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The Pretentious Mr. Rove

By Richard Reeves

And old friend of Karl Rove's had this to say as "The Architect" left the White House sinking ship -- I mean, the Bush White House -- last week. "He's not wallowing about how history's going to judge him -- there's no Nixonian or Clintonian obsession with the historical role," said Franklin Lavin, an undersecretary of commerce.

That's good, because history will barely take note. Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton were presidents of the United States. Rove was just a campaign manager, a numbers guy who got lucky. And then he overreached, demanding and getting a policy job in the West Wing. It turned out that he was good at politics and bad at government, not an unusual thing in Washington.

Rove talked about history all the time, mentioning Lincoln, the two Roosevelts, William McKinley. Self-taught, he was a master of the obscure fact or quote. It is a trick, that memorizing of a phrase in a Lincoln letter like this favorite of his: "Keep a constant watch on the doubtful voters, and from time to time have them talked to by those in whom they have the most confidence."

Heavy. Right up there with "Buy low, sell high." But Washingtonians, particularly favored reporters looking for leaks, quoted such wisdom while Rove was on top. He saw himself as a contrarian intellectual, understanding small things others did not. It may have had something to do with the fact that he never finished college. His pretensions were ironic because his basic political stance -- at least before 9/11 -- was a kind of cultural populism, an anti-intellectual take on institutions like Harvard or The New York Times. After the burning of the Twin Towers, he became a self-styled expert on national security, mocking intellectuals, diplomats and warriors with experience in such things -- the kind of "elitists" who advised looking before leaping into places such as Iraq.

He had a following, of course, because he had power, and many praised him last week in the way he wanted to be praised. This was from Michael Gerson, a speechwriter for President Bush: "I found Rove to be the most unusual political operative I have ever known; so exceptional he doesn't belong in the category. His most passionate, obsessive love -- after his wife -- is American history. He visits its shrines and collects its scraps -- carefully archived pictures of President William McKinley's funeral, original ballots from the 1860 election. And from American history Rove knows: Events are not moved primarily by techniques; they are moved by ideas."

Please. In fact, there was nothing new about Rove. Successful campaign managers and political consultants -- and he was very successful -- often try to brush off the dust and dirt of their calling and buy better suits. Presidents used to deal with the people who got them elected by making them postmaster general, but lately they have put them next to the Oval Office and listen to their thoughts on the state of the union and of the world.

It's usually a bad fit. President Carter's manager, Hamilton Jordan, did not do well as his chief of staff. President Reagan's manager, William Casey, almost brought down his own government as a conniving CIA director. President Clinton had the good sense not to ask James Carville to run the country.

Rove failed in Washington, perhaps because he was trying to leave the old days behind and function as the king's philosopher. He was trying too hard. His real goal was to create a Republican coalition that would govern for at least a generation. He is leaving with the party's banners in tatters.

He was too partisan by half, believing Republicans could run the country by themselves. Part of his plan to create that permanent Republican majority was to ignore and defeat conservative or moderate congressional Democrats because they held seats in areas Republicans could win. If he understood governance, he would have advised his leader to do what Reagan did in the 1980s, that is, promise those kinds of Democrats that he would not campaign against them if they would stand with him on the few issues and votes he cared most about.

So this "boy genius" goes. Another one will appear next year, after the 2008 elections.


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