I was reminded of all that this weekend when Karl Rove suggested that Chris Christie has displayed the kind of leadership the Republicans want in a president. As BooMan points out, the whole bridge scandal comes right out of the Rove playbook. He demonstrates this by recalling the experience Ron Suskind had when he went to interview Rove in 2003.
Eventually, I met with Rove. I arrived at his office a few minutes early, just in time to witness the Rove Treatment, which, like LBJ’s famous browbeating style, is becoming legend but is seldom reported. Rove’s assistant, Susan Ralston, said he’d be just a minute. She’s very nice, witty and polite. Over her shoulder was a small back room where a few young men were toiling away. I squeezed into a chair near the open door to Rove’s modest chamber, my back against his doorframe.Following the trajectory backwards, it is important to note that Karl Rove was a protege of Lee Atwater. Interestingly enough, just this weekend I watched the fascinating documentary Boogieman: The Lee Atwater Story. If you haven't seen it already, I highly recommend it.
Inside, Rove was talking to an aide about some political stratagem in some state that had gone awry and a political operative who had displeased him. I paid it no mind and reviewed a jotted list of questions I hoped to ask. But after a moment, it was like ignoring a tornado flinging parked cars. "We will f*ck him. Do you hear me? We will f*ck him. We will ruin him. Like no one has ever f*cked him!" As a reporter, you get around—curse words, anger, passionate intensity are not notable events—but the ferocity, the bellicosity, the violent imputations were, well, shocking. This went on without a break for a minute or two. Then the aide slipped out looking a bit ashen, and Rove, his face ruddy from the exertions of the past few moments, looked at me and smiled a gentle, Clarence-the-Angel smile. "Come on in." And I did. And we had the most amiable chat for a half hour.
What we learn early in this film is that for this group of people, the policies that are discussed and the people affected by them are unimportant. The game is all about power and using any means to get it. That's the real hardball.
We need to be aware of this - not because it allows us to demonize those who play hardball (that plays right into the game) - but to recognize how we get played by them. It is their use of innuendo leading to emotional hysteria that divides us and keeps us distracted from dealing with the real issues of the day. Every time we play into that - we feed their power game.
All this brings to mind one of my favorite moments from the 2008 primaries when Obama reacted to the hardball tactics being used by Hillary Clinton.
That was pure brilliance. He didn't ignore the attacks (the mistake Dukakis made with Atwater). He dismissed them by making fun of it all and in doing so, diminished those who would traffic in the nonsense.
On the other hand, Obama has been no shrinking violet when it comes to taking on his opponent - and having some fun doing so. But he does it by going after them on the issues. Here's another favorite moment of mine that came in the waning days of the 2012 election when the President diagnosed Romnesia.
This is the moment I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that he'd won this one. Hardball? Some might call it that. But its very different than the kind played by Atwater, Rove and Christie, isn't it? We all need to learn to distinguish between the two and make sure we don't get played.