There’s an old joke about a skunk who lifts his tail and, as bystanders hold their noses, says, “So do you!” Once again, Bush-era Republican maven Karl Rove has lifted his tail and altered the (ahem) atmospherics in America’s political room — while simultaneously conducting a new and old media symphony as if he were a world-famous maestro.
This time, with no apparent sense of irony, the man nicknamed “Bush’s Brain” is implying that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is brain damaged.
You to have give Rove credit: he is a worthy descendent of the late no-holds-or-smears-barred political Republican consultant Lee Atwater. In keeping with Rove’s modus operandi, he suggested that the Democrat Republicans fear most for 2016 is brain damaged. After his quote swept the media, he protested, why, I never really s-a-i-d that. But, he later told a reporter, she has to be “forthcoming” about what happened.
Rove’s trademark style is to imply, deny, then fan the controversy HE instigated, so it dominates a news cycle, is embedded in voters’ minds and infects his opponent’s imagery. Critics allege he masterminded various rumors that he denied starting that undermined some foes over the years.
The most recent issue Rove created has its roots in late 2012, when Hillary Clinton was hospitalized for a few days because of a concussion-caused blood clot. Doctors said she didn’t undergo a stroke or suffer lasting damage. So Rove said this, as reported by The New York Post: “Thirty days in the hospital? And when she reappears, she’s wearing glasses that are only for people who have traumatic brain injury? We need to know what’s up with that.”
Fox News personalities, some talk show hosts and conservative bloggers had previously accused Clinton of faking it in the hospital. But all it took was for Rove to make this charge and they changed their attack line on a dime. Democratic and liberal bloggers and talk show hosts responded. The mainstream media covered the controversy and ran Clinton camp denials.
Even Bill Clinton got involved: “’First they said she faked her concussion. And now they say she’s auditioning for a part on the Walking Dead,” he was quoted as saying. “You can’t be too upset about it. It’s just the beginning. They’ll get better and better about it. It’s just part of the deal.”
Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, on Face the Nation, declared that there’s “a line beyond which you shouldn’t go. And I thought it was about as inappropriate a thing you could say.” Rove serenely doubled down, insisting he had no regrets, and continuing to cultivate the seeds of doubt that an older woman named Hillary Clinton was physically fit enough to be President.
Consider this “The Return of Karl Rove” after his disastrous election 2012 performance when his PAC, American Crossroads GPS, reported spending $175 million, but had virtually nothing to show for it except furious donors. Next came his notorious election night melt-down on Fox News when he insisted Mitt Romney hadn’t lost yet, and berated Fox News for announcing Barack Obama’s win. He seemed to be doing an Al Haig imitation. All that was missing was Rove announcing: “I am in control here at Fox News.”
Rove’s current political symphony has skeptics, such as Weekly Standard’s founder-editor Bill Kristol: “I don’t think it was a particularly shrewd move. I mean, we’ll see how Secretary Clinton’s health is,” Kristol said on ABC News. “She’ll be out there campaigning, presumably ... I imagine her health will be fine. But in any case, people can see for themselves. So there’s no reason for Karl Rove to speculate about it.”
But there is a reason: his tactics work. To some, Rove symbolizes American politics. More specifically, he symbolizes the worst in American politics.
Rove knows how to employ insinuation to undermine foes, bolster his candidates, and provide a template for other consultants who want results. And he and other political hired guns will keep churning out their synthetic negatives, and brilliantly manipulate the new and old media, until one day Americans weary of this political lap dance shout: “So do you!”
(Joe Gandelman is a veteran journalist who wrote for newspapers overseas and in the United States. He has appeared on cable news show political panels and is Editor-in-Chief of The Moderate Voice, an Internet hub for independents, centrists and moderates. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)