Two Bush administration veterans have now stated that Karl Rove's comments about Hillary Clinton's health were an intentional effort to push the story into the media, raising significant questions about whether media will be complicit in his smear campaign.
When Rove was quoted wildly speculating that Clinton might have a "traumatic brain injury" following her 2012 concussion and blood clot -- both of which she fully recovered from, according to doctors -- it continued conservative media's months-long efforts to politicize Clinton's health. But new reports suggest Rove's vicious and false attack was calculated to divert more mainstream media attention to Clinton's age and health.
The May 14 Politico Playbook features an anonymous Bush official email which claims that Rove "accomplished exactly what he wanted to" by forcing media to discuss her health and potentially giving her "more reasons to stay out of the race":
A Bush administration alumnus emails: "Karl accomplished exactly what he wanted to: ... Give Hillary more reasons to stay out of the race. Because if she gets in -- no matter how much people villainize him for saying it -- Hillary's health is now a real issue to be discussed. If having to deal with uncomfortable media scrutiny is what will keep her out of the race, this just upped the ante significantly, especially if there is anything healthwise going on, even a small matter. It was a brilliant shot across the bow, even if it was a cheap shot."
Nicolle Wallace, former communications director for the Bush White House and 2004 re-election campaign, also explained on Morning Joe that "Karl didn't just stumble into this line of questioning about Hillary Clinton's health, OK? He is one of the most prepared and deliberate speakers ... I think that the fact that we're having a three day conversation about Hillary's age and health may have been his objective."
While both of these accounts are illuminating looks into Rove's tactics, they also raise significant questions about the media's complicity in pushing these smears. The Morning Joe panel laughed about Rove's remarks (host Joe Scarborough even questioned if Rove himself was "brain damaged,") but as Wallace noted, they were still discussing Rove's falsehood and giving it significant airtime. Similarly, Politico Playbook featured five separate paragraphs hyping "Rove vs. Clinton."
But if we're all just laughing at Rove's ridiculous, malicious attacks, does it matter? According to Peter Beinart at The Atlantic, it does; the media fixation not only proves Rove's tactics worked, but sets up a dangerous precedent where media become complicit in keeping the smear alive (emphasis added):
Why does Rove allegedly smear his opponents this way? Because it works. Consider the Clinton "brain damage" story. Right now, the press is slamming Rove for his vicious, outlandish comments. But they're also talking about Clinton's health problems as secretary of state, disrupting the story she wants to tell about her time in Foggy Bottom in her forthcoming memoir.
Assuming she runs, journalists will investigate Clinton's medical history and age. Now Rove has planted questions that will lurk in their minds as they report.
The idea of journalists and pundits entirely unable to distance their minds from a smear they know to be false is a frightening image -- but it's not as inevitable as Beinart implies. After all, in the same Morning Joe segment, Scarborough (himself a conservative) refused to legitimize Rove's comments by entertaining any discussion of Clinton's age more broadly. Instead, he accurately noted that the fact Clinton would be 69 when inaugurated (if she were to run in 2016 and win) should not be a factor, as Ronald Reagan was inaugurated at 69 and left office at 77. (And as The National Journal has pointed out, because Clinton is female her life expectancy is significantly longer than Reagan's, making any attacks on her age even more nonsensical.)
Media has a responsibility to report the facts, but they also have the ability to choose to not let smears influence how they go looking for those facts. They can laugh at Rove's absurd, desperate jabs without letting them "lurk," and without becoming complicit in his smear campaign. The question is, will they?
A few days ago, Fox News contributor Karl Rove went on Hannity and promptly dropped four lies in four minutes, one of which was that President Obama promised to introduce comprehensive legislation in August 2009, but "nothing has happened." Writing in The Wall Street Journal yesterday, columnist Kimberley Strassel put forth the same argument in trying to disprove Obama's statement that his administration's recent policy shift on immigration had to be done in "the absence of any immigration action from Congress to fix our broken immigration system."
The president's claim that he had to do this because Congress wouldn't act -- a statement made in the face of Mr. Rubio's efforts toward a deal and the president's own lack of interest in compromise over his more than three years in office -- was particularly galling.
In fact, Obama and the Democrats did try to address immigration reform but were rebuffed by Senate Republicans -- something right-wing media have been trying to erase from the historical record. Moreover, when it became clear that immigration reform would not be attainable, Obama focused his administration's efforts into ramping up enforcement and fortifying the border -- which many Republicans demanded as a condition for supporting reform.
On MSNBC today, contributor Ari Melber and political analyst Michael Eric Dyson pointed some of this out following a speech by Mitt Romney to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, during which he adopted the right-wing frame. Romney claimed that Obama "failed to address immigration reform" after he promised to do so in 2008.
But as Dyson and Melber noted, that's not true.
From the September 1 edition of Fox News' Hannity:
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During a segment in which Sean Hannity and his guests declared that President Obama was "out of touch" with the American people, Hannity stated that former President Bush "did not play golf while this country was at war" and that Bush "seemed to be far more in touch" with the country than Obama. In fact, Bush did play golf while the country was at war, as evidenced by 2002 video of him denouncing a terrorist attack, then telling reporters, "watch this drive," before swinging at a golf ball; additionally, although Bush later declared that he gave up golf in 2003, he took up the hobby of biking.
From the February 3 edition of Fox News' Hannity:
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From the August 23 broadcast of Fox Broadcasting Co.'s Fox News Sunday:
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On Morning Joe, Nicolle Wallace falsely suggested that President Obama did not praise the U.S. and did not criticize Europe during a speech in France. In fact, during his speech, Obama criticized "anti-Americanism" in Europe and referred to "the good that America so often does in the world."
In her first appearance as a CBS "political consultant," former White House communications director Nicolle Wallace repeated several talking points recently advanced by the Bush administration.