Frank Rich’s departure from the Times op-ed page for vague-sounding columnist duties in the low-prestige freelancer districts of the “Arts & Leisure” section was given about the same number of words in last Wednesday’s paperand better positioningthan Tom Daschle’s withdrawal from the presidential race. The page A-13 story, which also said he’d be “assisting” new culture editor Steven Erlanger, set the Timesology community abuzz. Was this a demotion accompanied by a face-saving encomium?
Rich has had a nonpareil career at the Timesin both his prose and his manner, he’s managed to avoid being crushed by the machinery. His biweekly 1,500-word columns have deftly summarized the outrage of many Times readers about Enron or Iraq, and in the months after September 11 he was the page’s most important voice. But Rich, who’s been at the paper since 1980, and doing an op-ed column since 1994, had begun to get restless. “The problem with these columns,” he says, “is that people think you’re in public office. And that’s not what I do. I’m a writer.”
And besides, it’s Howell Raines’s paper. “Frank and I have a real history,” Raines says, noting that he brought him to the 1988 conventions and gave him his op-ed gig. “It took a fair time of lobbying and negotiating on my part. I sort of made the argument that your mother is calling.” So he’s moving home to the culture department.
“Knowing that I had no interest in running a department and never had,” says Rich, “he would exploit my ideas to advise him and a new culture editor.” Which makes Erlanger the manager and Rich, essentially kibitzing, a sort of “nanny-in-residence” to the former Berlin bureau chief, as one Times reporter put it. After all, Erlanger hasn’t lived here since 1988.
How this partnership is going to work is less clear. “It’s hard to envision,” deadpans recently deposed culture editor John Darnton. Or as one arts writer says, “It’s all control and none of the work!” Which is sort of the worst-case perception for Erlanger, who sounds sick of talking about it: “This is a good thing for Frank and for the department,” but “I’m the culture editor.” They met for the first time after Erlanger got the gig in October.
In the meantime, Erlanger is about to hire a new “Arts & Leisure” editor, the previous one, John Rockwell, having walked out a year ago after Raines criticized his section too roughly. It’s expected that the new editor will be an outsider.
In his new post, Rich joins global-dining correspondent R. W. “Johnny” Apple and Darnton as associate editor, an honorific that, in Raines’s editorial court, more or less means he respects you like you were an editor even if you don’t actually have to edit.
“I wouldn’t want to be Ben Brantley or anybody else in Frank’s line of fire,” says one culture writer. “Bigfoot is his middle name.” But Brantley says he isn’t worried: “I’m just in the audience waiting for the curtain to rise.”