Karl Rove, Overexposed

Karl Rove's book is out on Tuesday, and although it is still acceptable to call it "long-awaited," I would venture to say that it is probably quite a bit less "long-awaited" than it was a year ago. That's because, since he's left the White House, Rove has turned from a mysterious Machiavelli, one of the smartest strategists in the history of politics, a self-taught mastro of politics, into a Fox News Channel analyst -- a (particularly smart) political hack.

His weekly Wall Street Journal columns provided some interesting, experienced-base analysis when they first started, but now they've become fairly conventional representations of partisan talking points. His appearances on Fox News are forgettable. He has groupies -- just check out the number of people who reply to his Tweets with rapture -- but even within the Republican consulting world he is viewed with less respect. Several potential presidential candidates consultant him, largely because he can give good counsel about campaigns. But they aren't eager to associate themselves with him.  Karl Rove, once a superstar, has regressed toward the mean.

Mark Halperin and ABC's The Note helped to build the Rove mythology. We called him "SMIP" -- the Smartest Man In Politics. And he was: a walking rolodex and encyclopedia, expostulating about political history and able to drill down deep inside Congressional districts. At one White House meeting with him, he asked why the Poland Springs water bottle he had handed me (yes, I carried Karl Rove's water, hah hah) was so special.  No idea. He proceeded to give me a political history of the company. He courted reporters, knowing whom to respond to and whom to ignore (he never once responded to my e-mails -- kr@who.eop.gov didn't reply), and he had a very well developed sense about the biases and structure of the traditional media.  A serious appraisal of Rove's political work can be found here. 

He was a brilliant campaign strategist. His singular achievement, I think, was in the way he rendered the George W. Bush persona he helped craft as (a) the heir to the Republican throne, the inevitable nominee, and (b) acceptable to evangelicals AND Catholics. It was always an open question about whether Rove himself was religious or not. Many detractors today point to Terry Nelson or Ken Mehlman or Karen Hughes as the real forces of genius behind the Bush political brand, but it was Rove who knew someone everyone, who was plugged in, who used his intergovernmental affairs portfolio to harness the Bush campaign machine to government. Rove had little to do with the national security policies and consequential decisions about Iraq that enemies suspected, but he designed and implemented the successful strategy that played upon Americans' fear of terrorism to portray the Democratic Party as feckless. (The Dems were feckless -- about standing up to Rove.) And Rove knew how to recruit candidates, he knew how to scare (some) members of Congress. He was an enforcer of discipline. And of loyalty: there are many GOP operatives today who owe Rove their thanks for their careers.

I will read his book, and I'm sure I'll learn much from it. I bet it will be better than critics might think -- more personal, certainly.   But for me, it will be less than it might once have been.   

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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