National Commentary

Nicholas F. Benton: Deconstructing Karl Rove

The most shocking thing about Bush advisor Karl Rove’s “exit interview” with Meet the Press’ David Gregory last Sunday was nothing from the briefing notes that Rove rattled off during the half hour. It came right at the end, when Gregory aired a video clip showing Rove as a college student activist for Nixon in 1972.

In the video, Rove was being interviewed in the sub-basement of the Republican national headquarters about his role spearheading the “get out the vote” for Nixon amongst the young. It is stunning how differently he looked then compared to now, long stringy hair down over his forehead, puffy long sideburns and big, owl-like glasses.

Far from the image of the conniving bureaucrat that he has now, he appeared as a strident student ideologue and campus rabble-rouser.

Catching a glimpse of the Karl Rove of 1972 helps in understanding him and the role he’s had leading up to and with the current Bush administration. After all, what kind of young and bright college-aged student would be a devout Nixon loyalist in 1972?

Most of today’s so-called “neocons” were leftists or libertarians, at best, in 1972. The quasi-hippie, anti-Vietnam War Wolfowitz and Pearle types would have despised someone like Rove, marching in lock-step with the Republican establishment back then.

Clearly, Rove enjoyed the praise and adulation heaped upon him by his GOP masters in that era, and that helped seal his future. One can see him posturing as a radical against the radicals, someone who struck out as a rebel against the anti-war, pro-civil rights tidal wave that was sweeping over the nation’s campuses.

Maybe some anti-war girlfriend “dissed” him. Maybe he just liked swimming against the tide, even if that meant climbing into bed with Richard Nixon. Who knows? His may have paralleled the experience of David Brock, the young darling of the Washington right wing establishment in the early 1990s, who recounted after his defection in his best-selling book, “Blinded By the Right,” how he had a similar reaction to leftist activists while at the University of California in Berkeley. Off-put by their bullying political correctness, he turned to the right.

But beneath it all, Brock wrote, he couldn’t sustain it because he knew he was gay, and keeping up the charade as a right-wing homophobe began eating him alive.

Based on this example, it could be argued that Rove didn’t recover from his college-hewn right wing passions because he didn’t have an internal moral governor akin to Brock’s. One doesn’t have to be a closet case to be haunted, internally, by hypocrisy, two-facedness and deceit. Thus, for such as Rove, victory without conscience came to replace the more innocent idealistic passions of youth.

It is an oft-repeated claim that someone who is not a socialist as a youth doesn’t have a heart, and someone who is not a capitalist as an adult doesn’t have a brain. Well, Karl Rove was never a socialist.

One wonders at how early an age the “die becomes cast” for the general course and attitudes of one’s entire life. But most people agree that it is in a person’s “formative” years that change can most likely occur. Millions of young Americans underwent a genuine “paradigm shift” of core values during the massive turmoil of the civil rights and anti-war struggles of the late 60s and early 70s.

As a result, we “baby boomers” emerged from that era to launch the inventive explosion that has become the information era, and to bring a socially-transformative national conscience, rooted in equality and fair play for all, that has sunk deep into the national psyche. Translated onto a world scale, this same ethic, grounded in the empowerment of women, is now the most effective tool for replacing despots and genocidalists with democracies worldwide.   

But poor Karl Rove. He never got the memo. So he came through his college years locked into defending and crusading for the core values of the male chauvinist, swinish behaviors of America’s overtly racist and prejudice-entitled past. No wonder that, as he lost the outward trappings of his youth, he became an architect of deceit in politics and governing, and of bald-faced military aggression in place of diplomacy, multi-lateralism and social transformation in world affairs.

As he confirmed in his Meet the Press interview Sunday, aggression and war remain Rove’s solution to global tensions. If only that hippie girl hadn’t dumped him back in the day.