Karl Rove, Insider With an Outsize Reputation

The press was endlessly intrigued by the White House role and power of Karl Rove (right, with John McCain, before a TV appearance yesterday).
The press was endlessly intrigued by the White House role and power of Karl Rove (right, with John McCain, before a TV appearance yesterday). (By Karin Cooper -- Associated Press)
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 20, 2007

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?

The rise of the political consultant as prominent media figure is a relatively recent phenomenon. Once these advisers labored behind the scenes, so that Joe McGinnis's 1968 book "The Selling of the President" seemed revelatory in describing the packaging of Richard Nixon. But in the last two decades, a handful of practitioners -- among them Lee Atwater, Dick Morris, James Carville, Mary Matalin and Robert Shrum -- have become certified celebrities, often writing books about their wizardry.

Journalists, having little access to presidents, must piece together the story behind the story by relying on the White House inner circle. That makes political advisers valuable in two respects -- as sources and as subjects. These yarns about who demanded an answer in the Situation Room often accentuate the role of those doing the telling. (Matthew Scully, an ex-colleague of former White House speechwriter Michael Gerson, writes in the Atlantic that on 9/11 the president told his assembled aides "we're at war," but that in The Washington Post's version it was, "Mike, we're at war." Gerson, who has disputed Scully's article, is now a Post columnist.)

We know from grand jury testimony that Rove was a source in the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame for two journalists: columnist Robert Novak and Matthew Cooper, then with Time. But for most reporters, Rove was usually inaccessible and far from a good source, offering upbeat spin but spilling no secrets.

He was depicted instead as the man behind the curtain -- the Bush consigliere responsible for the man's greatest triumphs and deepest failures, depending on who was doing the writing. Fred Barnes, the Weekly Standard executive editor who is close to the White House, felt compelled to write last week that Rove "is not a magician."

Jay Rosen, a New York University journalism professor and blogger, writes that reporters hailed Rove for his shrewdness: "In politics, they believe, it's better to be savvy than it is to be honest or correct on the facts. It's better to be savvy than it is to be just, good, fair, decent, strictly lawful, civilized, sincere or humane. . . . And it was this cult that Karl Rove understood and exploited for political gain."

That is an overstatement, but one grounded in reality. After Bush's victories in 2000 and 2004, Rove was widely praised as a brilliant strategist whose plans for the greatest Republican realignment since the 1890s had to be taken seriously. When the GOP lost control of Congress last year, Rove was blamed for driving the party into the ditch.

Journalists also tagged Rove with responsibility for the failures of Bush's second term, on Social Security revision, an overhaul of immigration laws and the doomed Supreme Court nomination of Harriet Miers. This was perfectly fair, as the deputy chief of staff was immersed in policy as well as politics.

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