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 GOP shows it’s not so stupid; the VA hospital scandal should never have happened; and remembering Arthur Gelb.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell triumphed yesterday against a well-financed tea-party challenger in a race pundits had once predicted to be close. In Georgia, two GOP Establishment candidates moved on to a runoff, fending off three more hard-line opponents. What does this tell us about the state of the GOP going into the midterms? Is the era of Todd Akin, Richard Mourdock, and the GOP Civil War truly over?
In the orgy of self-flagellation that followed the 2012 election, Bobby Jindal called the GOP “the stupid party.” The GOP is many things, but stupid isn’t one of them. It is learning how to weed out candidates who have “witch” on their résumé or talk about “legitimate rape.” But those who say the tea party is dead miss the point. The tea party is and always has been the Republican base: dedicated to obstructing and dismantling federal government, livid about Obama and all he represents about the country’s demographical change, and well to the country’s right on issues ranging from immigration reform to gay marriage. John Boehner had it right this week when he said there’s “not that big a difference between what you call the tea party and your average conservative Republican.” The motion was seconded by Matt Kibbe, the leader of the tea-party organization FreedomWorks, who said, “Everybody is running like a tea-party candidate now.”
In Kentucky, McConnell simply co-opted tea-party positions and tea partiers, starting with his hiring of Rand Paul’s campaign manager. (McConnell had backed Paul’s rival in the Republican senatorial primary of 2010.) McConnell’s general-election campaign will be run not against his actual opponent, the tough Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, but against Obama and Obamacare. Whatever the result of that race, the 2014 midterms, like 2010’s, are fertile territory for the GOP: The electorate tilts its way (white, old) in off-year elections. The Republicans could well retake the Senate. But when the dust clears in 2016, and Obama is headed toward retirement, the full electorate will see the stark alternatives the two parties represent. Thanks to the tea party’s victory in the GOP civil war, the Republicans will be as solidly a right-wing party as has been seen in a presidential year since the Barry Goldwater forces staged a similar coup in the GOP of 1964.
The Veterans Affairs hospital scandal continues to grow, with President Obama dispatching his deputy chief of staff to Phoenix to investigate deaths linked to falsified data and secret waiting lists at a facility there. The White House has been blamed for a number of manufactured scandals over the past couple of years, but this one appears to be a cause for genuine concern. What should Obama do about this? And how damaging could it be for the president and his party?
If the Democrats are to make the case that Washington can do well by its citizens, this cannot stand. And firing Erik Shinseki, the VA chief, or anyone else will not solve the problem. It would be a temporary political placebo, in the same vein as the masturbatory hearings on the Hill. Like the botched rollout of healthcare.gov, this is a real scandal that undermines the very premise of Obama’s party. It’s why liberal critics, typified by Jon Stewart, are on the case. Nothing less than a fierce White House mobilization of personnel, money, and focus will do.
That said, the entire country and both political parties must face up to their long-standing neglect of those who fought the unpopular and failed wars in our name. This is not a new story, just a new wrinkle on a continuing tragedy. It has now been seven years since Dana Priest and Anne Hull wrote their horrific Washington Post exposé of Walter Reed Army Medical Center, just five miles away from the White House, where they found bureaucratic disasters much like those surfacing now. Priest and Hull wrote that “disengaged clerks, unqualified platoon sergeants and overworked case managers fumble with simple needs” for Iraq veterans with “brain injuries, severed arms and legs, organ and back damage, and various degrees of post-traumatic stress.” A great show was made by the Bush-Cheney administration, and by Senators like John McCain, to fix the mess. And then what? The circus moved on, and many of the politicians who are screaming about the VA today then turned a blind eye to the government neglect and malfeasance that continued and is coming to full light now. Surely they heard about VA problems from constituents along the way.
Arthur Gelb, a career-long Timesman and iconic editor, died yesterday at the age of 90. Gelb is credited with shaping the look and mission of the modern paper, as well as overseeing some of its most famous investigative stories. You’ve known Gelb for over 30 years and worked with him in his final decade at the Times. What do you see as his most lasting legacy? What will you remember most about him?
I am too heartbroken by Arthur’s death to speak comprehensively now about all he meant to the Times, journalism in general, American culture, and me personally. He gave me my career, as he did so many others, and he guided and rescued me in real life, not just professionally, on more occasions than I can count. He also saved newspapers as an institution during their last existential crisis — in the mid-1970s, when the Times, then a gray two-section paper, had to change mightily to survive in a period when television was robbing it of its advertising and readers, and New York City was facing bankruptcy. He remade and expanded the Times from front to back — much as the paper is trying to do now as it confronts the existential threat of the digital era. It could use his genius.
But his legacy is so much more than that: mentoring countless young people (and not just journalists) of all types and ages right up until the end. With his brilliant wife Barbara restoring Eugene O’Neill to the top rank of American letters with a groundbreaking biography written more than a half-century ago. Making the arts, all of them, a central mission of high-end American journalism.
Read his memoir City Room, published in 2003, to learn more about what he did and how he did it. There was and is no one like him. What will I remember most? His kindness, his manic energy and enthusiasm, his generosity, his endless curiosity about everything in the world and every person in it, his bottomless flow of ideas, his love for his family and his friends, his infectious laugh, his living of life to the very fullest until his body failed him in just the past few weeks. You had to run to keep up with Arthur. Now that he’s gone, I feel like my North Star has vanished from the sky.