NPR's Terry Gross interviewed Karl Rove yesterday about his new book (spoiler alert: George W. Bush was strong and resolute!) and showed why he may be the most difficult person in politics to interview effectively.
Gross wasn't trying to "get" Rove -- along with some tougher questions, she also asked him about his youthful interest in politics, about his early relationship with Bush, and other things on which Rove might have something interesting to say. But Rove has an almost impenetrable style. He starts every answer by challenging the premise of the host's question. If the question relays someone's criticism of him, then he turns that criticism around on the person who made it:
Gross: Let me read something that Todd Purdum wrote in Vanity Fair in December of 2006. He described an approach of campaigning that "always found villains - gays, unions, trial lawyers, liberals, elitists, terrorists" - and that candidates "could both use this to crack the electorate at a vulnerable spot and to define themselves in sharp relief." Do you feel like that's what you did, that you found villains that you could use in campaigns: gays, unions, trial lawyers, liberals, elitists, terrorists?
Rove: Yeah, he ends the article by saying splitter - Rove is the splitter, and splitters never win. Well, he may be right that splitters never win, but I won. So what does that say about Todd Purdum's underlying argument? I think based on his view and the views of others, implicit in it is a sense that the American people are easily misled and that you win elections by appealing to their base instincts. As you said, he suggests that it's villains that motivate people to vote one way or the other in American politics. I have no similarly dark and pessimistic view of the American voters.
Rove brings up some unrelated piece of the article that Gross couldn't take the time to find, then says it's Purdum who has the "dark and pessimistic view of the American voters." This is coming from a man whose campaign toolbox included spreading rumors that his client's opponent was a pedophile.
And throughout any interview, Rove will throw a blizzard of numbers and facts at the interviewer, few of which he or she is likely to be able to evaluate on the spot, but many of which inevitably turn out to be bogus. Let's just take one here: Gross asks Rove about the White House Iraq Group (WHIG), which was set up in August 2002 to sell the American public on the idea that Iraq posed an existential threat to the United States, and if we didn't invade soon, Saddam Hussein would annihilate us with his terrifying arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. In her question, Gross mentions former White House press secretary Scott McLellan's description of the WHIG, which gives Rove the opening he needs to weave a lie out of nothing:
I disagree with the recollection of Mr. McClellan, whom I don't believe was in these meetings. I also don't believe they began in the fall of 2003 - August of 2002, excuse me, before the war resolution. I think these meetings actually began after the war, and sometime in the summer to the fall of 2003, after the war. And the fundamental problem was we felt that a lousy job was being done in explaining operationally and tactically what was being done in Iraq.
This is just a lie. The truth is that the existence and function of the White House Iraq Group was widely reported. For example, here's an article from August 2003 explaining that "the escalation of nuclear rhetoric a year ago, including the introduction of the term 'mushroom cloud' into the debate, coincided with the formation of a White House Iraq Group, or WHIG, a task force assigned to 'educate the public' about the threat from Hussein, as a participant put it." (According to Michael Isikoff and David Corn's book Hubris, the "mushroom cloud" line -- "We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud," repeated by one Bush official after another in the run-up to the war -- was the brainchild of none other than Michael Gerson, a participant in the WHIG who was subsequently rewarded with a regular column in The Washington Post).
This kind of thing is why it's nearly impossible to interview Rove. There are some reporters out there who have written about Rove extensively and have all these facts at their command -- Wayne Slater, or Corn, say. But he's not going to sit down with them to promote his book. Gross -- an excellent interviewer but someone who has only a few hours each day to prepare for a topic completely different than what she was talking about the day before -- has no chance against him.
-- Paul Waldman