I Shook Karl Rove's Hand

It's true you know, I did shake Karl Rove's hand. I work as a freelance reporter for Indiana Public Radio alongside some of my teaching and grad school duties. I love radio. A lot. It's one of the few mediums that I think, has the power to transcend our culture's constant visual, commercial and overtly-sexualized image-based assault on all of us.

Everywhere we turn, it's image, image, image. I'm not anti-image, believe me, as a movie freak I'm quite the opposite. But I was raised on public radio, and there's something really soothing about being able to simply listen instead of having to be visually entertained all the time, and in radio, it's much harder to pass off any sneaky advertising. Also, radio let's the imagination play. But now I'm on a tangent.

I was lucky enough to snag the assignment to cover Karl Rove's visit to Ball State University, where he was to give a speech entitled, "Why Mid Term Elections Matter". Before the speech, he gave a press conference to local media.

Now listen, when a controversial speaker comes to town, they don't have to answer any questions. So I always appreciate it when people of note, specifically people who have to know that they are going to be facing some tough questions, open themselves up to the media. For that, I am very grateful to Rove, who was gracious in speaking with us.

But there's another part to the story. Rove's speaking contract stipulated that the media could only record his speech for the first five minutes. After that, they had to shut it down. Which let me tell you, is highly unusual. I don't know if we have ever had a speaker at Ball State that has enacted such a rule.

For one thing, why make a public speaking tour and not let it be public? For another thing, you are opening yourself up to being incorrectly quoted, and you wouldn't have any proof to back yourself up.

But of course, we honored the contract.

If you don't know who Rove is, his nickname is "the architect" and many say that he is almost solely responsible for getting George Bush elected twice in a row. He has other unfortunate nicknames...but I will let you discover those for yourself. He's a conservative masthead, a commenter on FOX News, a political analyst, and he was Bush's Chief of Staff for years. He played a large part in a great many decisions involving the invasion of Iraq and other legislation relevant to the war. Here's his Wikipedia page.  Here is his home page. 

When I did my IPR story, it was a difficult task. I had to Nina Totenburg-style sum it up, because we weren't allowed to record. I knew it was different than usual from the beginning, because all of our bags were searched at the door before we could enter the building. I knew this assignment would result in a little trouble, and I was right...

Some people emailed the station after my story aired and said that I quoted him wrong. I didn't. He actually used the word, "whuppin'". (And maybe next week when I have the time, I'll throw the audio up in this blog entry as a video, so you can hear for yourself.)


But the problem, as a journalist, is that when people don't allow you to record what they have to say, and you then become the only medium to report back to the public what they said...they will find something wrong with the way you did it and be able to point the finger at you. Some people didn't like my tone (I'm sorry, I don't know how to say "whuppin'" with the correct inflection.)

The real problem is that Rove is media savvy, if they didn't like what I said, it was because I didn't perform it in precisely the same way that he did. Rove knows what he's doing, how to craft an image, and is very smart about communication. So if you want to work that hard to control your image, you could be sabotaging yourself by then not allowing yourself to be in control of it anymore, if that makes sense. He was very similar to Bush in the sense that he has a very, "Don't mind me, I'm just an ordinary down-home, no-nonsense kind of guy." (He also uses the "word" NUCULAR. Pardon the English teacher in me, but that's not a word. The word is NUCLEAR.)

I left calling it the Karl Rove Blue Collar Comedy Tour, because Rove is funny. He knows how to work a crowd. He makes people laugh and feel at ease. He could've easily gone into the performing arts.

But he is also alternatingly cold, with the ability to turn on a dime. Again, this comes from years of experience in dealing with the press. One reporter asked him in the green room before the speech how he defined torture. Rove then cited the U.S. Code number that defines torture, implying that his definition is the U.S. governmental definition.

The reporter then asked blatantly, "Is waterboarding torture?"

Rove said simply, "No," and then looked to the rest of us for the next question.

That's the biggest impression I came away with, someone warm, funny, and savvy. Someone who could be one of your uncles or even a grandpa. Someone you would meet at a grocery store and not look twice. Someone, believe it or not, if you were to meet not having any idea who they were, you would want to like.

Rove wore scuffed black shoes, a blue suit, an orange tie, and silver buffalo nickel cuff links. He was gracious, shook all of our hands, and at the end of his speech, he opened the floor for anyone to ask questions, no holds barred.

I feel like I got a first hand lesson in why dictators succeed. I'm not calling Rove a dictator. But I am telling you that the man has persuasive ability. During his speech, he said a lot of centrist things, moderate things even. He doesn't like it when people call Obama a Muslim, he's for "No Child Left Behind", he's not a fan of the Tea Party. He's a rational man.

But his answer to the water boarding question echoed in my head as I watching this walking contradiction in action. A down home guy, an average American in appearance, a political power player who shaped the entire history of our country. One of these things is not like the other.

But he doesn't mind torturing human beings, or allowing them to be tortured. He believes that the ends justify the means.

I do not.

I believe that America should be above torture. It's what makes us different. What makes us great. Due process and human rights. It's scary to me, the thin line between civilization and chaos. That someone as friendly and respectful and downright personable could be walking around with that little tweak of logic in his head.

And that little tweak is often what makes the difference between gossip and action, the American Legal System and the Salem Witch Trials.

I don't mean to spear Rove, I really don't. I believe that people already have their opinions of Rove formed and there's nothing I could say in either direction to sway them, and quite frankly, I don't want to. I don't want to be one of those journalists that runs off with my audio and cuts it up to make Rove sound like he said something he didn't, or is nice to him in person but exploitative behind his back after he gives an interview. I'm all about the facts, and when I'm doing my job, I have no opinion. (But seeing as how this is my personal blog...) I know that Rove believes whole-heartedly that he has done good things, right things, and that he knows exactly what the country needs and in a way, is campaigning for the Republicans still with speeches like the one he gave. But I also know other things, about decisions he made when working for Bush, and sometimes things people say and things they do don't line up. Plain and simple. No matter how personable they are or how the accouterments they wear (even silver buffalo nickel cuff links) characterizes them, no matter how much I want to like them or give them a fair shake. Literally, in this case.

Sitting in Rove's speech and seeing the crowd jump to their feet at the slightest joke or reference or patriotic mention, hearing the unconditional applause, it just strikes me how ready to follow we are as people. I now understand first hand how dictators take power. Again, not that Rove is a dictator, obviously, but there's a lot to be said of our desperate need for strong leadership and the way that it can turn on us as a culture and a country. And that's true across party lines and religions and...

Well, I'm getting way beyond myself here.

Rove is essentially out of whatever power he had governmentally. But he's still a huge influence. Then again so is Rush Limbaugh and Madonna and Lady Gaga. Am I worried about one man's personal stance on torture. No. Because again, he's out of power, and if I stewed about his opinions, I'd have to stew for millions of others. What I can do instead is just exercise the one thing I have. My voice. I believe that waterboarding is torture. I believe that torture is bad. I believe that it can go too far too fast, even when it's being "used for good". (Abu Gharib) I believe in human rights. And that's all I have. I don't want to argue with other people, I just want to say what I believe.

It's great to listen to people in politics and entertainment, and we have to be able to be at peace with people that we disagree with. But I also believe that there's a time to step back and say, "Whoa, something you just said made me look at you differently." I can't believe that a rational person, no matter how sensible they sound during a speech or an event, is actually as rational as they say they are if they approve of human torture.

So watch your leaders and icons, no matter what business they're in. Research them. Know what they stand for, and be sure that you can stand alongside them in confidence, knowing their intentions and agreeing with them.

After all, a buffalo nickel may be pretty shiny, but it's not the real deal anymore.