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Karl Rove -- a Latter-Day Tom Sawyer?

07.27.2005 | MEDIA

They are going to pitch this as a political suspense story, a kind of high-stakes back-alley dice game where we all crouch over and watch to see if Karl Rove can hang on by his fingernails. Half the crowd will be screaming for odds, the other for evens. What a lot of fun either way, right? We live in a country so deadened and so cynical that everything, in the end, becomes just another pastime. Just another summer blockbuster that'll probably suck, but what the hell--at least the effects will be good.

The problem with the Karl Rove story is that it's grounded in the specifics of a sordid little scandal; it's a tale far too narrow and mean to serve as an adequate stage for the drama of Karl Rove's transgressions.

The very fact that it was not until Rove stumbled over the teeniest of speed-bumps in the federal criminal code that he even faced the possibility of real public censure just shows the ragged poverty of American culture when it comes to considering questions of honor, decency and justice. We have become moral capitalists, not seriously considering anything wrong that is not also illegal.

The crime that ought to be considered this week is not that Rove may have whispered something or other to a few reporters. The crime is that hundreds, if not thousands, of journalists and politicians in this country have over the years cheerily honored this vile, scum-sucking pig of a human being by calling him names like "genius" and "boy wonder" and "wizard"--as though the business of Rove's life was somehow cute, quirky and lovably mischievous.

The truly monstrous thing about this Rove story is that it was not until Rove became a potential criminal defendant that all of those cutesy Will Rogers descriptions of him vanished from print. Until the Plame story really started to heat up in recent weeks, Rove was consistently celebrated by reporters as a kind of political Tom Sawyer, brilliantly suckering the country into painting his white picket fence.

You would be hard-pressed to find a Washington-based journalist who has not written a Rove profile in the past five years. And virtually every hack to try his hand at the job took the same rhetorical approach--selling Rove first and foremost as a colorful character full of contradictions, a figure of lore, a man both hated and loved to the extreme.

Reporters conspicuously upheld him as the ultimate political profile subject, and in their descriptions of him one could almost always detect a degree of gratitude, as though the reporter were thankful his subject was so interesting, so lively, so accommodatingly edgy. Profiles of Rove were therefore almost always written with great care, like works of art. He was every hack's Mona Lisa.

Almost all of the profiles were the same. They all began with some folksy tale of the unguarded Rove in the wild, cracking a ribald joke in a campaign plane (taking a jab at the Brits for loving sports events with "racing pistols," mocking his boss's campaign "strategery") teaching the reporter some salty Texas-ism (he produces an actual Turd Blossom) or snorting at some lame Democrat ploy to seize ground in the polls. They would then move into breathless rhapsodies over Rove's Rasputin-esque grip on Beltway power, with observers from both sides of the aisle dragged out to provide awestruck quotes about the astonishing brightness of the Rove phoenix.

This would be followed by a greatest hits list of Rove's ingenious tricks and ploys, followed by the Ebert-Roper review of same by a matched set of Democrat and Republican analysts--the former of which would add that Rove was "controversial." Then each article would end with a frankly comic screed about Rove's rising status as a folk hero and/or sex symbol ("He is my political idol!" 19-year-old Michelle Morrow bouncily tells Newsweek). A full 79 percent of all Rove profiles included mention of the Karl Rove boxer shorts (with Rove's face printed within a heart) that can be found for sale on the internet; an only slightly smaller percentage would mention the "Karl Rove Classic Thong" that was marketed late last year.

Oh, what fun they all had. But then, sadly, the game was halted when rain broke out. The instant Rove drifted into the prosecutorial crosshairs, and in particular when his emails to Matt Cooper went public, the media canned the Tom Sawyer act--as though Rove had suddenly become unclean.

And what was he before? That's the outrage. The Washington press corps, which has proven repeatedly over the last five years that there is no gross lie or cheap stunt too stupid for them to fall for, never really clued in to the way Rove, the so-called master media manipulator, was managing his own image.

Just as Rove has always understood that Billy Bob in Louisiana cares more about queers on the altar than he does about Enron, Rove also understood that reporters need a villain, a Svengali. His "genius" here (which, like all of his supposed ingenious ploys, was not ingenious at all, but merely the plainly obvious step never anticipated by the crowd of idiots watching him) was to give them their villain not in small doses, but in large ones.

A persistent feature of the Rove profile is the reporter's close proximity to Rove in a casual, intimate setting (i.e., Elisabeth Bumiller astride the "bombastic, deceptively cherub-faced" Rove on the campaign plane as he "playfully withholds news of recent polls from the president"). Rove made sure to invite every reporter in Washington for a one-day private tour of his world of dirty jokes, harried cell-phone calls and ad-hoc strategizing. And every hack that took the tour came away with stars in his eyes, primed to make Rove into the larger-than-life villain role he had been fitted for.

The result of all this was to obscure the basic fact about Rove, which is that he's not a genius at all. He is a pig, and the only thing that distinguishes him is the degree of his brazenness and cruelty. It doesn't take a genius to send out fliers calling your opponent the "fag candidate." It doesn't take a genius to insinuate that your opponent's wife is a drug addict. There's nothing cunning or clever about saying your opponent came home from a war too fucked in the head to govern (particularly when your own candidate was too much of a coward to fight in the same war), or about whispering that that same candidate may have an illegitimate black child. And there's nothing clever about calling the followers of the opposition party traitorous and un-American, and claiming that they all want to coddle and appease the murderers of our brothers, sisters, sons and daughters.

Karl Rove is a character of a type that reappears from time to time throughout history--an unscrupulous power-chaser of the highest order, who rises to the top by demonizing and defaming innocent people. He's an elementary-school bully who proves his chops by throwing rocks at the retarded kid. And he reached a position of public honor thanks to a loophole in our national character that embraces any entrepreneur who dares to do whatever it takes to succeed. Rove is in trouble now, but he would never have had free reign of Washington to begin with if we hadn't so willingly given him his romantic image.

Anything for money. Anything for power. How cute is he now?

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