Karl Rove, Insider With an Outsize Reputation

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.

But however vital a power player Rove has been, there have always been darker intimations about his role. When Rove repeatedly testified before a grand jury in the CIA leak case, the media anticipation over whether he would be indicted was palpable. And while he may have played a part in the Justice Department's questionable firing of U.S. attorneys -- Rove is resisting congressional subpoenas to testify on the subject -- liberal pundits immediately assumed that he cooked up the plot.

Rove has seemed impervious to media criticism, preferring to grant interviews to conservative allies, such as the Journal's Paul Gigot, who got the exclusive on Rove's departure. Rove told Rush Limbaugh, in another such interview last week, that he ignores sniping by the press: "I mean, if you have to wake up in the morning to be validated by the editorial page of the New York Times, you've got a pretty sorry existence."

In the end, Bush's tenure will be defined by such overarching events as Iraq and Katrina, where the quality of presidential decision-making -- and performance -- mattered more than packaging. Even the most influential White House aides are ultimately hired help.

Footnote : In an embarrassment to the industry, some staffers at a Seattle Times news meeting cheered when Rove's resignation was announced. To his credit, Editor David Boardman made the incident public and warned that staff meetings should not "evolve into a liberal latte klatch." Rove responded by sending a basket of cookies to the newsroom, with a note saying "my wife shares in your enthusiasm."

Make Politics, Not War

In media terms, Iraq is becoming the incredible shrinking war.

While the conflict consumed 15 percent of the space or airtime at many news outlets in the second quarter of 2007, that is down from 22 percent in the first three months of the year, says a new report from the Project for Excellence in Journalism. Filling the void in part is the 2008 presidential race, which rose from 7 percent to 9 percent of the news content in newspapers and on television, radio and the Internet.

The level of war coverage continued to vary on the cable news channels, claiming 18 percent of the airtime on CNN, 15 percent on MSNBC and 8 percent on Fox News. By contrast, MSNBC is branding itself as the political channel, devoting 21 percent of its time to the early stages of the campaign, followed by 10 percent at Fox and 9 percent at CNN.

The project studied 48 outlets, from the New York Times and The Washington Post to the Bakersfield Californian, top programs on the broadcast networks, cable and radio, and five Web sites.

Although the Democratic candidates received more than twice the coverage of the Republicans in the first quarter, the two sides were virtually tied from April through June. But the top-tier contenders drew most of the attention. Barack Obama, who only recently became a national figure, received more newspaper mentions than Hillary Rodham Clinton, 332 to 262. But the former first lady was mentioned more often on network television, 304 to 290.

On the GOP side, media attention was more evenly divided among John McCain, Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney, with noncandidate-but-running-hard Fred Thompson getting about two-thirds the coverage of the front-runners.

The study also lends support to the notion that conservative talkers helped torpedo President Bush's immigration law overhaul, prompting Republican Sen. Trent Lott to complain that "talk radio is running America." Conservative radio hosts devoted 16 percent of their time to discussing (and usually attacking) the bill. Lou Dobbs, a staunch opponent, devoted 27 percent of his CNN show to the issue.

Cable news may have briefly gone wild over the jailing of Paris Hilton, but the death of Anna Nicole Smith, in the first quarter, attracted three times as much coverage on MSNBC, four times as much on CNN and five times as much on Fox.

Howard Kurtz hosts CNN's weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

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