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Pay no attention to the people behind the curtain

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Straight talk about Rove's legacy

By bert

Karl Rove is an awful person who damaged our government big time.

That needed to be said, I think. Partly because I believe it, and partly because the professional commentators are not speaking enough plain truth about this guy since Rove announced Monday that he is leaving his White House job.

Smart bloggers like Josh Marshall and Jay Rosen have also noticed something unsatisfying (lazy maybe?) about the Rove discussion so far.

So what did Rove do, now that he’s mostly done doing it?

1. Rove did unforgiveable things to people.
It’s not easy to do things that make politics seem even more repugnant than it already seems. But, remember, Rove was buddies with Lee Atwater. In Rove's case there are too many disgusting acts to list even most of them. Is that why nobody does so?

I'll start the ball rolling with a relatively well-known awful case. During the primary campaign that Rove directed for George W. Bush in 2000 a push-poll phone project called up South Carolina anti-abortion group members and suggested that Bush’s front-running opponent, Sen. John McCain, fathered an illegitimate baby with an African-American prostitute. That's not true of course; McCain and his wife Cindy adopted that girl from a Bangladesh orphanage.

I will gladly admit that Rove has some impressive skills, and that one is to keep his fingerprints off the personal destruction that he perpetrates. Without proof for some of this stuff, most people are convinced they happened because they fit with Rove’s character.
A profile by Matt Bai in the New York Times Sunday Magazine uses an old saying to describe Rove's core belief: there are no rules in a knife fight. In another magazine piece, this one by Ron Suskind in Esquire, Suskind related an anecdote that spells out Rove’s behavior on a day-to-day basis. As Suskind was entering Rove’s White House office for an interview . . .
Rove was talking to an aide about some political stratagem in some state that had gone awry and a political operative who had displeased him. I paid it no mind and reviewed a jotted list of questions I hoped to ask. But after a moment, it was like ignoring a tornado flinging parked cars. "We will fuck him. Do you hear me? We will fuck him. We will ruin him. Like no one has ever fucked him!" As a reporter, you get around—curse words, anger, passionate intensity are not notable events—but the ferocity, the bellicosity, the violent imputations were, well, shocking. This went on without a break for a minute or two. Then the aide slipped out looking a bit ashen, and Rove, his face ruddy from the exertions of the past few moments, looked at me and smiled a gentle, Clarence-the-Angel smile. "Come on in."

Besides his treatment of McCain in South Carolina, Rove also has his gloved hand (no fingerprints) on the sleazy stratagems to ruin other Vietnam veterans who became politicians, such as John Kerry. One of Rove’s legacies is that the term “swift-boating” is now a gerund that has become common usage.

Former Georgia Senator Max Cleland was also a Vietnam veteran, wheelchair-bound now thanks to a grenade in Vietnam. In the 2004 congressional elections, one that Rove openly stated Republican lawmakers could win by exploiting the terror issue, Cleland was attacked in television ads that implied he supported Osama bin Laden. In yet another profile of Rove in the Atlantic Monthly, author Joshua Green states that a Rove trademark is to attack opponents on the parts of their biography, such as military service, that seem unassailable.

Green’s example for Rove’s urge to attack the unassailable draws from Rove's work on an Alabama Supreme Court race in 1994. Rove’s candidate faced an opponent who promoted his volunteer work on behalf of abused children. To counter this endearing attribute, Rove started a whispering campaign originating among students at the University of Alabama Law School that suggested Kennedy was a pedophile. Rove may deny this too, but in this case, a former assistant, anonymous in the article, admitted openly to the reporter that this was Rove’s strategy all along.

But Democrats like Kerry, Kennedy, and Cleland willingly entered politics, and they know campaigns are not tiddlywinks. The one I still can’t get over – and I know it’s old news now – is that Rove also marshaled his skills and influence to successfully mount a project to destroy Cindy Sheehan. Do you folks think that Rove was capable, let’s say in August of 2005 during Camp Casey, of shouting into the phone to some of his staff, saying “we will fuck her like nobody has ever fucked her! We will ruin her!” and be talking about the mother of a Marine killed in Iraq?

Too many of the stories on Rove this week praise him for being an effective campaign manager. You can be that and at the same time be a really bad man. The morality of someone like Bill Clinton or even Richard Nixon seems, by comparison, almost saintly.

2. Rove pimped policy to service politics.

Again, the realists are rolling their eyes at my quaint naiveté. But many seasoned Washington observers who stopped being naïve long ago have stated that there used to a membrane in the White House -- a permeable membrane -- that fuzzily marked a separation between governing and winning elections. These same observers say that there is no separation now. The former White House aide and political science professor John DiIulio, for example, regrets to admit that policy under Bush is just backfill for politics.

Sad to say, but we don’t have to extrapolate out the possible bad effects of a White House that governs solely for the sake of its own power. In our time, the Iraq War is a reality that proves the worst effects imaginable.

As my father would put it, you know goddamn good and well that Rove was in that room when Bush decided to invade Iraq. Frank Rich also thinks so. His book, The Greatest Story Ever Sold, rightfully points out the baffling fact that no one really knows to this day why Bush launched that war. Rich’s own reasoned answer is there were two main causes. One cause came from many of Bush’s influential advisors – Cheney, Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld – who wanted a war with Iraq even before the Sept. 11 attacks. They were thinking of geopolitics, payback, and Israel. Another cause was Karl Rove, who also wanted that war because he calculated – “metrics” he likes to call it -- that the war would be necessary in order for Republicans lawmakers to win in the mid-term 2002 elections. This article is a briefer version of Rich's argument.

Let’s not, out of malaise or some sense of decorum or objectivity, give Rove a pass for stunts like this: Starting a war to win elections, and then ruining the mother of a son killed in it.

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