Wealth of Nations July 2007

How Rove Charmed a Clinton Crowd

The real star of the show at last week's Aspen Ideas Festival wasn't Bill Clinton. It was Karl Rove.

The Wall Street Journal's John Fund attended the Aspen Ideas Festival last week, and declared Bill Clinton the star of the show. Clinton "strode onto the stage of a huge music tent Saturday and received a standing ovation from thousands of well-heeled, overwhelmingly liberal festival attendees." Was it really "thousands" (as in two or more)? No matter, Fund is right: The audience gave Clinton a standing ovation just for turning up.

The former president looked fit. He had a nice tan and wore cowboy boots. He could have said anything—"If I were still president, I would have bombed Iran by now"—and the assembled bleeding-heart plutocrats, resting between spells of discussing their carbon footprints, would still have lapped it up.

As usual, Clinton was shrewdly gracious to his enemies. He applauded President Bush's policies on combating AIDS and malaria in Africa. This flattered the audience—whose minds were as closed on the subject of George W. Bush as any minds could be—that they, too, were intelligent and high-minded about the man; and that their loathing for everything else the president stands for is not a reflex but a considered view. "Yes, Bush is good on malaria. You have to give him that." Clinton's political genius resides in touches like this. It is something to see.

Yet Clinton was not the star of the show so far as I was concerned. I give that accolade to Karl Rove.

Almost everybody who stayed to listen to Rove on the festival's last day went there mainly in the hope that heavy equipment might fall on him from a great height. This was the same crowd that had gazed wide-eyed and enchanted at their beloved Bill. Why does Rove accept these invitations, one wondered on the way in? Possibly, he does it for fun. He gave every impression of having a good time. And, in fact, he ran rings round an audience that came not to praise him but in the hope that somebody might bury him.

Interviewed by the Aspen Institute's Walter Isaacson, Rove started with some lighthearted self-deprecation. Driving to Aspen, he said with a grin, he had stopped for a coffee. Returning from the men's room, he stood in line at the counter and heard a man, just alerted to his presence in the cafe, say, "I'd like to hit that son of a bitch." Later, he was accosted by the driver of "a very expensive Land Rover," who shouted "go home" and then drove off. Rove said he was too slow to answer that he was home—he was born in Denver—and to tell the moneyed outsider to get into his private jet and fly back to the East Coast. The man had disappeared before Rove could frame the thought, but it was a good reply after the fact, he said.

It was clever to combine modesty with a pointed jab at the crowd. Despite itself, the audience laughed and was disarmed. Even Clinton would have been impressed.

Rove is the archetypal eminence grise, the backroom planner, all tactics, poll findings, and sinister maneuverings, so it comes as a shock to hear him talk knowledgeably and with apparent conviction on policy. He had slides full of facts and numbers, not on trends in campaign demographics but on immigration, energy efficiency, greenhouse-gas emissions, and the like. He was engaging and very well prepared. He spoke like an unusually effective candidate for office, not a strategy nerd.

Asked about reducing the commitment of forces in Iraq, Rove said that the surge was temporary, to stabilize the situation and to get to a position where troops can be brought home. He cited the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group report in support of the policy. He wouldn't be drawn into committing on a timetable, and he acknowledged that attacks on U.S. forces were up; but he said that the numbers of Iraqi victims of the insurgency were down and that conditions in Anbar province were much better than had seemed likely last year. Progress was being made. On the unpopularity of the al-Maliki government, he called for patience: It has not been in place very long, he said, and needs to be given a chance.

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