I gave Karl Rove a chance to puncture the Karl Rove myth, and he declined.

He said, in the friendliest possible way, that he wasn't allowed to talk to me.

What? The most powerful political operative on the planet, the trusted White House lieutenant, the man one book dubbed Bush's brain, has to raise his hand and ask permission before having a casual chat with a reporter?

Yup.

He said the Bush-Cheney communications staff had to clear any utterance he might make to the press.

Now there was a time when if you happened upon an Important Person at a political convention, you could ask a couple of quick questions and make some news. Shoe-leather reporting, I believe they called it. But not now, not at this convention.

I had bumped into the White House senior adviser as he was getting ready to do an NBC interview. He was slated for the other networks later in the week. He had recently spoken to the New York Times | http://www.nytimes.com/2004/08/29/politics/campaign/29rove.html about his larger-than-life persona, saying: "It's just weird, the stuff I get credit for or blamed for that I just have nothing to do with. The things that people suggest I am saying or advocating, it's just absurd. . . . I read about myself in the newspaper and I say they must be talking about someone else."

That seemed like a safe topic, so I asked whether Rove wasn't fostering the impression that his fingerprints were on everything by keeping such a low media profile. He agreed and started to elaborate, but then stopped himself. This was an unauthorized media opportunity.

Couldn't he break free of the message-control machine?

"I'm just a cog," Rove said.

Weirdest thing I've seen on the street here: A local Fox reporter telling his cameraman to shoot a table full of umbrellas outside one of the Garden's security entrances. Journalists are not allowed to bring in these potentially dangerous weapons, if even it's raining. On the other hand, the guards let us carry in our bottled water -- unlike in Boston -- as long as we take a swig and demonstrate it's not diabolically toxic.

Rudy was the star last night -- once again, the broadcast networks missed what was likely to be the convention's most talked-about speech, as they did with Barack Obama in Boston -- but this is John McCain's convention. McCain is not a great orator and kept his trademark humor under wraps, but media folks are swooning nonetheless.

Just look at the list of Fourth Estate heavyweights who attended his birthday party at a Madison Avenue restaurant: Dan, Tom and Peter. Koppel, Russert and Stephanopoulos. Schieffer, Matthews, Zuckerman, Safire, Don Graham, Gloria Borger, Judy Woodruff, Charlie Rose, and on and on.

Dan Kennedy | http://www.bostonphoenix.com/medialog/index.asp says McCain stayed true to himself:

"As for McCain's failure to rip into Kerry . . . well, everyone who follows politics knows that McCain likes and respects Kerry on a personal level and detests Bush. Would anyone have found it even remotely credible if McCain had suddenly gone after Kerry as a flip-flopping weasel?

"Rather than coming off as a Republican partisan, McCain projected an image as a truly independent politician who's chosen a man he dislikes over one he likes strictly as a matter of principle. Just as Giuliani thanked God for Bush, Bush ought to thank God for McCain. If McCain managed to help himself in the process, well, what of it?"

I pick up The Post's op-ed page and David Broder | http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A47889-2004Aug30.html and Richard Cohen | http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A47890-2004Aug30.html are both writing about McCain. First, Broder:

"The McCain phenomenon is remarkable. Rarely in modern political history has a man who failed to win the nomination of his party in one election loomed so large on the national stage in the next election. . . .

"How to explain this phenomenon? The answer has to lie in McCain's success in satisfying the widespread public hunger for authenticity and candor in political leaders. The name he gave his campaign bus in 2000, 'The Straight Talk Express,' perfectly captured what voters now see in him -- the rare Washington official who says what he thinks and lets the chips fall where they may.

"The current political situation puts a severe strain on McCain's ability to do that. But he is struggling manfully to keep various overlapping and conflicting roles straight -- without contradicting himself."

Cohen says Kerry should be more like . . . McCain.

"The irrepressible blurting out of the obvious, a McCain trait for many years, not only stood in marked contrast to what I had been watching before he came on -- George Pataki and Rudy Giuliani in full insincerity about the marvels of the Bush presidency -- but to politicians in general. It is a magical thing McCain does: Tell the truth, tell it simply and get on with life. The formula is so obvious, you'd think more politicians would adopt it, if only because it works -- never mind any silliness about truth being its own reward. Bluntness is, bluntly speaking, what Kerry could use in abundance."

A far cry from the 2000 convention, when I stumbled on the information that McCain felt so unwanted by Bush that he went to the Amtrak station and took the train from Philly back to D.C. (He was lured back for the finale.)

Wait! What's this? Some actual negative words about McCain?

"John McCain is beloved among certain segments of independents and Democrats for his vaunted ability to cut through the political crap and give it to you straight," says the Washington Monthly's Amy Sullivan | http://www.washingtonmonthly.com. "But it is exactly that skill that makes him ill-equipped to serve as a partisan shill. McCain sounded flat and uninspired this evening, with the exception of his passionate closing. Given the task of defending Bush's policy in Iraq, it was McCain's duty to preview the Administration's latest rationale: no longer 'weapons of mass destruction' or even 'weapons of mass destruction-related program activities,' apparently the latest justification for war is 'whether or not [Saddam] had the weapons, he would have acquired them.'

"Well, then. If that's all it takes. . . .

"McCain's image took a bruising tonight, particularly because his performance suffered in comparison to the genial attack dog Rudy Giuliani, who at least projected the image of a straight talker while slapping John Kerry up one side and down the other."

She must not have been invited to the birthday bash.

Some more First Night reaction. Andrew Sullivan | http://www.andrewsullivan.com likes what he saw:

"Giuliani was on fire. He spoke so easily, so amusingly, and so emotionally that for long passages, you forgot he was giving a speech and felt he was talking with you. His iconic status is oddly a problem for him, because it has tended to obscure his street-smart, clear-eyed chattiness -- the kind of thing a New York mayor can use from time to time. But it was on display last night to great effect.

"Again, Giuliani spoke to Bush's emotional intelligence after 9/11, his genuine attempt to do what he believed was best for the country at a time of terror, and to Bush's personable nature. You just cannot imagine a story in which a huge, ham-handed construction worker would ever give John Kerry a big, warm bear-hug. Or that John Kerry would answer a long disquisition from a man in a hard-hat and feel satisfied to respond with two simple words: 'I agree.' Again, Giuliani reminded us of why we tend to like George W. Bush. (Personally, I'd rather have pins stuck in my eyes than endure a conversation with John Kerry, but I'd love to hang with Bush.) All of this matters. A president in wartime needs to be able to connect with people. Bush can. Kerry can't."

National Review's Richard Brookhiser | http://nationalreview.com/brookhiser/brookhiser200408310033.asp is in full Giuliani swoon:

"He saved my city, and when it couldn't be saved, he succored it.

"The hall is filled with people who think they will [be] president in 2008. Governors of square states; senators from states with smaller populations than the five boroughs; permanent wannabes; future has-beens. Alan Keyes is also forever available. Standing out from the pack is Giuliani, who has more negatives and more potent positives than any other Republican.

"Giuliani does not have obvious advantages as a speaker. His bald head, and small glasses recall Werner Klemperer as Col. Klink; his numerous New York hand gestures are stiff and jerky. Do not be deceived: He plays an audience like a maestro, shifting emotions, building climaxes, and not letting applause derail him."

Ryan Lizza blasts the Swift boat folks in his New Republic column:

"Never in a campaign has a more disreputable group of people, whose accusations have been repeatedly contradicted by official records and reliable eyewitness accounts, had their claims taken so seriously. John Kerry's accounts of his military service are supported by U.S. Navy documents, his crewmates, and -- in the case of the engagement for which Kerry won the Silver Star -- the only other living officer who witnessed the event...

"But, as much as the press bears responsibility for the last few weeks of wall-to-wall Swiftee coverage, many Democrats, who have been tearing their hair out as they have watched this story unfold like a slow-motion car wreck, aren't just angry at the media. They are also blaming the Kerry campaign for allowing the accusations to metastasize into a clear threat to a Democratic victory."

Before we got to New York, there was some chatter about whether the Swift boat controversy would fade as the media became preoccupied with the convention. The answer is a resounding no, and not just because the swifties have launched another anti-Kerry ad. The correspondents just keep sticking microphones in Republicans' faces, including Rudy and McCain, and saying, "So, what do you think of the swift boat ads?"

Terror Redux

NEW YORK, Aug. 31--I knew the Republicans were going to talk about 9/11 last night.

I didn't know they were going to drag us through every bloody minute of it.

When Rudy Giuliani recalled turning to his police commissioner after the awful attacks on the twin towers and declaring "Thank God George Bush is our president," it was clear they were pulling out all the stops.

Any campaign would take advantage of the president's response to 9/11, even if the convention wasn't in New York, even if the third anniversary wasn't days away. But the endless retelling of those days, the comments by the 9/11 family members, the skyline backdrop, all of that raises the question of whether they went a bit too far.

At least John McCain talked about Iraq, which has not been an unalloyed success.

Rudy, the living embodiment of the Sept. 11 response--before the attacks he was a lame duck with a messy divorce--is a great advocate for Bush. He did a nice job of needling Kerry. But his sometimes melodramatic, sometimes funny, sometimes rambling speech reminded me of how nice it is for politicians to be liberated from the tyranny of the broadcast networks.

That is, since there was zero coverage on the Big Three (except for ABC's football halftime excursion), no one had to rush through an applause-line speech and be off by 11. So Rudy could orate until 11:20 and tell anecdotes and be more interesting than the typical convention speaker.

There was, of course, no talk of the economy or health care or abortion or gay marriage. That's not why Rudy and Johnny Mac were up there.

Best visual moment: When McCain said "and certainly not a disingenuous filmmaker" and the cameras cut to a laughing Michael Moore, sitting in the press section in his bizarre role as USA Today columnist. As the crowd chanted "four more years," Moore mouthed "two more months."

McCain later chided Moore again on MSNBC, while admitting he hasn't seen "Fahrenheit 9/11," and ducked a question on whether he might run in 2008.

The McCain-Giuliani combination got rave reviews from the talking heads. It was by turns "inspirational," "hopeful," "positive," "negative" and "funny," said Brit Hume.

"A very impressive performance by Rudy Giuliani and a powerful attack on Senator Kerry," said his Fox colleague Bill Kristol.

"It brings tears to your eyes," said Fred Barnes.

"A very powerful and effective political night for the Republicans," said Tim Russert.

"Rudy Giuliani had a terrific relationship with this crowd, more than just home-field advantage," said Brian Williams.

There were a couple of notes of caution. Judy Woodruff observed that at one point the speech "moved into the territory of character criticism" of Kerry. And Candy Crowley said it would be "awfully tough" for the other side to "criticize Giuliani for talking about 9/11."

"A major show of strength," said Time's Joe Klein, "but not much nuance and not much detail."

One other observation. If John Kerry had said of the war on terror, "I don't think you can win it"--as the president told Matt Lauer--wouldn't the conservative media machine be going absolutely nuts? Of course we all know what Bush meant--that the fight will go on and on--but the incident demonstrates that the Democrats lack a left-wing noise machine with anything approaching the same volume.

"Less than four miles from the site of the attack that horrified a city, unified a nation and transformed George W. Bush's presidency," says the New York Times | http://www.nytimes.com/2004/08/31/politics/campaign/31assess.html, "speaker after speaker at the Republican National Convention yesterday summoned the still-raw memories of Sept. 11 in service of a single, overriding theme: the nation will be safer if Mr. Bush wins four more years.

"There is only the finest of lines between invoking a disaster in which all New Yorkers , and all Americans, regardless of party, felt such a devastating stake, and exploiting it for partisan advantage. From morning to night, the Republicans strode proudly, even defiantly, right up to that line - if not over it - and the delegates responded with roaring approval."

USA Today | http://www.usatoday.com/news/politicselections/nation/president/2004-08-30-bush-911-analysis_x.htm also questions whether the Repubs hit the hot button too hard:

"Revisiting the past is risky. A defining episode from years or decades ago can color the perception of an entire convention, as Kerry learned when he relied on his Vietnam service to convey character and leadership qualities. He and others discussed other subjects, including Kerry's own detailed explanation of his health care plan. But does anyone remember anything else about that convention?

"Too much focus on the past can also invite attacks on just the strength the candidate is trying to highlight. That's what has happened to Kerry on his Vietnam service and later anti-war activism. A convention about 9/11 could intensify criticism of Bush's policies on Iraq and terrorism."

So much for the moderates, says the Los Angeles Times | http://www.latimes.com/news/politics/2004/la-na-assess31aug31,1,3004421.story?coll=la-home-headlines:

"When former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) were named to headline the Republican National Convention's opening night, most analysts in both parties took it as evidence that President Bush's campaign wanted the gathering to project a message of moderation.

"But in their speeches Monday night, Giuliani and McCain signaled that the real mission for the Bush campaign this week was to send a message of strength. In their emphasis on Bush's determination and resolve, they dramatized how heavily the GOP was betting that many voters uneasy about the president's policy direction would support him for reelection if they believed he could set a steadier course in a turbulent time than his rival, Democrat John F. Kerry."

The Washington Post | http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A47776-2004Aug30.html sees a back-to-the-future strategy:

"One month after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, a poll showed that 92 percent of Americans approved of the way President Bush was handling the problem of terrorism. Almost two years later, after the surrender of Baghdad, that number stood at 79 percent.

"The speakers who opened the Republican National Convention Monday night -- led by Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani -- launched a concerted effort to convince Americans that what they thought of Bush then remains the way they should think of him now.

"The aim was to restore the luster of Bush's credentials on national security despite the scuffs these have taken from the problems of the Iraq occupation and handover."

New York Daily News | http://nydailynews.com/front/story/227567p-195414c.html columnist Michael Goodwin hails the former hizzoner:

"That was no ordinary speech Rudy Giuliani gave the faithful last night. It was the essence of the Republican case, both for George W. Bush and against John Kerry.

"That it was delivered in such a rollicking, emotional fashion, replete with flashes of humor and sharp elbows, made it all the more forceful.

"And that it was Giuliani who delivered it removed any doubts that he is the designated rising star in the GOP. . . . Our former mayor performed his crucial assignment in dramatic New York style. As a colleague noted, this was the first time that a Republican convention was commanded by a man who talked with his hands!"

But Slate's William Saletan | http://slate.msn.com/id/2105912/ accuses the ex-mayor of rhetorical trickery:

"Giuliani equates the plotters of 9/11 with the butchers of Iraq. He recalls Bush's vow that the terrorists who attacked America would 'hear from us.'

'They heard from us in Iraq,' says Giuliani. To get around the absence of WMD, he adds that Saddam 'was himself a weapon of mass destruction.' Please. There's nothing less suitable for strained metaphors than weapons of mass destruction. They're horribly literal. Don't insult the gravity of these weapons by suggesting that even if the country you invaded didn't have them, the guy who ran the country is sort of like one of them.

"The twist Giuliani adds to McCain's argument is an obsessive repetition of two opposing concepts. Giuliani calls them 'offense' and 'defense.' Defense is what lily-livered liberals advocate: waiting for terrorists to attack us. Offense is what Bush is doing: hitting the terrorists before they can hit us. The offense/defense metaphor treats the use of force as a football game, in which the enemy is clear, and every attack we launch is an advance. This eliminates the salient complication of reality: Al-Qaida and Saddam were distinct adversaries, and attacking the latter wasn't necessarily an advance against the former."

The Washington Times | http://washingtontimes.com/national/20040831-121935-6701r.htm totes up some slips by the candidate:

"President Bush, who had hoped for a triumphant, gaffe-free entrance to the Republican National Convention, instead has spent the past few days giving rhetorical ammunition to Sen. John Kerry. In an interview aired yesterday on NBC's 'Today' show, Mr. Bush said of the war against terrorism: 'I don't think you can win it.' In other recent interviews, he called Operation Iraqi Freedom a 'catastrophic success' and his postwar plan a 'miscalculation.'

"Mr. Kerry's campaign has seized on the statements with a zeal not seen since Republicans savaged the Democratic candidate's call for a 'more sensitive war on terror.' The Massachusetts senator forced the White House and the Bush campaign to spend much of yesterday doing damage control."

I wonder whether the rest of the press will jump on this story with "I voted for the $87 billion before I voted against it" intensity.

Finally, I want to make sure you have a sense of what life is like here for the suffering hordes of journalists, so I filed this report:

Joel Jimenez is in the chair beneath a black robe as Faith Daudier snips at his hair and Carol Flores, kneeling in a low-cut dress, works on his nails.

"When I saw the wonderful ladies here, I said, 'Let me get pampered,' " says the Christian Broadcasting Network reporter from Virginia Beach. "Be gentle -- I'm new to this," he tells Flores.

Laura Raposa, a Boston Herald columnist, has just finished receiving a "very soothing and relaxing" facial in a curtain-enclosed bed, and now makeup artist Ralph Johnson is dusting her face with Yves St. Laurent sheer skin tint and bronzer. Her writing partner, Gayle Fee, is waiting for a head and neck massage, currently being performed on ABC's Sheila Marikar.

Welcome to the gritty front lines of the Republican convention, where hard-bitten, hard-driving, tough-as-nails journalists are getting five-star coddling. It's all free of charge, a fact that seems to cause few ethical concerns in a section of the office building adjacent to Madison Square Garden billed as "The Spa."

The rudeness capital of America is determined to soften its image. New York City officials persuaded a number of tony businesses to donate their services and products, and the 15,000 media types here are proving to be very willing recipients.

First came the white truffle risotto from Joseph's Citarella and the creme brulee from Le Cirque at the Saturday night welcoming party. Then there are the concierges from the Ritz-Carlton and other world-class hotels, helping to ease the week's trials and tribulations. The cuisine in the press center is being orchestrated by a former chef at Gracie Mansion. Journalists even have their own red-carpeted, air-conditioned bridge, connecting their workplace in the renovated James A. Farley Building, a former Postal Service facility, to the Garden.

These press perks are designed to avoid excessive crankiness by those covering President Bush's renomination. And compared with the Democrats' Boston convention, where media types worked in a massive tent and had to endure urine-soaked port-a-potties, New York is a civilized step up.

Asked if he is trying to buy favorable media coverage with oodles of free stuff, Kevin Sheekey, president of the New York City Host Committee, laughs. "I hope not," he says. "Certainly members of the media will observe whatever appropriate restrictions their news organizations may impose. What you're providing is a way to help them do their stories."

The price tag: more than $5 million, bridge included.

Cindy Barshop, who runs the Completely BareSpa, extols the virtues of mini-facials and micro-dermabrasions while a woman is getting the treatment on the enclosed massage bed. "No matter what you want in there, we'll do it," she says. "It'll be hard [with] 15 minutes, but we'll make your skin look better. . . . We're trying to tell the press to relax and enjoy New York."

Kevin Dyson, senior vice president of Barneys New York, says the upscale clothier is responsible for the pool table, leather chairs and large flat-screen TVs, and is working with John Allan's Salon to provide haircuts, manicures and hot-towel treatments (normally $65), plus shoeshines. Dyson is standing next to a clothing display by the Italian company Kiton that he says "will hopefully bait people to come up to the store" on Madison Avenue.

But that's not all. A Barneys concierge, Taylor Piedra, offers to take journalistic measurements and have shirts delivered by messenger. The service is free, although media staffers would pay $125 to $325 for each shirt by Armani, Piatelli or Lorenzini, among others.

How does this help a Manhattan store (with branches in Beverly Hills, Boston, Chicago and Seattle)? "Well, they can always shop at Barneys.com," Dyson says.

Maria Bortoluzzi, the concierge at Le Parker Meridian hotel, describes her mission from her seat in the press welcome center: "If you need something done, found, expedited, facilitated, we're here to help you out." That means help with faxes, subway fare cards, dinner reservations, research assistance, all at the snap of a finger. Such things matter in a city where someone is more likely to elbow you aside to grab the last taxi in a downpour.

"New York City is aggressively using this event to sell itself," Sheekey says. "We're trying to show the media they can come here and have a good experience and expect a level of professionalism."

The food service is being run by Mitchell London, the former chef for Ed Koch, from the Upper West Side's Fairway Cafe. Rather than the usual convention fare, he's serving up bagels and lox, eggplant panini, shrimp salad, Haagen-Dazs bars and other delicacies, along with espresso and cappuccino.

Thumbing his nose at the Democratic convention, London's flyer touts the "extremely delicious" fare, saying: "The food and drink here is DEFINITELY NOT WHAT WAS OFFERED IN BOSTON (so we hear)." Small problem: The service generated such long lines that the place virtually ran out of breakfast and lunch fare.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg hosted a welcoming party for the media Saturday night at the dazzling new Time Warner Center on Columbus Circle, with the company picking up the $1.5 million tab. A jazz band performed as journalists cruised the restaurant booths offering sashimi, monkfish, spring rolls, bratwurst, penne with vodka sauce, pork dumplings, cookies, eclairs and the aforementioned creme brulee. Hugo Boss, Benetton, Sephora, J. Crew and other shops remained open for the guests.

City officials have also distributed goody bags in the form of a black Republican National Convention carrying case. Inside are an NYC 2004 notebook; a book on city landmarks; a History Channel DVD on Ellis Island; a disposable camera; Dunkin' Donuts coffee mix; a pedometer from AstraZeneca; a Con Edison key chain; red, white and blue M&Ms; and a box of Kraft macaroni and cheese emblazoned with a GOP elephant.

Since the media's favorite subject is the media, the spa's debut Monday produces a sizable scrum of journalists recording the action -- or indulging and reporting at the same time.Marianela Pereyra of the Fuse music networksits in a chair while Maryn Azoff, in a Completely Bare T-shirt, massages the roots of her streaked hair from behind.

"That's good -- it looks very spa-like," says Pereyra's cameraman.

She look into the camera: "I haven't quite made it to the floor yet. . . . This fabulous lady from Completely Bare is giving me a very nice head massage. I figured I'd make a little pit stop in the salon. Back to you in the studio."

As the customersluxuriate amid the massages and manicures, looking more blissful than working hacks have any right to do, Herald gossips Raposa and Fee are asked how they will justify this excellent adventure to their bosses.

"They know we're a couple of divas," Raposa says. "Thankfully, one of our bosses is a metrosexual."

But hey, I'm just a fully clothed observer. USA Today columnist Whitney Matheson filed a first-hand report on her facial, complete with video. The come-on: "Get a glimpse of my naked pores."

It's getting harder for this un-exfoliated scribe to compete.

hdsub here

It looks like Republicans are coming home to Fox News Channel at this convention.

CNN, which draws a more mixed audience, scored a rare victory over Fox at the Democratic convention in Boston. But that was then.

In last night's ratings, CNN was down 39 percent from the first night of the Democratic gathering, to 1.2 million viewers. MSNBC was down 28 percent, to 819,000.

And Fox? Rupert Murdoch's network was up 127 percent last night, to 3.7 million viewers.

In a recent Pew Research Center survey, more than half of Fox News Channel's regular viewers, 52 percent, describe themselves as conservative, compared with 40 percent four years ago. Only 13 percent say they are liberal, down from 20 percent. The rest call themselves moderate.

For CNN, 36 percent of regular viewers say they are conservative and 20 percent liberal. (In party terms, though, CNN's audience is 44 percent Democratic, up from 35 percent four years ago.) For MSNBC, it's 33 percent conservative and 22 percent liberal.

As if further evidence were needed that some liberals can't stand Fox, protesters today gathered at its Sixth Avenue headquarters, carrying signs such as "Faux News" and (with apologies to Bill O'Reilly) "Shut Up!"

The three major broadcast networks, which each plan three hours of live convention coverage, skipped Monday's proceedings.