07/05/2007 08:38 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Karl Rove Should Apologize to the Nation

I know, I know: Fat chance, buddy. Don't hold your breath. A snowball's chance in hell. When pigs fly.

But a guy can dream, can't he?

I imagine that Joseph Wilson clings to the faintest of hopes that we might still "get Karl Rove frog-marched out of the White House in handcuffs," though Wilson probably spends more of his fantasy life these days contemplating the prospect of a civil suit victory against Rove rather than a flat-out criminal indictment.

Yet I'm serious about this call for Rove's apology, and I don't think making the call should be tied to considerations about its bleak chances for success. We need to lay down some markers for the future. We need to plant some seeds. We need to insist upon certain ethical ideals, even as cynicism mounts. We need to remind ourselves that integrity matters, even in politics--and when legality fails, an appeal to personal shame might be the last-grasp handhold before tumbling over a cliff into the moral abyss.

Rove's legacy will soon be up for grabs, and some will surely try to dignify his dirty machinations. Others might concede that he's an evil Machiavellian schemer, but they will try to normalize his smear tactics as belonging to the ordinary push-and-pull of hardball partisan politics, albeit with greater effectiveness than most, winning at all costs, a kind of Vince Lombardi for our times.

Don't buy it. Karl Rove has been a destroyer of American institutions, a blasphemer of the public trust. There'll be plenty of blame to go around when the Bush Junta finally leaves office, but Karl Rove will need to be singled out for special culpability. More than anyone, he was the architect for the destruction of American unity after 9/11--he saw an opportunity to demonize liberals as the appeasers of terrorists, and he went for the kill.

No, he didn't invent negative sloganeering and political mudslinging. But he perfected the art of ad hominem whisper campaigning with a jujitsu technique that turned an opponent's virtues into vices: Ann Richards as a lesbian, John McCain as mentally ill, John Kerry as a traitor. Yet Rove's true perniciousness goes beyond even these Swift boat strategies.

Once Bush came into office, Rove envisioned the possibility of a permanent Republican majority, the greedy prospect of one-party rule throughout the nation. Continuing to serve as a political strategist now operating officially out of the White House, Rove demanded Party Loyalty Über Alles and supported only those candidates who shared that consolidated vision--and for a while he had Tom "The Hammer" DeLay enforce those stern directives among sitting members. But in his quest to turn all governance into a permanent campaign and to subject all fact-based reality to media spin, Rove forever debased whatever higher aims and aspirations for democratic and legal self-rule a people may hold for themselves. Rovean partisanship has completely preempted any official Republican exercise of national statespersonship that might run at times contrary to the party line. Unlike their courageous Watergate-era counterparts, Congressional Republicans today can't be counted on to break ranks in order to condemn even the most egregious instances of the Bush administration's violations of law. When party loyalty becomes more important than the rule of law, all is lost. The thugs have won. We, then, become a nation ruled by thuggery. Rove actually believes that, properly spun, might makes right. Woe to us if too many accede to his view.

Coordinating the outing of Valerie Plame in order to punish dissenters; turning over the coffers of government to K-Street lobbyists; hijacking the Department of Justice in order to manipulate elections; hijacking much of the rest of the federal bureaucracy in order to manipulate elections; eviscerating the notion of civil rights in order to manipulate elections; overseeing state gerrymandering in order to manipulate federal elections; replacing careerists with cronies wherever possible--these are Rove's signature contributions to the American polity. They should be regarded--by all parties, that's the point--as disgraceful. That some should think otherwise, namely that winning is the only thing in politics, is precisely why we need to call out Rove and Roveanism.

Far from Aristotle's conception of politics as an ennobling endeavor, far from the Roman notion of serving the res publica, and far from the early American dedication to our commonweal and self-evident truths, Rove has sought to divide our country, citizen against citizen, group against group, party against party, all according to his dark and fearful vision of politics as war-by-other-means. Perhaps we cannot repair all of the damage he has inflicted on our public lives, but we can at least seek agreement on principle that no genuine end can justify such despicable means. Maybe we can still strike some compromise on politics as the art thereof, rather than descending into all-out Rovean domestic strife.

Lee Atwater didn't live long enough to gain sufficient out-of-office perspective that might somehow prompt a change of heart, and thus his untimely death cheated him out of the possibility of making amends and expressing remorse for his dastardly dealings on a national scale. Let us hope that Karl Rove eventually finds the time and the wisdom to repudiate the political sadism he inherited, extended, and refined. Let us also hope that as Bush's approval ratings plummet even lower, Rove himself will be remembered, not just as a professional scoundrel, not just as someone who rooted through garbage his entire life, but also as an ultimate loser in the long run.

Even in Texas, a turd that doesn't blossom remains just a turd. I refuse, however, to end this post on that unfortunate image--and why grant Rove the last word and signifier? So I'll simply repeat from above a more upbeat metaphor: We need to start planting some seeds for the future.