Having a large university nearby is one of those rare blessings that people living in big cities don’t often share with a lot of other locales. Luckily, Santa Barbara is a place that in addition to being beautiful, enjoys the benefit of its very own University of California campus. Despite and because I’m a starving journo, I go to as many lectures, plays, concerts, and whatever else the university has to offer as I can (we journalists might be hated by the masses, but the university’s Arts & Lectures Department likes us enough to give us free tickets to most events).
An announcement by UCSB’s College Republicans that Karl Rove — the legendary and reportedly diabolical senior adviser and deputy chief of staff to former president George W. Bush — was to make an appearance at UCSB kicked up quite a fuss around town. Santa Barbara, not unlike many California coastal communities — other than the ones in Orange County — has more than its share of tree-hugging liberals. But what a lot of people don’t realize is that there are plenty of hawkish conservatives, too. Even on college campuses.
At any rate, I viewed Rove’s impending visit with a mixture of vague disgust, burning curiosity, and an unwholesome excitement at the prospect that protesters might get stupid. After all, what did I really know about Rove or what he would say to a group of malleable university students? I knew that he, like Dick Cheney, had been involved in an administration that unapologetically promoted the interests of the United States above all else. I also knew that Rove, having been bitten by the political bug when still a gangly high school student, had gone on to become a national leader of College Republicans. Years before anyone knew the name Valerie Plame, he had become involved in a couple of scandals before he’d even turned 25, one of which resulted in attention from the FBI, President Nixon’s chief counsel, and the eye of then Republican National Committee Chair George H.W. Bush. From then on, Rove was constantly involved with one campaign or another for some of the biggest right wing names out there (a few of whom, like so many politicians on both sides of the aisle, have been associated with scandal).
His youthful indiscretions aside, Rove’s work with the W. administration has given him credibility as one of America’s more controversial figures, but realizing that he was no doubt a very clever man with something of interest to say, I was intrigued by the prospect of hearing him speak. First, I had to break through the legion of protesters lined up in front of UCSB’s mammoth Campbell Hall. By and large, they were somewhat of a disappointment — they weren’t intimidating and their slogan chanting wasn’t all that creative — but there were a lot of them. I had a chance to talk with a student named Max Einstein (yes, that’s right, Einstein, who said he’s distantly related to the Einstein) who was holding up a wooden sign bearing photocopied pictures of Rove and Joseph Goebbels side by side. A large swastika with an X through it was painted in the middle. “A lot of people look at this sign and say, ‘That guy’s an idiot.’” he said, confirming my initial impression of him. “But if you look at Rove’s function in society, a strong connection can be made between him and Goebbels.” He proceeded to explain that in his view, the Bush Administration had surreptitiously declared war upon the Muslim World, albeit without the overt viciousness with which Adolph Hitler’s Nazi Party had attacked the Jews. “It’s a soft racism, it’s a quiet racism, but it’s just as dangerous.”
My new friend Max was a soft spoken lad, given the gathering crowd of protest “organizers” who were beginning to shout the same predictable slogans I’ve heard at other rallies (rallies, I might add that were completely unrelated to this one) with increasing frequency. One guy who had hurriedly scrawled a detailed message on the bottom of a cardboard box began to shout something repeatedly. When he saw TV cameras, he ran over to garner his slice of dinnertime news hour fame, chanting the same line to thousands of local news viewers (unless of course the station had wisely cut the sound out while their reporter explained the situation).
An older, long-haired gentleman leaned against a tree, smiling to himself as he strummed an acoustic guitar and sang a few bars from Buffalo Springfield’s 1960s protest ballad, “For What Its Worth.” He seemed to be enjoying some private moment from years past, when these gatherings were his bread and butter. I had a private moment, too, although mine was perhaps somewhat darker. It consisted of a scene from a not-yet-created absurd faux-reality show forming in my mind. My vision was constructed thus:
[Smiling older hippie plays Buffalo Springfield song. Protesters get violent; out come the Molotov cocktails. A College Republican can be seen, on fire, diagonally-striped tie half burned and in flames, running away screaming. Police, armed with truncheons and riot gear tear gas the crowd. In the ensuing foggy confusion, cops all gravitate towards the musical hippie like metal flakes to a magnet. When the smoke clears, protesters are still organized and chanting. Police are in the corner beating the old hippie senseless with truncheons. Smoldering College Republican is being sniffed by the police department's bomb-sniffing dog, who finds a charred bag of cocaine in his pocket.]
Of course, thankfully, none of that happened in reality, but they did have a bomb-sniffing dog at the door. He sure was cute. Especially since I didn’t have any bombs or drugs in my bag.
But finally, it was time to hear Karl Rove speak. I can honestly tell you that my impression was formed from the first and last five minutes of the speech. The rest was a rapid recitation of fiscal data that I doubt few in the audience, including myself, understood all that well. It looked like he’d lost some weight, and amidst the cheers of College Republicans and catcalls from his detractors, his Texas twang cut right into the meat of what he wanted to talk about, which was, of course, fiscal policy. Like many Americans, his role was that of Monday morning quarterback, pointing out the Obama Administration’s failure to rope in the financial crisis. I sat there, sullenly listening to the figures he was spitting out. Although I’m aware that he has a knack for twisting peoples’ perception of certain facets of a political campaign to play into the favor of his brand, it seemed that his assessment of how fucked we are right now was spot on. The question that was bouncing around in my head had been, though, whether anyone else could do any better.
Rove also railed against Obama’s foreign policy, saying he was being weak when he should be strong — especially with respect to Iran, Asia, and the ill-fated Copenhagen Climate Change Conference — but he didn’t offer any suggestions as to how his own administration’s foreign policy decisions, if they were so great, could have been improved upon. In other words, he didn’t seem like a guy who sought any kind of balance, but was above all else about the bottom line. Plenty of questions about the Iraq War were sent his way at the UCSB lecture. Some, I regret to say, were shouted out in the form of profanities by students who made themselves look like idiots (this is the first time in my life that my opinion of the liberals in the room was lower than that of College Republicans, who were above reproach in their conduct).
Rove lauded Obama’s Iraq policy and its extension into Afghanistan, but only because it was a continuation of Bush-era policies in Iraq. While I know little about fiscal policy, I do know a little something about conditions on the ground in Iraq — well, in Baghdad, anyway. By saying that Iraqis and the world are better off without a “tyrannical dictator such as Saddam Hussein” was an oversimplification of the situation in that region of the world. Some Iraqis are better off, but when I was there, my observation was that most were not. One of the interpreters in the army unit I embedded with last spring was not what you’d call a Baath Party supporter — he’d deserted the Iraqi Army and fled the country in 1990 — but he shook his head when beholding today’s Baghdad. The place is, by and large, an utter shithole, where it had once been a gleaming metropolis. Infrastructure around the country is failing due to a fractious and corrupt government. I’m not so sure that anything the US has done there until the last two or three years has been all that helpful (yes, the Coalition did a fantastic job vanquishing their foes and getting rid of a lot of insurgents, but much of the work now consists of undamaging the damage that was done by poorly considered foreign policy). Bearing in mind that Iraqis have been subjected to a decade of UN sanctions and over six years of continuous warfare, it comes as no surprise that the going is slow when it comes to well-intentioned US aid.
But I digress. Rove also deflected questions about his role in initiating the war by ticking off a list of Democratic Senators who had supported it. He even read the transcript of then Senator and 2004 Presidential candidate John Kerry’s fiery speech on the floor of the Senate in which he had wholeheartedly supported the resolution calling for the invasion. Nothing, mind you, was said about the alleged falsification of WMD documentation by CIA officials. One student had submitted a clumsily-worded question that insinuated that Rove and his cronies had planted WMDs in Iraq when UN inspectors couldn’t find any. Rove responded with a joke; that he wouldn’t do that because they’re too valuable and he might need them later. That the crack was directed at a student who hadn’t taken the time to think through the question was humorous. The idea behind it wasn’t so funny.
I wasn’t surprised that Rove said a few things I was in agreement with. “The Senate is supposed to be the saucer that cools the passions of the House,” he said in response to a question about the effectiveness of filibustering. Sure, great, but how much is too much? Both sides of Congress seem to have gotten themselves into a pretty constant state of gridlock. And, “It is right for us to be engaged in the world, but it is also right for America to be respected, and in some cases feared.” Sure. I can go along with that, but to what extent? I didn’t get the impression that the Bush Administration was thinking too far into the future when it came to relationships that didn’t currently involve large sums of corporate money. We can’t be hardasses all the time.
Rove is a hive of sharp intelligence. Of that there’s no doubt. But his world view appears to lack that touch of humanity which perhaps the current administration has in excess. With Rove’s lot, America is number One. Period. He carries around a picture in his pocket, along with a stirring story about a Navy SEAL who, despite the fact that his face had been ripped apart by bullets in Iraq, can’t wait for the reconstructive surgery to be completed so that he could rejoin his comrades in arms on a mission in Afghanistan. I’m truly inspired by the Navy guy, but I can’t help picturing Rove, when he stumbled across this patriotic gent, rubbing his hands with glee at so fortunate a find of political leverage. At least he ended the lecture by saying that despite our differences, we all need to embrace our common goals, blah, blah, blah. If our futures are decided by politicians — who, regardless of their political stripe, are of Rove’s ilk — our society today can be best summed up by the words of an elderly printing press operator in Kirk Douglas’ 1975 Western Posse. “Politicians are all full of shit,” he said disgustedly to his editor as the two watched a Senatorial campaign rally. True, the movie was filmed at the height of the Watergate Scandal, but its characterization of elected officials so prosaically states the obvious.