Rove's Second Act
Monday, March 17, 2008; 8:33 AM
Karl Rove, who has spent his career denigrating Democrats, was on the Fox News set last Monday when he was asked a point-blank question: Should Eliot Spitzer resign?
Pronouncing the situation "very sad," Rove said he wasn't in the business of telling the New York governor what to do. He deflected a question about whether Republicans are held to a different standard than Democrats in sex scandals, saying Spitzer's problem was that he "made his reputation as a prosecutor" whose targets included prostitution rings.
No one would accuse the newly minted pundit of being balanced, but to the surprise of some critics, he has been generally fair-minded in his commentary. The man long derided by the left as "Bush's brain" is trying to move beyond his attack-dog reputation.
"I'll never be able to fully shed it, because I am a partisan," Rove says in an interview. "But I'm doing the best I can to focus on my role in giving insight. . . . I'm not a journalist. I don't spend my days calling people up in the Clinton campaign or the Obama campaign. I've got more experience than the average reporter, I just don't have as much inside information as the average reporter." Still, he adds, "I know it's shocking, but I actually do have Democrat friends."
The former White House strategist, who granted few interviews as a presidential adviser, is fashioning a lucrative second act. He writes columns for Newsweek and the Wall Street Journal. He is working on a book about his life and modern political history. He has spent all but two weeks this year on the road, speaking to such groups as Texas cattle raisers.
But it is his role at Fox, the network most favored by the Bush administration, that is disarming some detractors. Slate said the "mild-mannered" Rove "has merely offered clarity, concision, humility, good humor, good posture, and dispassionate analysis." New York Times columnist David Carr called him "one of the best things on television news right now . . . graceful, careful and generous."
Nonetheless, says Rove, "I'm a little bit nervous about it." At first, "I wasn't into the rhythm of it." He understands cable's demand for yes-or-no answers but says that "life is more complex sometimes than a binary choice."
Are these appearances lightening Rove's image as a ruthless plotter? "I frankly don't care if it does or it doesn't. . . . My life is not going to be defined by whether or not people know the real me."
Fox features other prominent conservatives, led by Newt Gingrich and Dick Morris, but also has its share of Democratic consultants, such as former members of Congress Harold Ford and Geraldine Ferraro.
Sometimes Rove himself is in the news. Last month, CBS's "60 Minutes" reported a charge by a Republican lawyer in Alabama, Jill Simpson, that Rove asked her in 2001 to dig up dirt on former governor Don Siegelman, who is now in prison. Asked about this the next day by Fox's Bill Hemmer, Rove assailed CBS and said that "I have never asked this woman to do anything."
In his analyst's role, Rove has offered occasional advice to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, but he has also taken some swipes. Clinton, he said, was "way over the top" when she mocked Obama's high-flying rhetoric. Obama's speechifying, he said, is "wearing thin" and "changing from inspiring to insipid."
Rove also acknowledged that John McCain could be hurt by a lack of news coverage while the Democrats slug it out. And he offered a state-by-state analysis that put Obama ahead of McCain in the electoral college -- hardly a Republican talking point.