For the last seven years, Karl Rove has served as the focus for some of the worst vitriol thrown in the political and media arenas. When he decided to retire last week, his resignation captured the top spot in newspapers and news programming for days. Howard Kurtz wonders whether all of the fuss reflected the reality of Rove's work, or whether it served a synthetic narrative that the media created out of laziness:
From the moment he leaked word of his departure to the Wall Street Journal editorial page, Karl Rove has been lionized and vilified by the media hordes.
He is either a political giant, shrewdly plotting a series of victories during the Bush presidency, or a nation-wrecker, sowing the seeds of division to boost the GOP. The nicknames -- "Bush's Brain," "The Architect" -- match the portrayal of an important historical figure.
But what if journalists are part of an unspoken conspiracy to inflate Rove's importance -- not for ideological reasons but because it makes for a better narrative? What if they are the architects, using well-placed aides to build a stage for inside-dope stories involving Rove and his colleagues?
Or perhaps there's a cruder explanation: that some journalists believe Bush lacks the intellectual heft to achieve big things on his own, so they attribute his most consequential decisions to a powerful Svengali at his side.
This is not to play down Rove's crucial role as the president's longtime confidant and chief strategist, who indeed helped engineer his election triumphs and map a governing approach that emphasized the care and feeding of Bush's conservative base. But was Rove's decision to quit, 17 months before the end of Bush's term, truly deserving of lead-story status in the New York Times, The Washington Post and the three nightly newscasts?
Answer: no. The hysteria over Rove came partly from Kurtz references about the perception of George Bush's intellect, where pundits and political observers confuse articulation with intelligence. It mostly springs from the same impulse as conspiracy-theory obsessions, where some people have to suspect grand schemes and wheels within wheels to get through their day.
That started from the very beginning. When George Bush won the squeaker in Florida -- and he did win it, as three subsequent recounts proved -- his opponents went nuts. They believed, at various times, that his father's appointments to the Supreme Court had paid the Bushes back, that Democratic counties had deliberately constructed ballots to confuse the elderly, and so on. They made voter fraud the centerpiece of their conspiracy theories, and then oddly took Bush to task for attempting to ensure investigations of voter fraud by pressing the Department of Justice to take it more seriously over the last couple of years.
And if there was a conspiracy to steal the vote in 2000, who would have headed it? The President's chief political advisor and campaign architect, Karl Rove.
Ever since then, and ever since the book Bush's Brain got published, Rove has served as the center of all misery for the Democrats. The news media simply got lazy and followed suit. To some extent, it helped Bush to have a lightning rod for the lunatic fringe, but instead of people recovering their senses, the madness spread. Everything became all about Rove, and even Kurtz still hasn't recovered enough to quit connecting the Harriet Miers debacle to Rove rather than George Bush himself.
The President sets policy. He has close advisors, such as Rove and Dick Cheney, but in the end he has the authority and the choices are his. The Miers nomination actually came at a low ebb for Rove, when he had to spend his time defending himself in the Plame investigation. Bush appointed Miers to lead the search committee for that nomination, much as he did Cheney for the committee for the VP nomination, and had her in mind all along.
Rove's brief dabble in policy matters lasted less than two years. For the most part, Rove focused on electioneering. He built a Republican realignment that only collapsed when voters got tired of the corruption and free spending of consecutive Republican-led Congresses. Rove got an inordinate amount of blame for 2006, perhaps because he remained defiantly optimistic when all indications of a major loss could be seen, but Rove didn't lose that election -- the Republican incumbents lost it themselves.
Rove has been an easy target, and the media and Bush critics have elevated him to the level of puppetmaster. Now he's gone, and Bush will continue to be President. It may turn out to be Rove's revenge on lazy journalists and paranoid conspiracy theorists.