Thursday, January 13, 2011

Why does Karl Rove have a newspaper column?

I don't begrudge anybody who makes the move from politics and into the realm of journalism. James Fallows and Hendrik Hertzberg both did time as speechwriters for Jimmy Carter, and I'd dare say our national discourse these days would be a bit less smart if they weren't making regular contributions. (A conservative example of this phenomenon is Bill Safire, whose language column for the New York Times was beloved by nerds everywhere.)

But I still don't understand why Karl Rove has a regular newspaper column

Don't get me wrong: I don't object to Rove's "journalism" career here because of the quality of his analysis, or because the man can't write. The problem is that Rove is still an active participant in the political realm. And that means readers can't know if they're getting his real analysis of a situation -- something you'd normally expect on the op-ed page of a prestigious newspaper -- or his on-message analysis of a situation that might not be honest, but serves to advance the GOP's interests. 

I got to thinking about this today after the final paragraph in Rove's latest contribution to the Wall Street Journal: 

Mr. Obama's best chance of success 22 months from now rests on reclaiming his image as a reasonable, bipartisan and unifying figure. It won't be easy, given his track record as president. That can't be airbrushed from history. But the selection of Mr. Daley as chief of staff indicates that Mr. Obama is willing to give it a try. It makes sense. After all, what he was doing nearly wrecked his party and has imperiled his presidency.

Now. Rove might be right that Obama abandoned his efforts to be a bipartisan and unifying figure. He might not. All I know is that in the recent mid-term election, Rove led the American Crossroads group that raised tens of millions of dollars to defeat Democratic candidates for Congress. Rove isn't just rooting for the GOP team, in other words: He's still very much trying to advance the ball up the field. 

I guess you could make the case that most op-ed writers are trying to advance one party's fortunes at the expense of another. And that's true. But this seems different to me. Eugene Robinson (say) or Michael Gerson or most other writers you name don't still have skin in the game. The idea is that they may be biased, but they're free to be honest within the bounds of those biases. They don't always have to hew to the party line if their viewpoint takes them somewhere else.

But Rove's "other" job is to get Republicans elected. And we know that in the course of doing that job, his modus operandi has been to take an opponent's strength and turn it into a weakness. Ergo, President Obama -- the national leader who is still regarded as trying the hardest at bipartisan -- has "abandoned" that effort in office. And Rove says this not as somebody who is rooting against Obama, but whose "other" job is to actively defeat him. What are the chances that he'd ever call President Obama a unifying figure, no matter how much it could (hypothetically) be deserved?

And, incidentally, the "about Karl Rove" box on the WSJ page makes no mention of Rove's current activities. 

This stuff happens. Bill Kristol keeps finding newspapers to let him make regular commentary, and he's in pretty much the same situation. But unless you want to know what the GOP message du jour is, I can't imagine how this situation serves readers. If you want to write about politics, write about politics. If you want to play politics, play politics. Karl Rove might benefit from his current arrangement, and so might Republicans. Do readers?

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