For those who remember the Bush administration — for the many who awaited its demise, stopwatch in hand — the September 7 visit of President Bush’s deceiver-in-chief, Karl Rove, provided an opportunity not only to revive one’s anger at the old White House, but also to call one of its servants to account. In grating expectation I took myself to Mr. Rove’s talk before the Yale Political Union. Though, or perhaps because, he is a political vandal who has done nearly ten years’ damage to the national life and discourse, he had a fawning reception. Surrounded with upturned faces, bathing in smiles, Karl Rove preened and was loved like a soap opera actor in a shopping mall.
In the Levinson auditorium, with 500 seated and the walls lined with leaners, many of the men younger than twenty and wearing bow ties, the bonhomie rose high as the guest gamboled through a 45-minute screed against the new health care law. I’m a new lecturer in the English Department, and it may be that as a fledgling in New Haven I don’t understand the obsequiousness that must be extended to men of power. The back-slapping Mr. Rove used his acquired Texas accent (he was born in Colorado but seems to have picked up a Southern shtick) to field some grounders — polite queries, nothing sharp. The majesty of 1,000 news profiles not only seems to summon forgiveness for his White House years, it also provides the comfort of a very large speaking fee.
I stand alongside those who felt sadness during the Bush presidency and repugnance at every diktat that issued from the Rove-Cheney-Bush syndicate. I had looked forward to having a few words with the former propagandist and chef of dirty tricks. I wanted him to answer for one or two connivances of the 200 that I remember.
And yet, no. The chairman of the meeting, during the question and answer session, recognized 10 raised hands, but not mine. A pity.
This is a question that Rove might have heard. What he should have heard:
My name is Edward Ball, and I introduce myself so as not to subject you, Mr. Rove, to anonymous examination. You’ve demonstrated, however, that uncredited sabotage and disinformation yield the results you want. Please, if you might tell the audience, Mr. Rove, there is something the community at Yale would like to know. This community understands that you didn’t attend Yale, that you chose instead to study at the esteemed University of Utah, from which you ultimately failed to graduate. Scholarship aside, this community takes an interest in your recent employment at the White House. This audience would like to know which among your venal political ploys, two of which I will presently describe, you would prefer to be remembered for. Granted, these are only two taken from an unrivaled catalogue. Would one of your favorite antics be your personal but unsigned 2003 stunt involving undercover C.I.A. agent Valerie Plame, whose career you ended by providing her name to the press, so as to silence her and punish her family for contradicting the lies of the White House about the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq (those WMDs, whose fiction you helped sell to the public in order to prompt a $5 trillion dollar war)? Would that act, among your uncountable duplicities, stand as the most cynical? Or was it, instead, your successful scheme to purge the Justice Department, finding ways to fire capable U.S. attorneys who did not champion the pitiful justice of might and money that the White House you served offered as a perverse substitute for jurisprudence? This audience would like to know which of these two secret and corrupt acts of yours do you regard as the more virulent, the more successful at undermining the democracy?
Or, if you like, take any from your thick, soily folio of stunts and tell us: which of them makes you, in retrospect, the most proud?
This community would like to know. It would furthermore like you to know that history will judge you. History will make your family carry a burden of shame, which will be attached to your name. History will, in a decade or two, define you as one of the pitiful courtiers of this country’s most detestable season of government — a government that was loathed around the world, and now in memory.
I wish I had had the chance to ask Rove my not-quite-question. The Obama administration has declined to pursue criminal action against the former occupants of the White House. Yet the Bush years were a nightmare from which we are still trying to awake. I predict the effort to shake them off will continue for many years.
There is a feeling about politics that it’s just talk and good fun. It is a feeling quite strong at the Yale Political Union, I would imagine. But the professional life of Karl Rove, his cynicism and corruption, and the wreckage he helped make and scatter, did not call, the other night, for good cheer and repartee.
Edward Ball is a lecturer in the English department.