In July of 2011, I read, “Obama’s Original Sin,” Frank Rich’s first column in his new capacity as Writer-at-Large for New York Magazine, and thought “I have to learn how to do this.” As such, when my class was assigned to deconstruct an article by interviewing its author and write a case study, I knew exactly with whom I wanted to speak. One of America’s most famous journalists agreed to talk with me the Friday after Thanksgiving–provided we could keep it to exactly twenty minutes (he was both on deadline and heading into production for Veep).
Mr. Rich packed a lot of great insights about the process through which his essays are born into twelve hundred seconds, and then gamely stayed on the line a few minutes more.
“Obama’s Original Sin,” by Frank Rich, New York Magazine
“For all the lurid fantasies of the birthers, the dirty secret of Obama’s background is that the values of Harvard, not of Kenya or Indonesia or Bill Ayers, have most colored his governing style. He falls hard for the best and the brightest white guys.”
Author | Frank Rich
Frank Rich, 63, is Writer-at-Large at New York Magazine, where he authors a monthly essay and edits the associated section. Before joining New York in 2011, he spent three decades writing for the New York Times, serving as the paper’s chief drama critic before becoming an Op-Ed columnist in the mid-1990s.
Rich’s writing has explored many topics but focuses particularly on American politics, culture, and media. In his essays for New York, he has unpacked the impact of issues of class, race, gender, and sexual orientation on national politics; questioned the functions of bipartisanship and cultural nostalgia; and memorialized the great Nora Ephron, herself a former New York columnist.
Rich is the author of four books, including The Greatest Story Ever Sold – The Decline and Fall of Truth from 9/11 to Katrina.
Story | “Obama’s Original Sin”
“Obama’s Original Sin,” weighing in at 4, 500 words, was Rich’s first piece in his new capacity at New York Magazine. It addresses ramifications, and the lack thereof, of the financial crisis among power elite, and questions the Obama administration’s hesitation to distance itself from finance all-stars with ties to the crisis. The essay includes the kind of cultural and pop cultural invocations characteristic of Rich’s writing, referencing both the popular musical television program Glee and populist Depression-era Governor of Louisiana Huey Long.
In his capacity as Writer-at-Large, Rich is solely responsible for generating the subjects he explores in his essays.
“As a general rule,” said Rich, “you have to write something you feel passionately about, otherwise it won’t work. It’s very hard for [those topics] to be assigned.”
Though he works closely with New York Editor-in-Chief Adam Moss to prevent topical overlap with other magazine content, it is the subjects of his columns, and not the opinions expressed therein, that are discussed during proposal stages.
“No one,” said Rich, “can reach inside you and tell you what you think.”
Process | A Continuous Cycle
“Obama’s Original Sin” raises a number of questions about justice in the wake of the financial crisis and the role the Obama administration could have played in taking financial sector giants to task.
From the essay:
“What haunts the Obama administration is what still haunts the country: the stunning lack of accountability for the greed and misdeeds that brought America to its gravest financial crisis since the Great Depression. There has been no legal, moral, or financial reckoning for the most powerful wrongdoers. Nor have there been meaningful reforms that might prevent such a catastrophe.”
It is a subject that had and continues to perplex Rich, and one to which he says he may return during Obama’s second term in office. His interest began with the role of Clinton administration alums Larry Summers and Robert Rubin in facilitating the transition of the Obama administration into the White House.
“After the meltdown in 2008,” said Rich, “I wrote a lot about many of the ethical-moral-political issues connected with what happened. But it was the people at the top who in my view gamed the system and walked away scot-free when it all collapsed.”
“I had been keenly aware that there’s not been a lot of justice or recrimination since [the financial crisis] went down, in the form of regulatory reform, the punishment of malcreants, or the downsizing of the too-big-to-fail banks.”
As with all of the topics on which he writes regularly, Rich’s research and reporting is ongoing. In addition to historical research and a penetrating command of current events, he constantly pursues interviews with people who can further unwrap the problems with which he is concerned.
“I talk to people all the time in the areas that concern me,” said Rich. “[Obama’s Original Sin] is the product of continuing conversations that didn’t just begin three weeks before I wrote the piece.”
“The whole point of being an opinion columnist is not really to quote people but to pick their brains and to write in your own voice—you digest all the information you’ve gotten and then try to create a narrative out of it that reflects yourself.”
Because Rich makes an evolving study of topics, he is often faced with “a ton” of research to incorporate into a piece. This, he says, can be crippling. Rich includes an informal outline stage as part of his writing process, focusing on “beginning, middle, end,” but says it is “spontaneity” that’s the true asset to writers.
“I try to tell the story without sitting there with a pile of clutter to jam in,” said Rich. “Then I’ll go back and layer some stuff in.”
Unlike hard news reporting or feature writing, Rich’s interviews and research feed a collection of areas of attention and growing awareness, rather than contextualizing an encapsulated event at the time. He says this piece reflects “several years” of work mastering the complexities and nuances of the financial crisis, and that he underwent a similar process of research and education while writing about the war in Iraq.
As an opinion columnist, Rich says the writing process “forces you to really, really wrestle with your own logic, your own arguments, counterarguments.” The challenge, he says, is to examine an issue to the extent that it’s possible to move beyond surface-level rhetoric to which he refers as “sloganeering.”
As a result, a piece may not end up where you had originally imagined. According to Rich, this is a blessing rather than a curse. He cites a story on which he is currently at work, involving the General Patreas scandal.
“I don’t know where it’s going for sure—and that’s fun. Obviously certain principles are fairly inviolate; it would be deadly to write and deadly to read if you knew where you were going. Spontaneity is what makes it interesting.”
Rich’s essays for New York are subject to the same fact check as other magazine content. The pieces take shape over the course of about three weeks—essential, says Rich, to tempering observations with “a little bit of distance”—though he is hesitant to label the starting point as “conception.”
“There’s almost nothing I write about that I’m not continuously reporting on,” said Rich, adding that while it’s unlikely he’ll tackle Food and Drug Administration regulation of Twinkies, there aren’t many limits to his scope.
“I know the things I really care about and they’re moving targets, but it’s a continuous cycle.”
Impact | Some of it’s smart.
Frank Rich’s essays generate volumes of reader response for New York Magazine: beyond letters to the editor and direct responses to the author himself, the online version of “Obama’s Original Sin” bears 389 comments (quite a few, for a political think-piece).
“You often receive reader response, and I don’t know what it means,” said Rich. “Some of it’s smart, some of it’s not, and I tend to tune most of it out, because you want to keep centered. You’re writing what you think is your vision of a subject.”
Though Rich receives a healthy dose of “rumors, conspiracy theories, inside information that’s occasionally right…scuttlebutt…innuendo,” among reader responses, he also receives communication from interested parties with relevant information, with whom he keeps in touch as off-the-record sources.