What's so Bad About Karl Rove?

I missed my chance to establish a valuable connection with Karl Rove when we met, at a Republican reception of some sort, in San Antonio in or about 1999. Everybody was milling around when a portly young man walked up to me, shook my hand genially, and said "I’m Karl Rove." Rove had not, at that point, acquired anything like the national celebrity he was later to achieve, but his name was familiar to me as one of then-Governor George W. Bush’s principal strategists in his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000, which was even then getting under way.

But I’m not as fast on the uptake as I used to be, and — though I responded promptly and cordially — it took about five seconds for the penny to drop and tell me exactly whom I was talking to. By then, forgivably enough, Rove had given up on me and moved on to shake hands with somebody else.

So I have been forced to watch Rove’s subsequent progress at a greater social remove, as it were. In the process I have become an admirer of his professionalism, and have joined in giving him the credit he deserves for piloting his boss to nomination, election and re-election as president.

Like everyone else, I have watched with fascination over the past three years as the media have insisted that Rove was on the ragged edge of indictment by the special prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, for forgetting to tell the grand jury, on the second of his five appearances before it, of a conversation he had had with Time magazine’s Matthew Cooper about the CIA career of Joseph Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame. Luckily, Rove remembered the conversation, and told the grand jury all about it, before it got into the record some other way. But, in the view of the media, the original omission amounted to a lie, for which Rove ought to be indicted and "frog-marched out of the White House" in chains, in Wilson’s memorable words. Fitzgerald, after thinking about it long and hard, disagreed. No indictment.

The liberal media had never, to put it gently, previously been noted for worrying about the disclosure of CIA secrets, but Rove’s alleged indiscretion apparently drove them straight up the wall. "Why do the liberals hate Karl Rove so much?" I recently asked a shrewd Democratic friend of mine. "Because he’s too damned good at his job," he replied.

And that’s about the size of it. Rove doesn’t stand accused of playing any particularly dirty tricks on his opponents; he has simply been superb in selecting the issues on which Bush would run, and the techniques to be used in getting out the Republican vote. That may be galling to Bush’s opponents, but it’s hardly a hanging offense.

Interestingly, this November’s Congressional elections may be Karl Rove’s last hurrah. Whoever the Republican presidential nominee may be in 2008, it won’t be George W. Bush. And whoever it is, though surely far too wise to dispense with Rove’s advice altogether, will undoubtedly have strategists of his own, on whom he has relied long and successfully, and whose ties to him are closer than Rove’s are ever likely to be.

Conservatives can only hope that this November’s results will send Rove off into (semi)retirement sporting a rosy glow of success; but the prospects aren’t encouraging. The Republican Congress, after 12 years, is definitely showing its age. There are unmistakable whiffs of corruption, and its spending record is little, if any, better than the Democrats’. The latter have pitifully little to suggest by way of reform, but in a two-party system, there is no one else to whom the voters can turn.

None of this is Rove’s fault. But he is the grand strategist, and it’s up to him to try to pull a rabbit out of the hat. If he succeeds, the Democrats will have even more reason to regret the absence of that indictment.