When Karl Rove emerged from the White House Monday morning to speak at the American Enterprise Institute, the most ominous moment came during the introduction. Christopher DeMuth, the president of the conservative think tank, went out of his way to praise Rove's "equanimity" in the face of "sharks in the water."
In Washington, when they are about to erect a statue in your honor, they praise your "genius and vision." When they are trying to decide whether to send a handwritten note in case of your indictment, they praise your "calm and equanimity."
For Woody Allen, 90 percent of life is showing up. For Rove these days, it is 100 percent. While Rove was supposedly at AEI to offer an overview of the president's inspiring economic record, that cover story was as preposterous as claiming that America invaded Iraq to safeguard its vineyards. Monday's speech and the 30-minute question-and-answer session that followed was all about projecting the image of control and nurturing the illusion of business as usual.
But everything in the world of George W. Bush these days smacks of desperate improvisation. Apologizing that his purportedly long-standing date at AEI conflicted with the thematics of the president's Monday night television address, Rove said, "I am so completely off message on a day that we're talking about immigration, I don't know if they'll let me back into the gates at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue."
Scheduling snafus like this almost never occurred during Bush's carefully choreographed first term.
Porter Goss was hastily ousted as CIA director under mysterious circumstances, presumably related to the FBI's investigation into Dusty Foggo, who just resigned as the No. 3 official at the fog-bound agency. With just a weekend's reflection, Bush nominated Gen. Michael Hayden, the head of the National Security Agency, as the nation's new spy master. Now the NSA is ensnared in a new scandal over its aggressive strip mining of domestic phone-call data just as the suddenly beleaguered Hayden will be appearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee this week.
Personnel pitfalls like this rarely ruffled the Bush team during the first term.
In the White House, Bush and Rove have catered to the prejudices of the Republican right-wing base on every issue except immigration. On this issue, the president has uncharacteristically occupied the center both because of his Texas heritage and Rove's shrewd understanding of the political demographics of the Hispanic vote. But Monday night, in a prime-time address that seemed designed only for Republican ears, Bush devoted the majority of his words to what he euphemistically called "border security" and the deployment of 6,000 members of the overtaxed National Guard.
This was one of those speeches where the key sentence was built around inserting the word "not" in a ham-handed effort to deny the obvious: "The United States is not going to militarize the southern border." In a briefing before the speech, incoming White House press secretary Tony Snow came closer to the truth when he said with new-to-the-game candor, "It is an issue of enormous passion, as perhaps you've noticed. We have seen this not only with large demonstrations in the streets. We have also seen it with [the] Minutemen."
Confronted with the nativist passions of GOP conservatives, Bush rhetorically moved to the right in an effort to still a Republican revolt. This emphasis on enforcement may have been merely atmospherics designed to smooth the way for Senate passage of a compromise immigration bill that would contain an implicit version of amnesty (but sshhh! We must never, ever call it that). But the big risk for the president is that the Senate negotiations will collapse and no strive-your-way-to-eventual-citizenship legislation will ever emerge from Congress. If Monday night's gamble fails, Hispanic voters may only remember that a Republican president named Bush sent soldiers to safeguard the peaceful border with Mexico.
But the big story of this dispiriting week for Bush is that Godot-like drama called, "Waiting for the Grand Jury." Rove's indictment has been confidently forecast on the blogosphere more often than Fidel Castro's downfall with, thus far, similar results. In contrast, I will confess to being the only journalist on the Web who has no idea when or whether Patrick Fitzgerald will charge Rove with a crime in the CIA leak inquiry.
Still, Rove's Monday appearance at AEI gave off a whiff of a farewell tour over the battlefield of political argument. Rove, who normally prefers big themes in politics rather than boring details, brandished number after number in a bold attempt at statistical prestidigitation to convince Americans that they have never had it so good. I almost expected Rove to start asking, "Who are you going to believe? My statistics or your checkbook balance?"
But when the president's approval rating is bobbing around 30 percent and less than a quarter of the electorate thinks that America is on the right track, a political strategist like Rove can carry braggadocio only so far. Asked to explain Bush's dismal poll ratings, Rove sounded like Cindy Sheehan in blaming everything on the Iraq war. "Look, we're in a sour time," he said. "I readily admit it. I mean, being in the middle of a war where people turn on their television sets and see brave men and women dying is not something that makes people happy and optimistic and upbeat."
That was an oddly passive answer, as if Rove and the president whom he has so loyally served had nothing to do with the foreordained decision to invade Iraq. But then, as he waits for a final legal determination by Fitzgerald, Rove may be getting used to dealing with life-changing issues that are utterly beyond his control.
During his speech, Rove offered the truism, "Things don't happen in Washington by accident." Rove was referring to the economy, but the maxim could have also applied to the outing of Valerie Plame as a CIA operative or the ouster of Porter Goss as CIA director. But then again, it was, of course, purely by accident that Rove emerged from seclusion to give a vaporous speech on the economy at the beginning of a week in which he might, just might, find himself under federal indictment.