Karl Rove’s never-particularly brilliant career as a manipulator of the political processes of the nation will end as it began: mired in scandal and failure.
As a brash 26-year-old former chairman of the College Republicans — who had been the subject of a Watergate-era Washington Post expose headlined, “Republican Party Probes Official as Teacher of [Dirty] Tricks” — Rove was the first aide hired to plot the campaign of George Herbert Walker Bush for the 1980 Republican presidential nomination. Father Bush lost that race, but not before Rove was fired from the campaign for leaking information to the press. Fifteen years later, when he finally found a placed on another national campaign, the elder Bush’s supposedly simple quest for reelection as president in 1992, Rove was again fired for leaking to the press — in this case, talking columnist Robert Novak into writing a negative piece about Bush campaign fund-raising chief Robert Mosbacher Jr., a Rove rival. Internal disputes prompted by Rove and others in the campaign were among the reasons cited for the ultimate defeat of that Bush by Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton.
Rove did not give up on the Bushes, however, and the first family of American political self-service did not give up on Rove.
Less than a year after the defeat of one president named Bush, Rove was planning a gubernatorial campaign that he presumed would eventually lead to the White House for another, more morally malleable Bush. The formal relationship between George Walker Bush and Rove would continue, despite far more serious legal and ethical scandals than any witnessed during the father’s campaigns, until Monday, when the political czar of the Bush-Cheney interregnum declared, “I am grateful to have been a witness to history.”
With that lame line, Rove announced his resignation at the end of the month.
This exit from presidential politics did not take the form of a firing. But for all the efforts of an effusively complimentary President Bush and a suddenly religious Rove — who, despite his reputation as a nonbeliever, mentioned God repeatedly during a Rose Garden announcement that was swimming in the smarm of convenient concern for faith and family — it was far more embarrassing than the lawless leaker’s previous departures from the national stage.
Rove was intimately involved in the campaign to discredit former Ambassador Joe Wilson for revealing that the administration had manipulated and misused intelligence in order to make a case for attacking Iraq in 2003. Rove’s old leak partner, Novak, confirmed that the Bush aide had discussed with him the fact that Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, was a Central Intelligence Agency employee. The outing of Plame as a covert operative, as part of an administration scheme to undermine Wilson’s credibility, became the subject of an extended federal inquiry that would eventually lead to the conviction of Rove’s crony, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, for perjury and obstruction of justice. Echoing what has become accepted wisdom in official Washington, one of the jurors who convicted Libby expressed her sense that the former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney had been used as a scapegoat in an elaborate scheme to prevent the leak-prone Rove from finally being brought to justice.
But Rove avoidance of accountability in the Wilson-Plame affair does not mean that he leaves the Bush White House with a clean slate. Quite the opposite.
Rove is currently the subject of a subpoena that was issued July 26 by the Senate Judiciary Committee with the purpose of compelling him to appear personally before the committee and testify about his role in the dismissal of U.S. Attorneys who he deemed to be insufficiently political in their inquiries and prosecutions. That testimony comes in the context of a broader investigation of moves by Rove and other top members of the Bush administration to use the Department of Justice to illegally advance the political interests of the president and the Republican Party.
Unlike the Wilson-Plame controversy, the scandal involving the Justice Department goes to the specifics of Rove’s brief in a White House where he was the unquestioned — and, by all accounts, meticulously engaged — political czar.
As Senate Judiciary Committee chair Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, says, “Earlier this month, Karl Rove failed to comply with the Judiciary Committee’s subpoena to testify about the mass firings of United States Attorneys. Despite evidence that he played a central role in these firings, just as he did in the Libby case involving the outing of an undercover CIA agent and improper political briefings at over 20 government agencies, Mr. Rove acted as if he was above the law. That is wrong. Now that he is leaving the White House while under subpoena, I continue to ask what Mr. Rove and others at the White House are so desperate to hide. Mr. Rove’s apparent attempts to manipulate elections and push out prosecutors citing bogus claims of voter fraud shows corruption of federal law enforcement for partisan political purposes, and the Senate Judiciary Committee will continue its investigation into this serious issue.”
Referencing the growing sense that the inquiry into wrongdoing in and around the Justice Department could yet be the undoing of the Bush-Cheney administration, Leahy added, “The list of senior White House and Justice Department officials who have resigned during the course of these congressional investigations continues to grow, and today, Mr. Rove added his name to that list. There is a cloud over this White House, and a gathering storm. A similar cloud envelopes Mr. Rove, even as he leaves the White House.”
The truth is that Karl Rove came to this White House with a cloud over his head. Rove’s appearances on the national political stage have for more than three decades been clouded by scandal. His tenure in this Bush administration was clouded by scandal. And the aftermath of that tenure will be clouded by scandal.
But the real cloud over Karl Rove is a more serious one. The man they called “Bush’s brain” — in a silly calculus developed by liberal Texans who desperately wanted to believe that it required Machiavellian manipulation to get the citizens of the Lone Star state to elect a shiftless trust-fund baby as their governor — has proven to be every bit as inept as Bush.
There is no question that Rove came up with a good turn of phrase eight years ago — “compassionate conservative” may have been a throwaway line, but it worked with a portion of mainstream American that in 2000 was looking for a responsible new direction. Spinning out evocative slogans is what political operatives do for a living, however, so Rove gets no more credit than the folks who gave us “a full dinner pale” or “a new deal” or “a new frontier” or “peace with honor.” If Rove really was the genius some want to believe him to be, he would have done something with the phrase once he has taken an office in the White House. Instead, he never even bothered to define it — let alone remake the Republican party in a manner that might have realized its potential to become a trusted, long-term party of government.
It is true, as well, that Rove played the 9-11 terrorist attacks for all they were was worth politically in 2002 and 2004. But an intern at the Republican National Committee office could have done that, especially after Democratic leaders such as Dick Gephardt, Tom Daschle and John Kerry chose approaches that made Rove’s job easier than it ever should have been.
The real test for Rove came in 2006, when he needed to maintain control of at least one house of Congress in order to preserve the smooth operations of a Bush White House that had survived in large part because of nonexistent congressional scrutiny. It should have been a breeze. Republicans has solid majorities in the House and Senate. The Senate Democrats who were up for reelection in 2006 were not a particularly potent lot. And Democratic strategists made most of their usual mistakes.
But Rove could not pull it off. He failed in the essential task of a 21st-century Machiavelli: that of securing the future.
The czar swore to the end of the campaign that he could keep the Congress reliably Republican, going so far as to berate National Public Radio’s Robert Siegel for suggesting the voting might not go the way “Bush’s brain” said it would. When Siegel mentioned polls that showed Democrats coming on strong, Rove growled, “I add up to a Republican Senate and Republican House. You may end up with a different math but you are entitled to your math and I’m entitled to the math.”
Rove’s math was wrong. Yet, he refused to admit it. “I understand some will see the election as a judgment on me, but the fact of the matter is that, look what has been set in motion — a broader, deeper, strengthened Republican Party, and with an emphasis on grass-roots neighbor-to-neighbor politics, is going to continue,” he would tell the Washington Post, while announcing after the election that: “The Republican philosophy is alive and well and likely to reemerge in the majority in 2008.”
Today, Republicans look to be in seriously bad shape. Even GOP operatives fear the loss of the White House and more House and Senate seats in 2008. Democratic recruitment of House and Senate candidates is going far better than Republican recruitment, as is Democratic fund raising. George Bush’s approval ratings are the worst for a sitting president since Richard Nixon on the eve of his resignation. Vice President Dick Cheney’s numbers are dramatically worse. And impeachment resolutions are gaining cosponsors on a daily basis in Congress.
The latest issue of the conservative Economist magazine features a cover story that suggests Americans are lurching to the left politically. And the Republican presidential debates are so thick with talk of the need for “change” that you would think Bush and Cheney had governed as registered Democrats.
In the end, Rove has done his party no more favors than he has done his nation. And that is the part of his legacy that will be most damaging to the man who may have been able to manipulate a few elections but who will not succeed in manipulating history.
Scandals matter. But, in the political game, results matter more. If Republicans still controlled the House and Senate and were staking a strong claim on the White House in 2008, if Bush and Cheney had any support — or credibility — left, Rove would be leaving on a high note. But none of those “if’s” are erring in Rove’s favor.
Karl Rove leaves another Bush campaign — and, make no mistake, the last eight years have been about campaigning, not governing — as he has left them before: under the twin clouds of scandal and failure.
John Nichols’ new book is