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July 13, 2005

why I don't care about Karl Rove

If Karl Rove committed a crime, then he should face the consequences, and it's a matter for the criminal justice system. It's a different question whether the rest of us--the press, the political parties, and the public--should focus attention on this case. I say no, for the following reasons:

First, the public consequences are unlikely to be good. If Rove is forced to resign in disgrace, voters will not be one ounce more likely to favor progressive policies or to trust the Democrats as the party of solutions. The President will lose Rove's daily presence, but no one's advice is all that valuable--and even if Bush fires Rove, he will still be able to consult his consigliere privately. One clear consequence will be the continued impression that Washington careers end with criminal prosecutions on obscure statutes. That impression is not helpful if we hope to attract good people to public service. Rove may be at fault for bringing an investigation on himself. But that doesn't make the investigation a good thing, nor should we all follow the case intently and try to milk it for political purposes. The political "milking" of scandals is unsightly.

Second, Rove's alleged leak, if it occurred, was wrong. However, there are vital public issues that should provoke our outrage, and I don't see why we should focus any of our limited emotional energies on a classic case of Beltway Hardball. I'm trying to save my own attention and energy for our high school graduation rate (which is about 68%), the 5.6 million Americans who are in jail or have been released from prison, the global AIDS epidemic, our reliance on foreign oil, the pending fiscal crunch as the Boomers begin to retire, and Iraq. What Karl Rove said to whom is just a diversion.

Third, if we spend time thinking about Rove, then we must have decided that we are a virtual jury. Our job is to decide whether powerful celebrities are guilty or innocent and register our verdicts in opinion polls (if anyone happens to poll us). Or perhaps we think of politics as a contact sport, played by two relatively small teams of national pros. Then the question is whether Rove can play the second half--or was his foul so bad that he has to sit it out? Whether we're a bunch of spectators or a virtual jury, we have no serious responsibilities or opportunities. But if we were focused, for example, on the high school graduation rate, then there would be much for us to do--starting in the schools of our own communities.

Fourth, despite claims by Frank Rich and others that the Rove case is "worse than Watergate," I see it as a perfect cliche. With the heat and humidity of a Washington July, we almost always see criminal investigations of high officials in the incumbent administration, especially during a second term. This is not so much the tragedy of Watergate repeating as farce; it's the annual ritual, replayed without conviction or intensity. I'm ready to change the channel.

Finally, the Rove case raises interesting issues (about the press, confidentiality agreements, the Supreme Court, the legal system, etc.) Like any national scandal, it can have an educative purpose for adults as well as kids. However, if we're not careful, most of the "lessons" will be harmful. We will reinforce the proposition that "politics" involves a few powerful people in Washington--mostly in the executive branch--rather than a million decisions made throughout society. We will confirm people's sense that politics is a nasty game, and the endgame is usually prosecution. And we will continue to teach journalists that their heroes ought to be Woodward and Bernstein. As Jay Rosen writes:

Watergate has been treated by journalists as a consensus narrative, with an agreed-upon lesson for all Americans. The Fourth Estate model not only works, it can save us. The press shall know the truth and the truth shall check the powers that be, whether Democrat or Republican. Chasing stories, exposing corruption, giving voice to the downtrodden: that's what we in journalism do, the myth says. We do it for the American people. And they understand because they know from legend--from the movies--how it was when the country was in the dark about Nixon and Watergate.

But if our problems are incarceration, high school dropout rates, oil dependence, and Iraq, then the press certainly cannot "save us" by revealing who said what about Valerie Plame.

Posted by peterlevine at July 13, 2005 10:11 AM


You misunderstand America. This is not about truth and issues and real needs, it's about entertainment, competition, and who wins!

If we were more responsible, we would not only be facing all the issues you describe above but we wouldn't have an administration of this calibre in the first place, nor the previous one nor the one before that, etc. We'd have much brighter and more courageous people competing in public service at all levels, instead of dangling from bungee cords in some canyon!

That said, I do believe that hidden in all the sturm-und about Rove is the creation of an unnecessary and illegitimate war by this White House and its advisors. It's about huge, lethal lies. It's about the yellowcake and aluminum tubes and acquiescence of the press and a doped up citizenry.

The real issue for me is how much it matters to America that so much of what we rely on is untrue and unreliable -- la-la land. There's no point worrying about graduating more high school seniors if a) they aren't really educated, b) if they aren't expected to probe and question and take chances on behalf of their country rather than just "succeed," and c) if they graduate into a society in which no one really plays by the rules anyway.

So yeah, this "Rove" thing needs attention. But let's not fall for the gag that it's just about Rove. Let's not allow it to be about replacing one set of self-righteous rogues with another set of self-righteous rogues.

Posted by: PW at July 13, 2005 02:05 PM

I'm largely with PW.

The main difficulty for progessive politics is that there are now simply too many people who self-identify as conservatives. Therefore, the most effectivel long term strategy is to tear down the positive associations people have with the word "conservative" by wrecking the careers of conservative and tarnishing them in the public eye.

Polls show the public generally wants more money for schools, more efforts to conserve energy, and fewer troops in Iraq. Why don't these things happen? Because they don't have long-term trust in the people who are advocating those ideas.

My only frustration is that this will certainly stop at Rove, if it gets that high. Eliminating two staffers will drive down public approval of politicians in general, but not specific conservative politicians; for that they (the politicians) would have to be personally involved in the pseudo-scandal.

Posted by: Nick Beaudrot at July 13, 2005 02:20 PM

I've been exploring the violation of another law, not the one which hangs over Rove's head. And that this one:

(f) Prohibition on covert actions intended to influence United States political processes, etc.
No covert action may be conducted which is intended to influence United States political processes, public opinion, policies, or media.

And wondering whether that's what is complicating the Special Counsel's work now.

Posted by: PW at July 15, 2005 01:35 PM

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