If Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) holds true to his recent promise to slap Karl Rove with a contempt of Congress charge for refusing to answer questions about explosive abuse-of-power allegations and whether Rove unleashed the Justice Department on a prominent Alabama Democrat, it will be interesting to see how Rove's newfound media employers at Newsweek, Fox News, and The Wall Street Journal handle the story.
It will also be worth noting how Beltway opinion-makers in the press, who in recent weeks have been praising Rove for his second act as a full-time pundit, deal with the messy development.
When Rove began lining up media jobs following his 2007 White House departure, there were howls of protest about such an obvious and controversial partisan being embraced by media outlets as a news analyst.
The politics-to-press revolving door is not good for journalism. (We need more reporters, not pundits.) But the trend is not going away, and history shows the media are far more willing to hire partisan Republicans than Democrats.
My beef with the Rove hiring, though, centers on two issues related specifically to him. The first is about the still-unfolding saga out of Alabama (more on that below) and the way Rove's new employers consistently downplay that troubling story. As do journalists now busy handing out kudos to Rove for his talking-head talent.
But secondly, and perhaps more importantly, why is Rove being held up as a paragon of political analysis at the very moment the Republican president he helped mold, and the Republican Congress he helped steer, are both in complete free falls? I don't remember the mainstream media clamoring to sign up the political insights of Hamilton Jordan just as President Jimmy Carter plummeted in the polls.
According to the most recent surveys, President Bush's current second-term debacle exceeds any other White House calamity in modern times. Yet the man who made it all possible, the "brains" behind the president who has become "radioactive" inside his own party, is toasted in the press as a political wise man.
Since when do the spoils go to the loser?
And do editors or producers at Newsweek or The Wall Street Journal or Fox News even broach the topic with Rove and ask him to pontificate, in print or on the air, about why the Republican Party that he helped shape for much of the last decade is now spiraling downward, and why Bush has made history as the most disliked president ever to sit in the Oval Office? Or do news executives not want to highlight to their readers and viewers the fact that their vaunted political expert, whose insights are advertised as being so valuable, actually helped design the GOP's modern-day Edsel?
It makes no sense, but I can't say I'm surprised by the lack of reality that surrounds Rove and the glowing reviews he's collecting from the press.
It's simply a continuation of the gooey, ongoing crush the Beltway press has had on Rove, who for years was credited in the media for building the Republican Party into a sleek, hardball-playing, election-winning vessel that could out-race the dawdling Democrat boat with ease. Rove, the press cheered, had literally cracked the code to winning elections, and poor Democrats were powerless to slow down his juggernaut.
Forget that Bush has suffered a historic plummet in the polls, bottoming out at a depth never before measured with modern polling. None of that matters, because as MSNBC's Norah O'Donnell proclaimed just last week, Rove "is a brilliant political tactician."
That has been the divined media narrative on Rove for years, and nothing will change it. Not even the fact that Republican pros now publicly admit the number one challenge facing the party come November is Bush's dismal standing among most Americans. "As the head figure of the Republican brand, President Bush continues to flounder," Rep. Tom Davis (R-VA) wrote to his colleagues last week, stressing the political climate for Republicans "is the worst since Watergate."
The carnage come November could be historic, especially in the wake of the GOP's stunning Mississippi loss last week in the kind of congressional district Democrats don't even usually compete in, let alone win by eight points. The Republican Party spent more $1 million trying to salvage the race. As the Politico noted:
Many House GOP operatives are privately predicting that the party could easily lose up to 20 seats this fall.
Combined with the 30 seats that the GOP lost in 2006, that would leave the party facing a 70-vote deficit against Democrats in the House -- a state of powerlessness reminiscent of Republicans' long wilderness years in the 1960s and '70s.
And for that, all-star pundit Karl Rove deserves the blame. Why won't the media assign it?
Sweet Home Alabama
Meanwhile, the Alabama saga continues to gather momentum. The short version is that former Gov. Don Siegelman, a Democrat who was convicted on corruption charges in 2006, has accused Rove of engineering the prosecution through the Justice Department in order to make sure Siegelman could not run again for re-election. The politician also claims Rove helped steal the bitterly contested 2002 Alabama governor's election, which Siegelman lost by just 3,000 votes. Siegelman led as returns came in on Election Day and throughout the night. It was only when the ballot count from Baldwin County changed drastically from its initial tally that the Democrat lost.
Siegelman claims the incidents were part of a sinister, by-any-means-necessary effort by Rove to politicize the Justice Department to ensure a permanent Republican majority. ("I think this will make Watergate look like child's play," Siegelman insists.)
Backing up the heart of Siegelman's claim about the political prosecution is a longtime Republican attorney from Alabama named Dana Jill Simpson. She signed an affidavit last year and claimed she took part in a conference call with Alabama Republican operatives where Rove's role in Siegelman's prosecution was discussed.
Both Siegelman, currently released from prison on bond following an appeals court ruling, and Simpson have appeared on 60 Minutes to make their claims against Rove. (For more details on Siegelman, go here, here, or here.)
The Alabama story has been picked up by congressional Democrats, who are already investigating what role Rove played in the Bush administration's unprecedented firing of eight U.S. attorneys. Conyers, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, requested that Rove testify about Siegelman.
Despite the fact that he claims to have had absolutely no involvement in the matter, Rove has refused to testify. (Wouldn't that be the easiest type of testimony to give?) Instead, Rove offered to speak privately with committee staff off the record and with no transcript. The problem with that kind of arrangement, as Salon.com's Joe Conason wrote in 2007, is that the Valerie Plame leak investigation has already highlighted how "Rove is a proven liar who cannot be trusted to tell the truth even when he is under oath, unless and until he is directly threatened with the prospect of prison time."
Still, most the media have been too busy toasting Rove the pundit -- they love his disarming on-air charm! -- to dwell on the looming controversy. (MSNBC's Dan Abrams and CBS' 60 Minutes have proven to be two key exceptions.) When The New York Times and The Washington Post ran lengthy, flattering profiles of Rove, totaling more than 2,000 words, the newspapers set aside just 68 words, combined, to reference the Siegelman story.
As for Rove's new media employers, I searched Nexis and could find only a single sentence published in Newsweek that referenced the allegations Siegelman has lodged against Rove. At Fox News, there have been, at best, just a handful of passing references that appeared in Nexis in the last month. And the Journal has devoted virtually no coverage to Siegelman's allegations against Rove. A search of the Factiva database turned up one reference in a story about an Alabama TV station blacking out the 60 Minutes broadcast in which Siegelman's claims were investigated.
The press is too busy employing -- and praising -- Rove to notice his mounting legal jeopardy. I can't help thinking that the media reaction would be much different if a Democratic adviser were at the center of attention. I'm thinking specifically about 1997, when longtime Clinton presidential adviser George Stephanopoulos left the administration and took a job at ABC News as a full-time pundit. What if just months after arriving at ABC News, it was alleged that Stephanopoulos had been at the center of an abuse-of-power scandal within the Clinton administration, as has Rove? Would the press have reacted the same way? Let's play that out a bit and see.
First, a quick history lesson in how the overcaffeinated political press operated during the Clinton '90s. Webster Hubbell was a longtime friend of Bill and Hillary Clinton's. Hubbell was named associate attorney general at the outset of Clinton's first term but had to step down when investigators found that while previously working at the Rose Law firm in Little Rock (where Hillary also worked), Hubbell had billed clients for work that was never performed and that Hubbell never reported the earnings to the IRS. Hubbell was sentenced to 21 months in prison for tax evasion.
Throughout the 1990s, Hubbell repeatedly clashed with independent counsel Kenneth Starr, who pressed the Clinton friend for more damning information about the ongoing Whitewater-related investigations. Over time, the press joined Starr's conspiratorial obsession that Hubbell was the key to unraveling the Clinton's criminal empire. The press went even further, suggesting the Clintons were somehow muzzling Hubbell (hush money?) from talking about their business dealings. In the end, Hubbell was of no use to Starr because he had no damning inside information about the Clintons.
Now, let's tweak the script just a bit to make the Hubbell story more analogous to the current Rove-Siegelman controversy and see what it would have looked like if Stephanopoulos, having just joined ABC News as a pundit, had been at the center of the allegations.
Let's say that while sitting inside the Cumberland Federal Correctional Institution in Maryland, Hubbell claimed that Stephanopoulos had served as his go-between with the Clintons as they discussed their conspiracy of silence. Then a Democratic attorney from Arkansas and longtime party loyalist released a signed affidavit in which she claimed to have overheard a conference call where party operatives made open reference to the fact that Stephanopoulos was applying pressure to the Justice Department to make sure it backed off any further Hubbell prosecutions, thereby ensuring Hubbell wouldn't become a political problem for the White House.
Imagine the Democratic whistle-blower then went on 60 Minutes and made her charges on national television. Then Hubbell was released on bond while a retrial was contemplated, and he went on 60 Minutes and claimed Stephanopoulos, in coordination with the Clinton White House and Justice Department, had tried to silence him. And then the Republican-controlled House demanded that Stephanopoulos testify under oath about the allegations, but Stephanopoulos refused to cooperate, thereby initiating possible contempt of Congress charges.
If all of that took place, do you think A) ABC News would have kept Stephanopoulos on the air as a political pundit, the way Fox News, Newsweek, and The Wall Street Journal have kept Rove on their payrolls? B) ABC News would have essentially boycotted reporting on Hubbell's allegations, the way Fox News, Newsweek, and the Journal have mostly stayed clear of Rove's Siegelman mess? And/or C) The Washington Post and The New York Times would have published glowing reviews about what an insightful pundit Stephanopoulos had turned out to be, while basically ignoring the explosive allegations made by Hubbell and the Democratic attorney in Arkansas?
The media's double standard seems obvious.
To recap: The Siegelman saga gains momentum while the GOP disintegrates, and Karl Rove continues to harvest media kudos as a masterful political tactician.
Which one of those three just doesn't belong?
Update: On May 22, Conyers' House Judiciary Committee subpoenaed Rove. The subpoena reportedly orders him to testify about the Siegelman saga before the House panel on July 10.