Ed Driscoll

Karl Rove And The Legacy Media's Corrosive Dagger

John Hawkins of Right Wing News (where I guest post on weekends) has a new interview with Karl Rove. At one one point, Rove tells John that the Bush administration not punching back hard against the “Bush lied about WMDs” solipsism was, as Rove claims, “principally my responsibility because I should have seen it for what it was, which was a corrosive dagger aimed at the heart of the Bush Administration.”

In response, the Anchoress writes, “I couldn’t help sputtering a little:”

Rove did not realize that the daily pounding about WMD was “a corrosive knife aimed at the heart” of Bush’s presidency? How could he not, when the rest of us saw it so clearly, did battle over it, and still — to this day — find ourselves having to answer the mindless, specious charge “Bush lied about WMD!” that has become so entrenched in our national narrative?

As to why Bush did not “hit back,” I have my own theories about that.

There are other interesting parts. Rove talks a little about minding the fact that while the press and the democrats had a free-for-all about him, his family and kids had to hear it. Politics is a rough game, but it has always surprised me, how viciously the press can let loose about politicians, without considering what it does to spouses and children -until they have to consider what their own kids are hearing about them. No one’s kids should have to be victims of politically expedient hate, but Rove actually helped a journalist not have to see his child upset, at one point. That journalist did not return the favor.

I am also struck by Rove’s defense of Bush’s run against John Kerry in ‘04:

. . .the Democratic Party was united, the country was in an unpopular war, and I repeat, the Democrats outspent us by $124 million. Six or seven million dollars came from George Soros and an equal amount came from five of his friends. That’s the kind of disadvantage that we faced and we won.

Rove forgot something. He forgot that the Democrats not only outspent the GOP, they also had the press promising (by way of Newsweek’s Evan Thomas) to deliver 10-15% of the vote Kerry’s way, and the MSM did manage to do something like that. They carried Kerry’s water, called him “brilliant” while neglecting to look at his college transcripts (after the election, it was revealed Kerry’s grades were worse than Bush’s “gentleman’s ‘C’”) or demand to see his military records (even as they went through Bush’s with a fine-toothed comb and even made stuff up). They demonized the Swift Boat Vets who questioned Kerry’s fitness for office, and in all ways protected the Democrat candidate while beating daily on Bush.

Taken singly, it was sound and fury, signifying nothing, but taken all together, the daily pounding was effective.

The press understood how successfully they had enhanced the Kerry campaign, and I believe it is one of the reasons they were so bold about going “all in” with Obama. They repeated the strategy of protection; of not asking the candidate any tough questions, or looking at his history or his associates, all while administering daily beatings to the opposition. Admittedly, they had a more difficult time beating on McCain, who was a weak candidate, because they’d spent the last 8 years calling him the “good” sort of conservative, when doing so could hurt Bush. But then McCain brought Sarah Palin into the picture, and the press managed to savage her in an unprecedented manner, even before she made her own mistakes, to excellent effect. The press did not manage to win the presidency for John Kerry; they made sure they could deliver it to the “sort of God”, Barack Obama, using the lessons they learned during the Bush-Kerry campaigns.

But note what not punching back against the left wrought: The Iraq war and Bush’s handling thereof initially had very high poll numbers; even Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” moment was not initially spun negatively by the press. CBS would go to town against Bush in the fall of 2004, but in May of 2003, Bob Schieffer told Larry King:

“We saw some very powerful pictures,” reported CBS’s Bob Schieffer. “I think this was a remarkable moment. I mean, it really was…. [H]ere you have the president flying onto the aircraft carrier. The first president to fly on to an aircraft carrier in a fixed wing jet like he did, climbing out in that flight suit, looking very dashing. This whole day was quite an event…. We saw a little spontaneity today. We saw a little showmanship that we haven’t seen in a long time in politics, and frankly, I think that’s kind of good.”

After quoting additional praise for that moment from some equally unlikely sources, in the American Thinker back in 2008, Paul Kengor added:

Yet, aside from those accolades — a natural, honest response — something else was stirring. In the New York Times, the angry Frank Rich dismissed the landing as Hollywood hype: “The Bush presidency,” growled Rich, “might well be the Jerry Bruckheimer presidency,” referring to the producer of Hollywood features like “Top Gun,” “Black Hawk Down,” and “Armageddon.”

Of course, it is hard to take Rich seriously on anything, including references to the dramatic arts — his specialty. Rich observed the scourging of Jesus in The Passion of the Christ and literally thought about gay porn. (Don’t believe me? Click here.) Nonetheless, the op-ed page of The Times has a Scripture-like influence on liberals, and this salvo by Rich was the start of something: Much of the left, for the first time since the Iraq invasion a few weeks earlier, now began to descend on Bush, especially those who had predicted a bloodbath in Iraq and didn’t get one. They would excoriate the landing, from its message to its symbolism, and they would not cease and desist for the next five years.

From the Senate, Robert Byrd (D-WV), who had harshly criticized Bush war policy, called the Lincoln landing a “spectacle” that was an “affront to the Americans killed or injured in Iraq.” At the House, Henry Waxman (D-CA) lost his mind, actually demanding a Congressional investigation of the landing.

Liberals were lunging, reaching, grasping for something to criticize. They had been shown up. They would wait stubbornly until something bad developed in Iraq, and got just what the doctor ordered once the body bags began piling up in Iraq from 2005-7 in the occupation/reconstruction that  followed. They would incessantly, mercilessly pound the “Mission Accomplished” episode as an example of a brazenly, arrogantly premature celebration by George W. Bush.

In point of fact, Bush had been correct in that the mission had been accomplished. The military effort to remove Saddam Hussein and liberate Iraq was over. That was Phase 1, a separate, successful mission, altogether different from the much more treacherous, difficult period when the United States sought to stabilize Iraq, fighting Al-Qaeda on a daily basis, and seeking to establish a rare oasis of sustainable democracy in the sick powder keg that is the Arab-Muslim Middle East. In its typical lack of sophistication on matters military, the left simplified the whole thing-Phase 1, Phase 2, Phase 3, Phase 15-as “The War.”

But here’s what everyone seemed to miss: a crucial marker was indeed laid on the deck of the Lincoln that day. In retrospect, the landing provided a profound example of the major, ultimately most destructive liability of the two-term Bush presidency: the utter failure of the president and his administration to respond to critics, to fight back, to engage not Al-Qaeda but domestic detractors on the left.

And once the WMD argument was raised by the legacy media, and once they encountered no pushback from the Bush administration, poll numbers began to move south. Why the Bush administration didn’t trot out clips such as this to remind voters of Democrats’ duplicity on regime change in Iraq in 2004 versus their 1998 stance has to be considered another enormous mistake in retrospect.

Of course, the Obama administration can demonize its opponents because the news media and the administration share the same ideology. It’s a symbiotic relationship. Rove and former President Bush could not have fired back at their opponents with anywhere near their severity. and But somewhere between the antics of Anita Dunn, Van Jones, Robert Gibbs, and Obama himself, and not fighting back at all, there has to be, if not a happy medium, at least a functional one.