It was a kinder, gentler, downright cuddly Karl Rove who appeared this morning before 500 people including Former Federal Reserve Charirman Alan Greenspan, Maine Senator Susan Collins, Venture Capitalist John Doerr, Justice Stephen Breyer, and 500 other seekers after truth at the Aspen Ideas Festival. The crowd, like the mobs that gather on "The Simpsons" occasionally cheered and booed very specific remarks but generally followed the polite lead of Rove's interlocutor, Aspen Institute CEO Walter Isaacson.
Rove, for his part, after acknowledging that he was a bit of a hot head, kept his cool, sounding more like Bill Moyers than Sean Hannity. With regard to his notorious dirty tricks campaigns against Max Cleland and John McCain he explained how, in context, these were merely well warranted efforts to set the record straight. He conceded that he didn't know exactly when life began (a remark that PBS' Gwen Ifill, speaking from the audience, thought his evangelical allies might take issue with) but that he was uncomfortable with the mad science project he called "embryo farming," a.k.a stem cell research. Well armed with statistics, he defended the administration - and, it must be conceded, did so artfully - on the economy (he was clearly buoyed by today's news on higher-than-expected tax revenues which he credited to the Administration's relentless tax cutting), immigration, Iraq, and North Korea. Asked if he had any regrets about the last six years, he conceded that yes, duh, of course he did but he didn't plan to share them with the audience and, by extension, readers of the Huffington Post. When delays, disappointments, and failures were acknowledged in general terms, the blame was laid on Congress and the courts.
Delivering a question posed by Bill Clinton two nights before, Walter asked Rove what Rove would have done if Clinton's Chief of Staff had blown the cover of a CIA covert operative in order to punish her husband for telling the public a truth that the Administration preferred it not know. Rove took his recent toothskin thin exoneration and ran with it, saying that, had such a thing occurred, he would have condemned it in the strongest terms and demanded that the hypothetical Chief of Staff be summarily fired. If on the other hand, such a charge had been thoroughly investigated and found to be utterly groundless, then people of good faith should respect the judgment fairly rendered by our system and get on with their lives. An attempt to follow up was lazily rebuffed with the standard-issue "can't comment on an on-going investigation" routine.
Rove made a faux pas that drew a few titters when he said, in the course of telling an anecdote that harkened to his own hardscrabble immigrant heritage as a Norwegian-American (who knew?), he revealed that there is a little known and, he said, rarely used library in the White House. That, at least, rang very true.
A subsurface glimmer of the dogmatic Karl Rove, the angry Karl Rove, the nasty Karl Rove was visible only once, during a discussion of the estate tax, another Clinton question delivered by remote. "How can you justify an estate tax repeal when you claim the federal government can't afford to secure our ports?" was the gist of it. Rove, shifting into fire-and-brimstone mode, sermonized that it was simply immoral to tax people twice and, by way of illustration, parroted the party line on family farms and small businesses, bringing a tear to the eye of no one.
At the outset, in talking about Cleland and McCain, Rove said that people think he's either a genius or an idiot. Since he explained his conduct those races as rational and respectable, it's safe to conclude that Karl Rove, at least, doesn't think Karl Rove is an idiot. I've personally gone back and forth on the "Karl Rove: genius or idiot" question and I don't think today's performance settled the matter for me one way or the other. I did, however, come away with the impression that, by effortlessly managing to seem reasonable, fair-minded, and, yes, charming, Karl Rove, the architect of so much of our current misfortune, is a very dangerous man indeed.