Until the ethical and legal questions that trail Karl Rove are answered, his own explanation for abruptly departing the White House must suffice. Perhaps he is the first political operative in history to flee Washington because he actually wants to spend more time with his family.
Why he is leaving matters much less, however, than the opportunities he squandered and the wreckage he leaves behind.
Inevitably, thousands of words will be devoted to his electoral achievements and his ultimate failure to “realign” American politics under right-wing Republican domination—including a book he apparently plans to write. His vision of a new political dispensation proved to be more grandiose than grand. His partisan edifice is fallen into rubble. As “the architect,” he turned out to be more journeyman than genius.
If Mr. Rove’s pursuit of his objectives was finally frustrated, he certainly exercised enormous influence on decisions and events at a fateful time in our history. His petty nastiness came to matter a great deal, not because of elections won or lost but because of the polarization he sought to exaggerate and exploit. His bad advice to George W. Bush weakened the nation in the name of patriotism.
In the aftermath of 9/11, the worst attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor, Mr. Bush quickly abandoned the example of past wartime presidents who struggled to bring the entire nation together against the enemy. With astronomical approval ratings and extraordinary unity, the President could have accomplished almost anything. But following its political guru’s direction, the Bush White House used war as an instrument of Republican political domination—which meant dividing, not uniting, America.
Mr. Rove argued that only Republicans possess the moral strength to protect America from Islamist terror. Whether he personally believed this propaganda or not, it served his efforts to establish Republican hegemony.
Within months after Democrats and Republicans joined arms on the Capitol steps, standing with the President against the jihadists, Mr. Rove told the Republican National Committee that the “war on terror” would become in reality an assault on the loyal opposition. To win the midterm election, the White House would turn on the Democrats who had faithfully supported the invasion of Afghanistan and the USA Patriot Act.
“We can go to the country on this issue,” he predicted in January 2002, “because they trust the Republican Party to do a better job of protecting and strengthening America’s military might and thereby protecting America.” That bland description scarcely did justice to the campaign that ensued. The viciousness on the Republican side was typified by an ad campaign that led to the defeat of Senator Max Cleland, a triple-amputee Army veteran and bronze and silver star winner, by painting him as a stooge of terrorism.
Relishing those tactics, Mr. Rove could not have cared less about their effect on national morale and unity. Besides, he was already planning to win the upcoming presidential contest the same way. He orchestrated the politicization of the 9/11 attacks in advertising and at the New York convention, punctuated by dark warnings that a Democratic victory would signal weakness to the lurking terrorists.
Emboldened by the electoral triumphs of 2002 and 2004, Mr. Rove grew still more aggressive and vituperative. In June 2005, while addressing the New York Conservative Party’s annual dinner, he fabricated a fraudulent narrative of the war to justify his divisive strategies. With savage sarcasm, he described how conservatives supposedly differ from liberals on the issue of national security:
“Conservatives saw the savagery of 9/11 and the attacks and prepared for war; liberals saw the savagery of the 9/11 attacks and wanted to prepare indictments and offer therapy and understanding for our attackers. In the wake of 9/11, conservatives believed it was time to unleash the might and power of the United States military against the Taliban; in the wake of 9/11, liberals believed it was time to … submit a petition. …
“Conservatives saw what happened to us on 9/11 and said: We will defeat our enemies. Liberals saw what happened to us and said: We must understand our enemies.
“It was a moment to summon our national will,” he thundered, “and to brandish steel.”
The only steel Mr. Rove ever brandished was a fork, but that didn’t slow him down. Of course he knew that no Democrat or liberal had urged therapy and understanding for the hijackers. He knew that liberals and Democrats had stood squarely behind President Bush to extirpate the Taliban and destroy Al Qaeda. (Their only disappointment is that the Bush administration has prosecuted this war so ineptly, while sinking our military into the Iraqi quicksand.)
It is Mr. Rove’s disfiguring impact on our political culture that will encapsulate his career. By overreaching for permanent power, he inflicted lasting damage on the nation he swore to serve. He likes to describe himself as a student of history—so he must also know he cannot escape that dismal legacy by resigning.