civil rights.

Our own Gabriel Sherman reported yesterday that before NBC anointed Chuck Todd as host of Meet the Press, the network had aggressively courted Jon Stewart to fill that role. It’s intriguing to imagine Stewart on a staid Sunday morning show, even if it’s never to be. Was NBC smart to pursue Stewart? Could he have shaken up the format? And should he have taken the job?
Of course Stewart was right to turn down the job. He’d be trading down from the show and audience he has at night at Comedy Central. The format can’t be shaken up at the Sunday morning shows. Despite the recent attempts to diversify beyond the usual gaggle of white male (and mostly conservative) talking heads, the default is still to book John McCain doing his impersonation of Mr. Wilson from Dennis the Menace. Chuck Todd is a far more able political analyst and interviewer than his hapless predecessor at Meet the Press, David Gregory, but the audience isn’t increasing, and his network still believes that a way to spiff up a show is to provide the cosmetic boost of a New Set. Who cares?

In network news, the most interesting development of late is another affecting NBC News: The surge of audience that has attended ABC’s World News Tonight since David Muir, by far the youngest network anchor (he’s 40), took over. It seems possible that even the elderly audience for these shows would now rather watch a young person. ABC is ending NBC’s Nightly News longtime ratings supremacy the way it has the long reigns of the Today show and Meet the Press. But to me the most important story in television news by far is what a Daily Show alumnus, John Oliver, is doing each week in his Sunday night show, Last Week Tonight: fielding lengthy pieces (approaching 15 minutes) that take on serious subjects both national and international (net neutrality, the Indian election, income equality) with a mixture of both hard-edged comedy and in-depth, even investigative reporting, some of it more hard-hitting than what 60 Minutes now does earlier in the evening on CBS. (Full disclosure: I work on another series at HBO.) These segments are available on YouTube to non-HBO subscribers, and both the pieces themselves and the large audience they are attracting say a lot more about the unrealized possibilities for television news than anything happening in a Washington studio on Sunday mornings.

National Circus: GOP Attacks ‘President Ebola’