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Karl Rove and the Cult of Savviness in Our Political Press

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Conservatives think the ideology of the Washington press corps is liberal. Liberals think the press is conservative in the sense of protecting its place in the political establishment. Karl Rove once said that the press is "less liberal than it is oppositional." (A fascinating remark coming from Rove, since it appears to put him at odds with the conservative base.) Whereas I think that the real -- and undeclared -- ideology of American journalism is savviness, which is what made the press so vulnerable to the likes of Karl Rove.

Savviness! Deep down, that's what reporters want to believe in and actually do believe in -- their own savviness and the savviness of certain others (including master operators like Karl Rove.) In politics, they believe, it's better to be savvy than it is to be honest or correct on the facts. It's better to be savvy than it is to be just, good, fair, decent, strictly lawful, civilized, sincere or humane.

Savviness is what journalists admire in others. Savvy is what they themselves dearly wish to be. (And to be unsavvy is far worse than being wrong.) Savviness -- that quality of being shrewd, practical, well-informed, perceptive, ironic, "with it," and unsentimental in all things political -- is, in a sense, their professional religion. They make a cult of it. And it was this cult that Karl Rove understood and exploited for political gain.

What is the truest mark of savviness? Winning, of course! Everyone knows that the press admires an unprincipled winner. (Of a piece with its fixation on the horse race.) Josh Green, a reporter for the Atlantic Monthly who actually took the time to understand Rove's career, totaled up his winnings in a 2004 article ("Karl Rove in a Corner") that I highly recommend.

"As far as I can determine, in races he has run for statewide or national office or Congress, starting in 1986, Rove's career record is a truly impressive 34--7." This record, he notes, "would be impressive even if he used no extreme tactics. But he does use them." Again and again, Green observes. Rove tries to destroy people with whispering campaigns. He makes stuff up. He transgresses and figures no one will stop him. He goes further than others in the game. These are things you would think journalists would recoil at, or at least observe with regularity.

But Karl Rove: political extremist is not what I read in the press yesterday as word of his resignation got around. Green in '04:

Having studied what happens when Karl Rove is cornered, I came away with two overriding impressions. One was a new appreciation for his mastery of campaigning. The other was astonishment at the degree to which, despite all that's been written about him, Rove's fiercest tendencies have been elided in national media coverage."

Elided: to omit, leave out, or strike from consideration. Green is saying that they overlooked how vicious he has been. My explanation: they admired how savvy he has been. Mark Halperin of Time magazine and ABC News lectured his colleagues on this days before the 2006 elections (Hat tip Eric Boehlert). You must admire Rove or you are out-of-touch!

Democrats, Republicans, and the Jacob Weisbergs of the world can pick nits all they want with Rove -- that Bush isn't the most successful president ever, that Rove can't walk on water, that Bush lost the popular vote in 2000, and that they both have made plenty of political and policy mistakes. All of that is true. The reality is, though, that Bush and Rove, as a team, have never lost to Democrats, and their wins in 2002 and 2004 defied the odds in many ways.

If Democrats win a big victory next Tuesday, it will be interesting to hear Rove's explanation. But for goodness' sake, as Abramowitz was smart enough to demonstrate, people who live in Bethesda, Chevy Chase, and Manhattan should understand that in much of red America, Rove is beloved and respected, and they should ask themselves why that is.

Nitpickers vs. winners is how the cult of savviness frames things. And in that cult Halperin would qualify as a high priest.

Amid all the press coverage of Rove's farewell announcement yesterday, did you notice how no one spoke of knowing Karl Rove as a source? Matt Cooper is one we know about because of the trial of Scooter Libby. ("Spoke to Rove on double super secret background for about two mins before he went on vacation ...") There are many others we do not know about because they agreed to keep his name a secret. But make no mistake: they are also the ones writing the "balanced" and non-committal retrospectives, the ones with 50-50 headlines like "Rove bows out despised and deified." (Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen in the Politico.)

Green's colleague at the Atlantic, Mark Ambinder, marveled at it: "Boy, did Karl Rove get in his gut the biases, predilections, worldviews, habits, ticks and insecurities of the national media." I agree with this. And with Ambinder's observation that part of Rove's "realignment theory" was to "delegitimize, decertify and discombobulate the press; control it with psychological power; reduce its influence on the political process," while simultaneously seducing reporters with his credentials as a winner and his savvy take on American politics. (See my posts on press rollback and decertification, policies for which Rove was "the architect.")

Green was all over the talk shows yesterday because of his recent article in the Atlantic on what went wrong with The Rove Presidency. (Subscribers only) But it's his study from three years ago that tells the tale about Rove and the press. He noted that close readings of Rove's methods are relatively few. "Yet as I interviewed people who knew Rove, they brought up examples of unscrupulous tactics -- some of them breathtaking -- as a matter of course." Rove had the "he said, she said" press figured out, according to Green:

He seems to understand -- indeed, to count on -- the media's unwillingness or inability, whether from squeamishness, laziness, or professional caution, ever to give a full estimate of him or his work. It is ultimately not just Rove's skill but his character that allows him to perform on an entirely different plane. Along with remarkable strategic skills, he has both an understanding of the media's unstated self-limitations and a willingness to fight in territory where conscience forbids most others.

That's the real Karl Rove. But you wouldn't know it from the "despised and deified" coverage we saw yesterday.

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Jay Rosen teaches journalism at New York University and writes the blog PressThink, where this first appeared. He is also co-publisher, with Arianna Huffington, of OffTheBus, which is open platform campaign coverage, meaning anyone with something to add can contribute. If you're interested sign up here.