White House aid and Republican tactician Karl Rove deftly dodged and rebutted jabs from former President Clinton, sought to disclaim dirty campaign tactics often attributed to him and offered passionate pleas for the elimination of the estate tax and, especially, for a comprehensive solution to illegal immigration.
Rove's 90-minute discussion with Aspen Institute's Walter Isaacson Sunday morning was considered by attendees we polled almost universally to be a strong and refreshingly earnest performance, even by those of a different political stripe who viewed the performance as only confirming their opinion of him as a wily, silver-tongued political operative.
The Atlantic's James Fallows called it "a virtuoso performance," an assessment with which we found most would heartily agree.
At one point, Rove pulled from his pocket a notecard with facts to rebut one of the three questions Clinton has posed for him earlier in the weekend that involved whether Republicans would support shoring up port security. Isaacson noted that Rove had come prepared, wondering if perhaps Rove had read news accounts of Clinton's talk?
"We have our sources," Rove replied, drawing a robust laugh from the packed audience when he added the NSA (now infamous for its program of monitoring certain telephone traffic in an effort to target trapping terrorist communications) has been "particularly active" over the weekend and that "some of you" have been having "interesting conversations" while here at Aspen.
On Iraq, Rove managed to fit in that his own cousin had served three tours of duty there, by way of explaining how the military's strategy had to shift from a simple "clearing" to drive out insergents, when it became apparent the insurgents would merely reoccupy the cleared areas. "There was no local government," he said. "So we had to change the strategy from clering out to clearing, holding and building."
Rove's words appeared somewhat more eloquent than the administration's oft-repeated contention that U.S. forces would stand down as Iraqi troops and security forces stand up, though it was not a departure from that approach.
"If we can't do that, we shouldn't be there," he said. "It won't be perfect. It's not going to be U.S. style. ...It's going to be Iraq..."
Though at times a bit stiff in the character of his Norwegian ancestry to which he referred, Rove also addressed illustrious members of his audience with ease, referring cordially to former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan as well as to Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer and Democratic Rep. Jane Harmon, her party's ranking member on issues of Homeland Security.
Asked about the incarceration at Guantanamo, which the administration has said it would eventually close, Rove said the recent Supreme Court decision had left the White House mulling choices that were not in his opinion ideal. "As a result we're having to use old institutions for new circumstances."
"We want to close it [Guantanamo], but we've been respectful of the court. He then turned towards Breyer, sitting at the front of the auditorium, and said, "Justice Breyer...give us a little more clarity next time!"
Isaacson interrupted Rove a moment to note that "Justice Breyer just shrugged an apology," to which Rove asked with a hint of levity whether he could be absolved of any prospect of a court-imposed fine for having raised the issue in Aspen's informal setting.
At times - when questioned about the Valerie Plame/CIA leak affair, Guantanamo and Iraq - Rove appeared defensive and occasionally flustered, but some also found that evidence of candor, even if many among the liberal side of the audience said the 90 minutes did little to dispel their distrust of the wily adviser. At least one response - in which he declared respect for the courts over the issue of Guantanamo detainees - was met with a collective hiss from the audience.
"Make up your mind: I'm either a genius or an idiot," Rove said at one point.
On Clinton's question regarding the Plame affair, in which conservative columnist Robert Novak blew the identity of the undercover CIA agent based on administration sources after her husband Joe Wilson challenged White House claims about Iraq's efforts to develop nuclear weapons, Rove proceeded cautiously. Clinton had asked what Rove would say if the shoe were on the other foot and it the outing had been made by Democrats. Rove said a person suspected of outing a CIA agent should be fired or absolved depending on the outcome of "a careful and thoughtful and aggressive investigation...and I do mean long and thorough."
"I would suggest people honor the process," he added. "That's a serious charge."
"If the charge were accurate, it would be more than regrettable, it would be wrong," he said under further questioning by Isaacson, drawing a hiss when he added: "I am going to respect the fact that there's an ongoing case on this."
"There are a lot of thoughtful people at the Aspen Institute," he retorted. "If you thought I was ducking that last question, wait until you hear this one...."
Rove also bristled a bit when Isaacson posed another of Clinton's three questions for Rove, regarding harsh TV commercials for GOP Georgia senate challenger Saxby Chambliss in 2002 which has been blamed for derailing the re-election campaign of Democratic Sen. Max Cleland, a decorated Vietnam war hero who left two legs and much of an arm on the battlefield.
"I didn't run the Saxby Chambliss campaign," Rove retorted, adding he had read the script but never actually seen the commercial, which had shown images of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein in association with Cleland over his voting record, which Rove said included 11 votes against the White House on national security issues.
Rove also disclaimed any role in vicious attacks during the 2000 South Carolina primary against presidential rival John McCain, the Arizona senator, saying "...there are a lunatics running around South Carolina. "I spent 19 days trying to keep people from saying bad things about John McCain."
Rove said he did not consider hostile rhetoric to be new to American politics, though he acknowledged there had been some "pretty vicious, personal stuff" thrown back and forth from the 1990s. "I hope we're in the final stages of a 10- to 12-year run," he stated.
None of this "heated rhetoric" had come out of President Bush's mouth, or that of his spokesman, Rove noted. Democrats in the audience said this was by design, however, citing a lengthy political pattern of taking advantage of surrogates' invective while allowing the candidate or politician to take the high road.
"I'm a hot head. I admit it," Rove said.
Nonetheless, Rove's most exultant moments came in defense of the White House's persistent effort to eliminate the estate tax, dubbed the 'death tax' by Republican detractors. "It is a moral wrong to tax something twice," said Rove. "We tax that estate when it is built, then when we tax it when you're dead. It's just wrong."
Rove chided high-flying multimillionaires and billionaires, including some in the audience, who were among the "people who fly in and out of Aspen on your jets" and who he said can hire well-healed estate tax accountants and lawyers to shelter their fortunes in trusts yet who oppose eliminating the estate tax.
"It is wrong and we need to get rid of it," he said to a healthy applause.
Yet critics later said Rove had conflated the issue, which in some cases would allow a person to pass on enormous untaxed capital gains to his or her heirs, adding that increasing the estate tax exemption could protect family businesses Rove cited while still recovering significant amounts from the mega-rich.
The cagey counselor's most fervent and persuasive moments came at the end of the interview, when he extended his remarks by more than a quarter of an hour with a personal and passionate plea for the administration's effort to provide a comprehensive approach to illegal immigration.
Calling himself the "highest ranking Norwegian American in the White House - Hell, the only Norwegian American in the White House," Rove said the immigration system was "absolutely broken" relative to illegal entrants. He expounded in detail about efforts to diminish illegal crossings, including the number of repeated attempts by Mexicans, whom he said account for 85% of illegals. He said six million illegal immigrants are estimated to have entered the country since 2001. "We're doing the darndest things you can imagine," to improve the situation, and have had success in such areas as reducing the number of days captured illegal immigrants are detained.
"We've got to have a temporary border program that allows people to come hear for a reasonable time. We know people do not come here to stay in America...most of Mexicans want to get a nest egg and go home."
Rove also said it was impractical and destabilizing to consider forcing 10 million to 12.5 million estimated long time illegal immigrant cohort to "get the hell out of here," and it would have a disruptive economic impact as well.
"We'd better do something about this in a compassionate way, or we're going to find that our country has lost something really vitally important," he urged, adding resentment and fear of immigrants was not new, but needed to be overcome once again. "We are a great country.... There's no Filipino dream, no Japanese dream, no Italian dream, but there is an American dream. "
Rove also addressed the following topics:
Republican Control of Congress.
- predicting Republicans will keep their majorities in the House and the Senate. "They [Republican Congressional candidates] have a plan that they're executing...they're doing what needs to be done."
- saying gerrymandering and the power of incumbency would help diminish any Republican declines in Congress, as he said it had for the Democrats in earlier decades.
- also saying he'd favor a more fair method of drawing district lines, while noting technology now made it possible to carve out favorable districts by voting records down to the block by block level. "This is one in which everybody's hands are dirty and nobody's hands are clean."
- arguing one should be cautious arguing ethical issues with certainty, when asked by public television correspondent and anchor Gwen Ifill about Rove's statement during a discussion that he "didn't know when life began." Rove said he discusses the matter "a lot" with evangelical Christians, and was scornful of an unnamed bioethicist who he said appeared unsympathetic to the sensitivity of the question in briefing President Bush. "We have to be very careful not to be callous," Rove said, adding in reference to stem cells, "We do know that we all once were that."
- acknowledging the White House believes global warming exists and that the activities of mankind have contributed to it, but said it was not clear how dangerous the problem is or how urgently it need be addressed.
- saying the Bush administration, which deems the Kyoto accord a failure, had earmarked $3 billion towards reducing greenhouse gases, more than any previous administration, and claimed it had forged bilateral agreements with countries which altogether produce 70% of greenhouse gases, involving technology exchange and similar activities.
Flag-burning and Gay Marriage.
- citing perennial support for the Flag amendment each election year, and blaming the proponents of gay marriage for having "inserted itself into American politics" by seeking to assert marriage rights, culminating in the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decision which he said forced conservatives into action. Rove cited passage of 19 previous state referendums defining marriage as between one man and one woman, with the closest being 55-44 in Oregon, and he said there would be 13 more state ballot measures on the issue this year.
- professing that decisions about school vouchers and charter schools were up to states and to local governments, while adding the Bush administration continues to support these programs as they had in Texas, arguing they were particularly important as a means to educate difficult children. "The disruptive student is one of the biggest threats to a safe classroom," he said, promoting national assessment standards and the five-year-old No Child Left Behind initiative, the latter having often been faulted for having been underfunded.
North Korea and Iran.
- disagreeing with assertions the Bush administration might have moved more proactively on the issues of nuclear weapons programs in North Korea and Iran, Rove said Bush had actually raised the heat by (famously) labeling them alongside Iraq as the axis of evil.
- when asked "is there anything you'd do different?" Rove replied: "The answer is, lots."
Yet Rove said he saw little benefit in engaging in "endless mea culpas in front of news cameras."