Frank Rich on Gay Rights, the Presidential Race, and “Cats”
The New York columnist spoke at the Gay and Lesbian Caucus’s Commencement gathering.
New York magazine writer Frank Rich ’71 was the keynoter at the annual Commencement dinner of the Harvard Gay and Lesbian Caucus (HGLC) on the evening of Commencement Day, May 24. The dinner took place in Lowell House, under the auspices of master Diana Eck, Wertham professor of law and psychiatry in society, and co-master Dorothy Austin, Sedgwick associate minister in the Memorial Church—the first openly gay couple to head one of the Harvard Houses. (Appointed in 1998, they married in 2004.) In her welcoming remarks, Eck noted that the event’s attendance had quadrupled since she and Austin had arrived at Lowell.
The HGLC newsletter had described Rich (the subject of a 2007 profile in Harvard Magazine) as “one of America’s most trenchant political and cultural critics and one of the LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender] community’s most outspoken straight allies.” The dinner program billed Rich’s appearance as a “keynote conversation” with Timothy McCarthy ’93, lecturer on history and literature. (He is also vice president for College alumni affairs of the Harvard Alumni Association and director of the Sexuality, Gender & Human Rights Program at the Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy.) McCarthy explained that HGLC had invited Rich more than once previously; this year their guest was able to accept—provided he did not have to write a speech. Hence the “Oprah/Piers Morgan-style conversation,” as McCarthy put it, before a queer audience of just over 200. (He also confessed at the outset that he would “rather sit in my apartment and read Frank Rich on Sunday morning than go to the gay brunch.”)
The first order of business was getting Rich to comment on President Barack Obama’s [J.D. ’91] recent public endorsement of same-sex marriage. The columnist declared that he did not believe the president’s take on the issue had “evolved” in recent weeks: “I always found his position disingenuous.” Nonetheless, the announcement was “a huge deal. Politically, it’s a wash….The people who are not going to vote for him after this were not going to vote for him anyway.” He added that “there might be a bump in African-American support for gay marriage.”
President Clinton’s record on gay rights was a poor one, Rich added. Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act, the 1996 U.S. law that passed both legislative houses by large majorities and defines marriage as a union of one man and one woman. “He [Clinton] should be embarrassed by it,” said Rich, “and Hillary is, too.” Later in Clinton’s presidency, “once he was engulfed in a sexual scandal, he couldn’t talk about any sexual issues—gay, straight, or whatever. He had to hide out.”
Rich traced his empathy for gay people to his own childhood, described in his 2001 memoir, Ghost Light. The most traumatic event of his youth, he said, was his parents’ divorce, which marginalized him among peers in an era when divorce was a rare and disapproved event. “If you are different in any way, hounded as a kid, bounced around as a kid,” he said, “you can relate to anyone who is different.”
Another formative event was the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, which hit the New York theater world hard at a time when Rich was the drama critic of The New York Times. “The effect of AIDS on my career, work, life—I can’t state it highly enough,” he said. “How shocking it was that people started dying mysteriously. A classmate’s obit turned up, with no explanation. The New York Times was culpable: the word gay was not allowed to be used in the paper at that time. People were dying in silence. We know that bigots behave badly. But people who should have behaved better, didn’t.”
Around that time, a young editor at Esquire asked Rich to write a piece about how straight people had perceived gay culture during the previous two decades. The article ran 10,000 words, and writing it “was so eye-opening to me,” Rich recalled. He didn’t know at the time that the editor was gay. He turned out to be Adam Moss, now editor of New York magazine, who lured Rich away from the Times in 2011.
Rich also commented on his role as a producer of the new HBO television series Veep, starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus in the title role as a U.S. vice president. Rich, who grew up in Washington, D.C., called the show “a corrective to romantic views of Washington. The point of view of Veep is that no one gives a damn about what the voters are thinking. It’s all about a little bit of power, and how you can take it.”
Questioned about the 2012 presidential election, Rich said, “For me, the most interesting story is the Republican Party. Mitt Romney [M.B.A. ’74, J.D. ’75] is regarded by the radicals in that party as a way station. They [conservative radicals] don’t care about him. If he gets in, he’ll be regarded as Paul Ryan’s front man. You have radicals who are now in charge of one of the two major political parties. Some may be hoping that Romney loses, because that makes their case better: ‘We need to be more radical.’ The election is a footnote to that story in my mind.”
And asked if, as a theater critic, he had ever been wrong, Rich inserted tongue deeply in cheek: “I was too tough on Cats.”