What the Media Can Learn From Karl Rove About Covering Politics

For reporters, it would useful, even instructive, to read Karl Rove’s memoir of his life in politics.

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By Peter Roff, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

To be frank, the journalists who cover U.S. elections are, by and large, not really up to the job. There are a select few, like former U.S. News columnist Michael Barone, the much-missed Tim Russert, and others who, as former practitioners of some aspect of the “dark arts” themselves, understand the subtexts and subtleties of campaigns and their strategies and can explain them in ways that are neither mind-numbing nor unbalanced.

They are too few in number. Many of the rest--but by no means all--of the stamped out, blow dried network types who report on poll numbers like they were sports’ scores and who are obsessed, to borrow a word from Sarah Palin, with playing “Gotcha” so obviously radiate contempt for the candidates they are assigned to cover or are so clearly in love with them that they fail to even approach objectivity.

For them, especially, it would useful, even instructive, to read Karl Rove’s memoir of his life in politics. Most books of this type are little more than an “I was there as history unfolded” collections of great moments and significant accomplishments. Rove’s Courage and Consequence is decidedly not that kind of book. Instead it is something more on the order of, well, a training manual for anyone who is interested in running campaigns or, of equal importance, covering them.

Among the consultants that now run national campaigns there a few, and certainly none on the left, who have been as vilified and demonized as Karl Rove. Even Democrats who lose high profile campaign after high profile campaign year after year get better press and better TV deals than he has. It’s the curse of being a winner.

Nonetheless, the political wisdom he shares in the book amounts to a graduate-level class in U.S. politics. Exhibit “A” being the chapter he devotes to explaining the “Rovian’ style of campaigning,” a phrase, he writes, that “is meant as an insult.”

“One columnist said it consists ‘mainly of throwing mud until it sticks.’ Another pair of journalists characterized my style as ‘episodes of dirty tricks, well-timed investigations, and electoral legerdemain,'” Rove writes. “And then comes this version: ‘Even the most hardened cynics find themselves continually surprised by the ability of Rove and his minions to always hit that evasive new low, coming up with things that would shock a 60-year-old Greyhound-station hooker.”

In reality there are eight specific elements that make up a Rovian campaign, he explains, explaining each one in some detail and how they apply to overall campaign strategy. You have to buy the book to read what they are, but this chapter alone should be required reading for anyone who intends to cover the 2012 U.S. presidential contest.

In sum, however, a Rovian campaign is one in which no punches are pulled and in which conservative Republicans take liberal candidates and elected officials to task for the things they have said, they things they have done and the things they promise to do it in the future. He plays hardball, as he himself explains again and again in his book, but he knows how to win. Which may be the most important endorsement of all.

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