Presidential Adviser Karl Rove announced this week that he would be stepping down at the end of the month. Portrayed as everything from genius to puppet-master, in the end the press seemed mostly in awe of his political cunning. We take a look back at the man affectionately known as... Turd Blossom.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. Ladies and gentlemen, Svengali is leaving the building. Well, that's just what I thought I'd call him. We can't just refer to Karl Rove as a political consultant turned Presidential policy advisor. I mean, he was so much more.
The President, a man famously afflicted with a mania for nicknames, had several for the man he called his dear friend, ranging from "The Architect" to "Boy Genius" to "Turd Blossom." Journalists picked up on those and repeated them - and added some of their own. MALE ANNOUNCER: Bush's brain. BROOKE GLADSTONE: The President's sidekick. FEMALE ANNOUNCER: The boy genius. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mastermind. MALE ANNOUNCER: A lightning rod. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Or even - [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] MALE ANNOUNCER: Worst person in the world! BROOKE GLADSTONE: But his most notorious sobriquet emerged late in his tenure when he participated in a rap composed and performed by journalists at the 2007 Radio TV Correspondents dinner. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] JOURNALIST: He's a man, he's a treasure trove. Tell me what is your name? KARL ROVE: I'm MC Rove. JOURNALIST: That's right. He can't be beat, because he so white from his head to his feet. But he will rap it when you give him a chance. DAVID LETTERMAN: I don't know that I can prove it, but I have a very strong feeling that that's unconstitutional. [LAUGHTER] BROOKE GLADSTONE: David Letterman. [LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE] DAVID LETTERMAN: I'm going to look into it, but I'm telling you, one way or the other, that's not right. [LAUGHTER] BROOKE GLADSTONE: He's not alone, and, in fact, press critics - and everybody is one - increasingly slam such events as blatant suck-up sessions. But to shower with praise, even ironically, the most powerful political tactician in town seems particularly egregious, and, if pressed, Rove would probably agree it's not tactical.
He'd kick reporters in public but kiss the chosen ones in private. By kiss, I mean leak, and by chosen, I mean Robert Novak. ROBERT NOVAK: Karl Rove has been a source since he was a young fellow as a consultant in Austin, Texas, I guess, in 1970s. MAN: Did you name him in any of these columns? ROBERT NOVAK: No. But everybody knew he was my source. That was known. What was not known was that he was a confirming source on the Valerie Plame story. That information came out through him and his lawyer. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Rove leaked throughout his career, especially to Novak. Indeed, he was fired for leaking to Novak when he worked in the 1980 Reagan campaign, and, of course, he was a confirming leak in the affair of former CIA operative Valerie Plame, both to Novak and to a Newsweek reporter, which Rove denied under oath because of, quote, "memory problems."
The Reagan campaign leak, essentially a knock at an opponent, is instructive, if only because Rove is most famous as a bare-knuckled campaigner. Reporters who spent years covering the races he ran in Texas began to spot patterns. They called them "the mark of Rove" - not just tactical leaks but whisper campaigns - one that hinted that Texas Governor Ann Richards might be a lesbian or that maybe John McCain had been rendered a bit whacky by his experience as a POW or that McCain had a black love child. Rove denied it. KARL ROVE: And the idea that I would have or that anybody in the Bush campaign would have anything to do with spreading a scurrilous rumor, either I'm a genius or I'm an idiot. Only an idiot would spread trash like that. BROOKE GLADSTONE: But, he was responsible for some of the most brutally effective campaigns in history, and Washington-based journalists and pundits loved him for it. He knew things they didn't, crunched numbers in ways they didn't think they could crunch. Here he is explaining math to NPR's Robert Siegel before the 2006 midterms, disastrous for the Republicans. KARL ROVE: I'm looking at all these, Robert, and adding them up, and I add up to a Republican Senate and a Republican House. ROBERT SIEGEL: Okay. KARL ROVE: You may end up with a different math, but you're entitled to your math and I'm entitled to THE math. ROBERT SIEGEL: I don't know if we're entitled to our different math, but you're certainly - KARL ROVE: I said THE math. I said you're - [RAP MUSIC] MAN: Doing the dance, the Karl Rove dance, a-dancing, a-talking, a-dancing, a-talking. BROOKE GLADSTONE: In a serendipitously timed article on Rove in the current Atlantic, Joshua Green asks why did so many people get Rove wrong? And he answers one reason is that Rove excelled at winning elections, which is, finally, how Washington keeps score.
Journalists, Green wrote, tend to admire tactics above all else. KARL ROVE: There are practitioners in politics who hold that voters are dumb, ill-informed and easily misled. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Karl Rove. KARL ROVE: That voters can be manipulated by a clever ad or a smart line. Some argue political professionals are ruining American politics. It's odd to me that most of these critics are journalists and columnists. Perhaps they don't like sharing the field of play. [RAP MUSIC] MAN: He is the sidekick to the President. … [Laughs] Tell me what is your name? KARL ROVE: MC Rove. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Karl Rove said President George W. Bush was one of history's consequential Presidents. KARL ROVE: This President and Presidents like those before him, Ronald Reagan in particular, were shaping history, not trying to stop it. BROOKE GLADSTONE: No longer shaping history and unable to stop it, The Atlantic's Joshua Green suggests he'll now be focused on rewriting it. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] WOMAN SINGING: Day to day you know that I wonder where is Karl Rove. He's got this way … so Karl, where'd you go? New Orleans is going gray. Iraq is also. So where is my, where is my, where is my Turd Blossom? [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]