The Shifting, Shifty Attack on Hillary Clinton

Karl Rove delivered a bogus attack on the Democratic contender, and now his defenders are pretending he said something else entirely.
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If you think Karl Rove’s attack on Hillary Clinton’s health was mendacious, just read the arguments prominent conservatives are using to defend him.

“Rove is right,” declares National Review Editor Rich Lowry, writing in Politico. “His basic points are unassailable—the state of Clinton’s health will play into her decision whether or not to run, she will have to be completely open about the 2012 episode and all of this will be filtered through the fact that she will be 69 if elected and 77 if she serves two terms. 

Sounds reasonable, except that those weren’t Rove’s “basic points” at all. Had he merely said that Clinton will take health into account in deciding whether to run or that she’ll have to be open about her health history, the press would have yawned. What Rove actually did was imply that Hillary is mentally impaired. “Thirty days in the hospital?” he said, according to the New York Post. “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.” Rove hasn’t denied the quote. What he’s done is indignantly deny using the phrase “brain damage,” a phrase the Post never claimed he’d used in the first place.

Lowry can’t defend Rove’s actual statement any better than Rove—partly because Hillary spent three days, not 30, in the hospital and partly because there’s no evidence whatsoever that she is suffering the effects of a “traumatic brain injury.”

 So, like Rove, he creates a diversion. The real issue, Lowry argues, is whether it’s legitimate to take “the fact that she will be 69 if elected and 77 if she serves two terms” into account in judging Hillary’s candidacy.” He goes onto devote the bulk of his column to proving that when candidates of Hillary’s age have run in the past, their opponents have implied they’re too old for the job.

Notice the sleight of hand? Rove didn’t say anything about Hillary’s age. Of course her opponents—if they’re younger than here—will play up their youthful vigor, just as she’ll likely stress their lack of experience. There’s nothing wrong with that. (Although, ironically, Rove has denounced Democrats for raising the age issue in the past.) Ronald Reagan had to voters convince he wasn’t too old when running against the younger Walter Mondale in 1980; Bob Dole faced the same challenge against Bill Clinton in 1996, as did John McCain when battled Barack Obama in 2008. So will Hillary.

That’s all beside the point. Lowry says that Rove’s comments “caused a volcanic eruption of denunciation” because they were deemed “ageist.” No, they caused a “volcanic eruption” because he implied—based on zero medical evidence--—that she’s sick in the head.

Karl Rove has a long history of spreading vicious rumors about political opponents. Unfortunately, conservative journalists like Rich Lowry have a long history of turning a blind eye.

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Peter Beinart is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and National Journal, an associate professor of journalism and political science at the City University of New York, and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

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