Karl Rove is smart enough, but he's no genius. Rove's political depravity put moral Americans at a disadvantage in contests with him. But crediting him with innovation or genius is like crediting Jack the Ripper with the invention of the knife. So why did the political press do it? Why did they love Karl Rove?
I don't think there's a comforting answer to this question. The relationship of Rove to the press really was like something out of an Anne Rice novel. They couldn't escape the erotic appeal of his lust for power, even when it was their blood he sucked, their consciences he corrupted. As they paled, they found it difficult to call him anything but a genius. Could they be so suckered by a dolt?
I was a reporter for the Houston Chronicle when I first met Rove in 1982. His then-client, Republican Texas Gov. Bill Clements, lied about something or other to a gaggle of the Austin press corps. In disgust I whirled around to head out the door. Rove was in my way. "F------ liar," I said to Rove's face, speaking of his boss. He was startled, but he didn't try to talk me out of it. Those were the first words I ever spoke to the guy. In Austin, we exchanged hellos a time or two. He taught a class at the University of Texas with a well-known Texas journalist, Dave McNeely. McNeely asked me to speak to the class one day. Rove sat by me, turned his back on me, and graded papers while I spoke. This was 1999. A student asked if I supported Bush for president. I said, "No." Rove, without looking up or turning to me, said, "I made a note of that."
It's a happy fact of my history that Rove and I never formally opposed one another. Rove didn't work for Clayton Williams, the GOP gubernatorial nominee Ann Richards beat in 1990. I worked for Ann then, but not in 1994, when George W. Bush defeated her with Rove's help.
In any case, I had over the years many occasions to discuss Rove with reporters who had been my colleagues. In Texas, they shared my dislike for him, my suspicions about his character and morality. That changed when he could control their access to Bush during the 2000 campaign. For once, Texas reporters were at the front of the bus. People from around the world sought their opinions of Bush and his team. They were on television. And their insights were important. But Rove controlled the seats on the bus, and if they went too far, they'd lose those seats. These are hard-bitten journalists. I still admire every one of them. But, they are human beings, and they had a job to do. One of my early colleagues, Jim Moore, joined Dallas Morning News reporter Wayne Slater in writing two Rove exposes. Of course, my friend Molly Ivins saw through Rove from the beginning too. Bless them.
National elite reporters like David Broder are more difficult to explain. Broder just gushed over Rove, his years of experience useless in the face of Rove's pedestrian hustle. Rove, Broder convinced himself, was just more skillful than other players. So Broder bared his neck. His reputation as a seasoned, tough-minded reporter was sucked out of him by Rove. It's sad, really.
The political press was seduced. That's the scary fact. Their ability to rise above the petting and the threats was compromised. They became the media undead, fearing daylight like a stake of truth to the heart. But why?
It is tempting to blame corporate media consolidation and claim they were just being obedient to their bosses. And it is true that the vanity of broadcast journalists quite often leaves them vulnerable to threats from almost any quarter that they will not be loved if they don't do this, or report that, or kiss this ass, or leave this other ass alone. But print reporters are notorious non-conformists. Often, it is true, they rebel against authority the way teenagers do, proving their individuality by going en masse to the tattoo parlor.
Herman Melville probably got it right in his book, The Confidence Man, which brilliantly captured the comic weakness of American Credulity. Journalists, like the rest of us, are easy marks. We pride ourselves on our easy-going natures, and we give the benefit of the doubt to the lamest of pitches. All we have to do is glance around at all the unnecessary crap in our homes to see that skepticism or resistance to the slick con-games of contemporary marketing are not our strong suits.
In the end, Karl Rove was just another gee-gaw, though certainly a dangerous, Chuckie-like gee-gaw (for some reason, it's impossible to resist horror-genre analogies when writing about Rove). He floated into the hearts of journalists on a three-decade wave of opinion-shaping created by his elders, but his victories seemed like magic to reporters. Like the deceptively harmless toys of the horror shows, Rove hugged them, winked at them, made them feel real, like adults. Then, of course, he ate them. I think we'd better recognize that journalists will likely continue to give the benefit of the doubt to political players like Rove. Winning often masquerades as morality in America. Don't expect the devil to come back as a homeless guy with a windshield squeegee. The press, like all social climbers, want to be at those parties. They like a winner.
The answer to Rove this time came from a few brave journalists, and from a great number of new voices who have forced their way onto a political stage greatly enlarged by the internet. If we can't count on the few to give us the truth, we can hope that with the numerical advantage of the many there won't be enough time for another tragicomic monster trying to overcome his insecurities to get his fangs on that many necks. We can hope we're right about this advantage. Like the icky monsters of the B-movies, Rove didn't die, he just changed addresses. And there are a good many Roves waiting in the wings. As we say in Texas, trouble never comes alone.