Every time a public figure does or says something inflammatory these days, news consumers expect a video, an audio track, or, failing those two, an extensive transcript.
Nothing of the sort is available for the dustup involving Karl Rove’s alleged remarks about Hillary Rodham Clinton. Under the clicky headline “Karl Rove: Hillary may have brain damage,” the New York Post’s Emily Smith writes that Rove said this about this possible entrant in the 2016 presidential race: “Thirty days in the hospital? And when she reappears, she’s wearing glasses that are only for people who have traumatic brain injury? We need to know what’s up with that.” In December 2012, Clinton had some health issues that kept her out of the office, though her hospital stay was just a few days.
The national news system had a predictable response: overload. Amid a flurry of follow-ups on Web sites around the land, Rove appeared in an informative and probing segment on Fox News with host Bill Hemmer and clarified his meaning. If Clinton runs for office, he said, she’ll have to release all manner of details on her medical problems from that period. When asked about the provenance of his alleged comment that Clinton suffered brain damage, Rove went into corrective mode: “No, no — I didn’t say she had brain damage. I said she had a serious health episode,” he said. “This will be an issue in the 2016 race, whether she likes it or not.”
A critical data point: Rove’s comments took place, in the words of the New York Post, at a “conference near LA.” The story didn’t specify the name of the conference.
Hemmer put before Rove the language that the New York Post had used it its lede: “Karl Rove stunned a conference when he suggested Hillary Clinton may have brain damage.” That allegation, Rove said, is bunk. “I never used that phrase.”
As Hemmer noted, there doesn’t appear to be any recordings of the event. When he asked Rove about that very matter, Rove replied, “I don’t know.”
Kristin Davison, chief of staff for Karl Rove & Co., tells us that the event was a private affair in which Rove chatted with former Obama aide Robert Gibbs and was arranged through their speakers’ bureau. To the best of her knowledge, Davison says, there’s no video of the proceedings. The discussion was off the record and the sponsor is private too, according to Davison.
Rove and Gibbs have done this stuff before, as this schedule for an event for the Realtors Political Action Committee (RPAC) makes clear: “A Discussion with White House Insiders Robert Gibbs & Karl Rove,” reads an entry for the March 2014 event at the Waldorf-Astoria New York City. The Harry Walker Agency has a page for the Gibbs-Rove collaboration, which reads in part, “Karl Rove and Robert Gibbs provide intimate and insightful commentary as they both speak with great authority and accuracy from a White House Insider’s perspective. Each speaker shines a dynamic light on the political issues of the day based on their unique relationships…”
Writing in the Guardian, Ana Marie Cox deplores these big-money gatherings: “I’m not sure which is worse: the idea that Rove and Gibbs might be imparting valuable insider information to these paying audiences at largely closed-door events; or that they’ve willingly emptied out whatever convictions they have about politics and agreed to play-act as partisans for sheer entertainment value.”
Whatever the depravities, the whole episode illustrates an old rule in politics and media: There is no such thing as an off-the-record “conference.” John Kerry learned as much last month; now it’s Rove’s turn.