The poisonous rhetorical legacy of Karl Rove
By Juan Cole
Even Fox’s Chris Wallace wants to know why Bush’s newly departed advisor had to paint Democrats as traitors.
On Fox News Sunday morning, Karl Rove played the victim. He told host Chris Wallace that in the wake of his resignation as White House deputy chief of staff, his enemies were on the hunt. Rove compared himself to a legendary monster whom the ancient Anglo-Saxon hero Beowulf sought to slay. “I mean, I’m a myth, and they’re … You know, I’m Grendel. … They’re after me.”
But Rove, who pursued his Democratic foes with a relentless repertoire of dirty tricks, smears, and outright lies, won’t win many sympathizers by depicting himself as unfairly maligned. He is likely to be remembered above all for his own expertise at demonization, specifically for his ability to paint his political opponents as unreliable partners in the “war on terror” — as traitors to the United States. A master propagandist, he portrayed his rivals as fellow travelers with Osama bin Laden, the Taliban and Saddam Hussein. Like Cain, from whom Grendel was said to be descended, Rove was more interested in fratricide than in the welfare of his people.
While the Democrats were debating on ABC’s “This Week” Sunday morning, Rove appeared on the other three political talk shows. Surprisingly, it was Wallace of “Fox News Sunday” who asked Rove to defend his rhetorical legacy. For about a fourth of his interview, Wallace pushed Rove again and again to explain his willingness to cast aspersions on the patriotism of Democrats.
First, he asked Rove about the decision of the White House to turn the “war on terror” into a campaign issue in the 2002 midterms. He cited as an example the Republican attacks on Democratic Sen. Max Cleland of Georgia as weak on national security.
Cleland, a veteran who lost an arm and both of his legs in Vietnam, faced Republican Saxby Chambliss, who had never worn a uniform. Yet Chambliss lashed out at Cleland “for breaking his oath to protect and defend the Constitution,” accusing him of treason. Chambliss won the election. Many believe that Rove advised Chambliss and other Republican candidates to pursue this sort of smear campaign. Terrorism, Rove observed, is a good issue for the Republicans to take to the country.
Among Rove’s techniques was to identify every stance, every word, in every piece of legislation put forward by President Bush as identical with the welfare and security of the United States, and therefore any opposition to any jot or tittle of it as inimical to the country’s essential interests. That is, he inscribed the nation on the person of George W. Bush, so that opposition to the president was coded as betrayal of America.
Pressed by Wallace on Sunday to explain what made Cleland a traitor, Rove responded by attacking the former Georgia senator yet again, this time for having wanted to allow employees of the Department of Homeland Security to have a union. He did not explain why such stances made Cleland a menace to the Constitution, unless one holds that unions are unconstitutional.
Wallace followed up by asking Rove to justify the notorious June 22, 2005, speech he gave before the New York Conservative Party, in which he alleged that Democrats were soft on terror. It is worth recalling at length what Rove said on that occasion: “Conservatives saw the savagery of 9/11 and the attacks and prepared for war; liberals saw the savagery of the 9/11 attacks and wanted to prepare indictments and offer therapy and understanding for our attackers. In the wake of 9/11, conservatives believed it was time to unleash the might and power of the United States military against the Taliban; in the wake of 9/11, liberals believed it was time to … submit a petition.”
Rove’s diatribe depended for its effect on a series of deft substitutions, both explicit and implied. First, he misrepresented liberals by coding MoveOn.org, the grass-roots Internet activists who did urge alternatives to a frontal assault on the Taliban, as representative of liberal opinion generally. Then, by mentioning Democratic Party figures such as Howard Dean and Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, he implied that he was speaking about that party. Unless we assume that most Democrats are not liberals, then the attack was certainly partisan. It was also false. In polling soon after the 2001 attacks, 84 percent of self-identified liberals supported military action in response, and 80 percent of Democrats favored war against Afghanistan. Democratic members of Congress largely supported the Afghanistan war as well, with the senators voting for it unanimously.
Rove also lashed out in the speech against Sen. Durbin for comparing the torture of detainees at Guantánamo Bay to torture practiced by totalitarian regimes. Torture is torture; presumably if Americans did practice torture, their methods resembled the measures employed by operatives of other governments. Rove also assumed that all those tortured were terrorists, even though we know that some were fall guys simply sold to the U.S. by local Pashtun and Pakistani opportunists hungry for reward money.
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