May 15

The other day I wrote about Karl Rove’s comment about Hillary Clinton’s health and how it mirrored the tactics of his mentor Lee Atwater. My post was in the context of whether Rove, like Atwater, might one day come to regret some of his actions. Today, I would like to acknowledge (and decry) the insidious effectiveness of these kinds of tactics.

Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (Mandel Ngan/Getty Images)
Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (Mandel Ngan/Getty Images)

Rove’s technique is tried and true: he acts like a router to take information that is gossiped about privately among political operatives and reporters and send it mainstream. Rove knows that some of the discussion will be about the tactics and how unfair and awful they are, but to him it’s a small cost of doing business. The explosion of disapproval is simply a diversion while the rumor steals away and, before you know it, is lodged in voters’ consciousness. Some rumors Republicans spread, such as Obama being Muslim, simply offer a rationalization for people who already dislike Obama to dislike him more. But others, like the claim about Clinton’s health, are aimed at people who might be predisposed to like her but now may hear a little voice of doubt. This is potentially much more harmful to Clinton than all the Republican equivalents of “Obama is a Muslim” that have been hurled at her: her involvement in Vince Foster’s death, for example. Those are ridiculous and speak only to the haters; the health question is different.

As a metric of how much coverage the Rove comment got, consider that Visible Intelligence, a media monitoring software service, finds 3,425 stories or blogs over the last seven days that mention the keywords “Hillary Clinton” and “health.” Running those keywords through software then produces this word cloud:


As you can see, the main phrases that pop in the coverage are not  “lie” or “outrageous”; rather they are the false charges themselves: “brain damage,” “brain injury” and “traumatic brain.” This is what Rove is counting on. And to see how insidious the coverage can truly be, consider that the New York Times today ran a correction on a story in which Bill Clinton defended his wife’s health saying Republicans first said she was faking her injury and now claim she is “auditioning for a part in the ‘Walking Dead.’ ” The correction noted that an earlier version of the article had mistakenly quoted the former president as saying “Living Dead.” Either way, I am sure Karl Rove is fine with it.