Rove's Second Act

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.

Rove disputed a Politico report that he is an informal adviser to McCain, saying he merely has "chitchat" with friends in the campaign. He says he got a call from the Arizona senator after McCain clinched the GOP nomination, and Rove donated the legal maximum $2,300 to his campaign.

On one subject, of course, Rove can never be objective, and that is George W. Bush and his own service in the administration. He won't discuss his conversations with his longtime friend, but says: "I'm a fierce advocate for the president and his policies." Asked on Fox about Bush's role in the campaign, Rove said McCain doesn't have to distance himself from the president but "needs to run as his own man."

John Moody, Fox News's senior vice president, says Rove was hired because "he's probably the most quoted, talked-about political strategist of his age. I only worried that someone with his work experience might be too good at keeping secrets when he was on the air. . . . Are we getting a Republican spin? Of course. But that's what he's there for. There's no attempt to conceal that."

Prostituting the Media

In the wake of the Spitzer debacle, where have "Today," "Good Morning America," "Nightline," "Larry King," "Tucker," "Anderson Cooper 360" and all these other shows found the call girls (and pimps) who have come on to talk about the world's oldest profession? Is there a hooker-booker agency somewhere that lines up the ladies?

Online Salvation?

In an age of growing layoffs, plunging revenue, declining circulation and just plain bad karma, it would be nice to find a glimmer of hope for the newspaper business.

Well, here's one: If you count the Web, readership is actually growing. Online newspaper sites drew 59 million monthly visitors during the third quarter of 2007, an increase greater than the 2.5 percent drop in print circulation last year (though there's some overlap between the audiences).

The Web growth, as the Project for Excellence in Journalism notes in its annual report, comes as the number of Americans who went online for news "yesterday" grew to 37 percent of Internet users, up from 30 percent in 2005.

One reason it matters: Newspapers were the only part of the media world that made problems in the health care system one of their top 10 print stories, the study says, and were five months ahead of other outlets in focusing on cracks in the economy. And on a percentage basis, their front pages carried nearly three times as much foreign news in which Americans were not directly involved as cable news did.

News consumption has been dropping elsewhere. The three nightly network newscasts were down 5 percent last year, to 23 million. Time's circulation fell 600,000, to 3.4 million, and Newsweek by 500,000, to 2.6 million. The picture was brighter for the cable news channels, where the prime-time audience grew 4 percent for Fox News, 2 percent for CNN and a whopping 32 percent for MSNBC.

The cable outlets had notably different priorities. MSNBC last year devoted 28 percent of its time to politics, compared with 15 percent for Fox and 12 percent for CNN. MSNBC and CNN also spent more time on the Iraq war (18 and 16 percent, respectively) than Fox (10 percent). Fox, by contrast, spent roughly twice as much time as the others on crime, celebrity and the media.

The Murdoch Threat

In his debut as Portfolio magazine's media columnist, former New York Times editor Howell Raines takes on the publisher who fired him, Arthur Sulzberger Jr.

"Any tendency toward schadenfreude on my part has been offset" by his status as a Times pensioner and because a takeover of the Times -- perhaps by Rupert Murdoch -- "would be a disaster" for "trustworthy reporting," Raines writes. He argues that Sulzberger's response to competition from Murdoch's newly acquired Wall Street Journal "seems way too relaxed," and that Sulzberger has left the Times Co. vulnerable to a takeover bid by dissident investors who have bought 19 percent of its common stock.

Raines recalls a conversation with Murdoch in 2002 after the Times had rushed out a lifestyle section called Escapes to preempt the Journal's debut of the Personal Journal section. In a newspaper war, Murdoch said: "You ought to hit them where they live. Go after hard business news and beat them on their strength."

Now, warns Raines, Murdoch "plans to do to the Times what he was advising me to do to the Journal."

Furthermore . . .

Moving on to our roundup, the Clinton camp is sending around this Chicago Tribune piece:

"Sen. Barack Obama is trying to air his dirty laundry -- even some items that might appear just a little wrinkled -- as he prepares a full assault on Sen. Hillary Clinton over ethics and transparency. On Saturday he invoked Robert F. Kennedy as he continued to try to distance himself from controversial statements made by his former Chicago pastor that are circulating on the Internet. With a gap between campaign contests, Obama is trying to unload controversies. On Friday he held extended conversations with the Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times about his longtime relationship with indicted developer and fundraiser Antoin 'Tony' Rezko."

The Obama camp, meanwhile, is sending out this Tribune editorial, about Hillary's refusal to match Obama's move in disclosing his Senate earmarks:

"This exercise in secrecy is part of a Clinton pattern that grows more worrisome all the time. The former first lady often says that she, unlike Obama, has been thoroughly vetted, rendering her impervious to Republican attacks. In fact, there are some important things unknown about her -- and her conduct suggests she wants to keep it that way. Which raises a question for voters: What is she hiding, and why?"

The overall commentary on the Democrats is turning rather unfavorable. The New Republic's Jonathan Chait puts the blame on Hillary:

"Obama was running well ahead of Clinton in head-to-head matchups a few weeks ago, and now they're tied. After several more weeks of Clinton reinforcing McCain's message against Obama, Clinton will probably be performing better than Obama against McCain . . .

"She needs to convince the remaining uncommitted superdelegates to split for her by about a 2-to-1 margin. The only way she can get a split like that is if she can persuasively argue that Obama is unelectable. And the only way she can do that is to make him unelectable. Some people have treated this as an unfortunate byproduct of Clinton's decision to continue her campaign. It's actually a central element of the strategy. Penn is already saying he's unelectable. It's not true, but by the time the convention rolls around, it may well be."

Newsweek picks up the theme, with a piece titled "Why McCain Might Win":

"Obama's advisers point out, rightfully, that the Clinton campaign started this downward drift toward mutually assured destruction, Democratic-style, with its now infamous 'red phone' ad before the critical Ohio and Texas primaries. Subtly but with devastating impact, the TV commercial raised questions about Obama's preparedness to be commander in chief. The Obama campaign responded by effectively branding Hillary Clinton a liar about her own record."

National Review's Rich Lowry sees a more sweeping problem:

"The Democrats are famous for forming circular firing squads. But apparently the real gunplay doesn't begin until every member of the firing squad thinks he or she has been the victim of racism or sexism. Then, the smell of gun smoke is mingled with self-pitying and overwrought accusations of race or gender bias . . .

"That the race card outranks the gender card has to be galling to Hillary's feminist supporters, giving some of Ferraro's comments their splenetic edge. The Left has long had a holy trinity of class, gender, and race. As a woman candidate who appeals to lower-income voters, Hillary is two-for-three in the sacrosanct categories of grievance, but race is the holy of holies."

Now that the MSM have finally woken up to the inflammatory rhetoric of Obama's pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Andrew Sullivan, usually a big booster, sounds disappointed:

"Obama needs to be much more forceful and candid in explaining his relationship with Wright. I'm a little leery of getting in between a man and his minister - it's not unlike the lawyer-client relationship in some ways. And, goodness knows, I have had many a priest with whom I have disagreed or even found offensive. But like many people, I wouldn't sit through one of these sermons, let alone come back for more. And it would be helpful, to say the very least, if Obama told us more candidly why he did and does."

Sullivan seemed satisfied, though, with Obama's cable interviews on the subject Friday night and his Huffington Post piece on his relationship with Wright.

Dick Polman also gives the senator something of a pass:

"Most voters won't hold Obama responsible for the Rev. Jerimiah Wright's most provocative pulpit pronunciamentos. Most voters won't automatically assume that Obama shares the views expressed at the Trinity United Church of Christ. But for those voters who are prone to believe that Obama is insufficiently American, or a Muslim foreign agent who is bent of destroying America from within, certain Wright rhetorical tidbits will fit the profile just fine."

I don't get this line of reasoning. I think Obama is quintessentially American, but he's also had a longtime friendship with a guy who talks about the United States of KKK and seems to view 9/11 as a payback for American foreign policy. Doesn't that raise legitimate questions?

Atlantic's Matthew Yglesias sees the controversy as not very important, and yet potentially damaging:

"I see this as a basically trumped-up issue. Obama's enemies have put this Wright stuff out there in bad faith, not because they're genuinely uncertain as to what Obama thinks, but merely because they think it can hurt him electorally.

"But of course they're right that it'll hurt him electorally because Obama's going to have a hard time explaining [what] I take to be the truth, namely that his relationship with Trinity has been a bit cynical from the beginning. After all, before Obama was a half-black guy running in a mostly white country he was a half-white guy running in a mostly black neighborhood. At that time, associating with a very large, influential, local church with black nationalist overtones was a clear political asset (it's also clear in his book that it made him, personally, feel 'blacker' to belong to a slightly kitschy black church)."

Ari Berman weighs in for the Nation:

"Before the primary Obama was accused of not being black enough. Now he's too black. To the right-wing and much of the media, Rev. Wright is just the latest evidence of Obama's radical black nationalist past . . .

"Wright has always been an outspoken maverick and some of his words will likely turn some voters off, although these are probably people who would never vote for a Democrat anyway. You'd expect that, in the heat of an election, he'd be a little bit more tactful about what he says, though he did retire last month. Yes, Obama borrowed the title of one of Wright's sermons, 'The Audacity of Hope,' for his most recent book. But Wright's words, by and large, are not Obama's. Their connection is a personal one, not political.

"And, by the way, how come righteous Republicans are rarely asked about the views of their spiritual advisers?"

Now that Ashley Dupre (Spitzer's pal "Kristen") is making lots of money from having her song downloaded 300,000 times and eyeing million-dollar offers from the likes of Hustler, the LAT discovers that her tale of a struggling childhood doesn't quite wash:

"The neighborhood of opulent homes and neatly trimmed lawns where Gov. Eliot Spitzer's high-priced call girl grew up would seem the flip side of the world she described for herself on her MySpace page.

"Ashley Alexandra Dupre, an alleged call girl known as 'Kristen,' who helped bring down New York's governor, writes of a past checkered with poverty and even homelessness. It's a tough image to reconcile with the wealthy surroundings of a childhood spent with her mother, older brother and stepfather, an oral surgeon."

And in case you missed this line from David Paterson, who becomes New York's governor today:

" 'Just so we don't have to go through this whole resignation thing again," one . . . reporter asked, 'have you ever patronized a prostitute?' Paterson thought for a minute. 'Only the lobbyists,' he said."

But so much for the honeymoon. The New York Times hits the lieutenant governor with this front-page examination of his record:

"As a state senator, for instance, Mr. Paterson helped direct hundreds of thousands of dollars to a hospital in his Harlem district that for a time employed his wife, including for two years as its paid lobbyist in Albany.

"He sponsored legislation that would have made it legal for noncitizens to vote in state and local elections and another bill that would have made it legal to use force against a police officer while resisting a wrongful arrest -- a proposal that was blasted by police unions and went nowhere. And his father, Basil A. Paterson, is a top lawyer for some of the state's most powerful unions, whose money has long influenced policymaking in Albany."

The most interesting clue to how the media work, given that Paterson was the State Senate Democratic leader before becoming lieutenant governor, is this sentence: "By and large, his record escaped notice."

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

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