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What Would Bobby Say? Karl Rove Spins RFK to the Right | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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What Would Bobby Say? Karl Rove Spins RFK to the Right

In Texas, where he managed George W. Bush's political rise, Karl Rove was often referred to as "Bush's brain."

In fact, Austin reporters used to note that crazy notions Rove expounded upon at the bar on Saturday night had a funny way of popping out of his candidate's mouth on Monday morning.

The Bush White House has gone to great pains since George W. assumed the presidency to downplay the influence that Rove has over the administration's political and policy agendas. But the Republican faithful know the real story, and they have made Rove a star of the Grand Old Party's national fund-raising circuit. Rove regularly appears at $500-a-head, closed-door "VIP receptions" around the country. Republican operatives say he rates a bit above Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Mississippi, and far above House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Illinois, on the list of most desired after-dinner speakers at gatherings of the faithful.

Rove's message in recent weeks has been an interesting one. He is telling Republicans that, as the party gears up for 2002 congressional and gubernatorial elections, its candidates must stop sounding so mean and greedy. At a May appearance before Republicans in Wisconsin, he explained that Republicans must "raise our sights and lower our voices."

Astute political observers will recognize this as a return to the "compassionate conservatism" that Rove used in 2000 to make Bush's right-wing stances more palatable to a country that stands well to the left of the GOP on most issues. With mid-term elections posing challenges and opportunities for the Bush White House, Rove is buffing up the mantra, suggesting that "compassionate conservatism" is now about shaping "a different kind of politics" that eschews the "blame culture" for a "responsible culture."

The message is that Republicans aren't about cutting needed programs in order to give tax breaks to the rich, said Rove. Rather, he explained, the point is "not to spend more or spend less, but to spend on what works."

If it wasn't Rove talking, that would be dismissed as the incomprehensible gobbledygook of pop psychology and political spin that it is. Because Rove was saying it, however, there was some demand for a translation into something more akin to a political slogan.

And so, in what must be recorded as a great moment in the history of spin, Rove declared of the new-model "compassionate conservatism": "It's Ronald Reagan meets Bobby Kennedy."

Now this is a twist. Reagan was, indeed, a conservative. But Bobby Kennedy?

Isn't Bobby Kennedy the guy who, shortly before his death 34 years ago, on June 6,1968, said:

"Too much and too long, we seem to have surrendered community excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our gross national product - if we should judge America by that - counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for those who break them.

"It counts the destruction of our redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and the cost of a nuclear warhead, and armored cars for police who fight riots in our streets. It counts Whitman's rifle and Speck's knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.

"Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it tells us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans."

Rove is a political pro, no doubt about that. But he is going to have a hard time selling the American people on the notion that the Republican Party of today is equal parts Ronald Reagan and Bobby Kennedy. And he certainly will not want to be reminded that, when Kennedy spoke in his 1968 campaign "forging a new politics," he embraced compassion not as a companion to conservatism but as a necessary alternative to it.

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