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The physics of unaccountable power

The ferocity with which the presidential press corps went after the Karl Rove story is startling, but it shouldn’t be surprising.   Howard Fineman explains.
Karl Rove is President Bush's top political adviser and wields immense power in the White House.Andy Manis / AP file

WASHINGTON — The White House press room is a dump of a place, with rickety lecture hall seats, photographers’ ladders piled high in the corners, frayed carpeting and a floor that feels hollow, which it is, since the old presidential swimming pool is under it somewhere. In recent days the room also seems like a battleground — the way it used to be in the old Clinton days.

The ferocity with which the presidential press corps went after the Karl Rove story is startling, but it shouldn’t be surprising.

Several media, political and Washington vectors intersected to create an explosive Rove Reaction.

Third thoughts on pre-Iraq reporting
Take my word, there has been a lot of soul searching in the so-called Main Stream Media (MSM) over its performance, or lack of performance, in the months leading up to the American-led ouster of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. Specifically, did we replace what should have been professional skepticism with a certain mindless credulousness in assessing the reality of the Bush administration’s claims of imminent danger to the country and the world from Saddam’s supposedly vast stash of weapons of mass destruction, including — only months away, it was said — the nuclear kind?

If we failed, was it out of a misplaced sense of patriotic duty, or political cowardice or sheer incompetence — or all three? The press corps was spring-loaded with self-doubt over the WMD issue, and ready to snap over any story that would allow it to revisit what now looks to have been a massive — and embarrassingly successful, from the press’ point of view — propaganda campaign.

So Rove was a spinner on the WMD front? After him!

Tight lips sink ships
George Bush’s theory of press relations is pretty straightforward: Control the message with military precision, and never waver. Authorized leaks are OK under certain circumstances, although this crowd doesn’t like them very much under any circumstances. Unauthorized leaks are punishable by instant excommunication. The Bush White House is the tightest-run ship in modern times, which means probably ever.

The deliberately colorless Ari Fleischer raised the content-free “briefing” to a dismal high art; Scott McClellan, who studied at the brogans of the Master is, if anything, even less communicative and, unlike Fleischer, who once worked on the more media friendly Hill, never betrays the slightest sense of guilt about saying nothing. So, in human terms, and, yes, reporters are humans, you can imagine the reaction when McClellan was caught in what looks pretty clearly to be a series of lies about Rove’s role in dishing dirt on Mr. and Mrs. Wilson.

Karl “not involved”? PULEASE — scenes of McClellan as piñata at 11. 

The physics of unaccountable power
As in physics, every action in Washington eventually has an equal and opposite reaction. A subset of that rule: Anyone with an excess of unaccountable power eventually has to pay. Karl Rove has gathered within his hands a whole LOT of unaccountable power — by which I mean that he has several jobs and the direct ear of the president, but has never faced a confirmation hearing or, for that matter, much by way of an internal rivalry in the White House.

He is The Architect, at least according to George Bush. He talks to reporters only if and when he pleases, and under the conditions he demands. How to call him on a carpet, ANY carpet?

This is how.

What did he know and when did he know it?
In a metropolis of bureaucracy, in which everything runs on documented communication — lunches, phone calls, memos and now e-mails and even text messaging — the operative question is the one Sen. Howard Baker made famous during Watergate. The Rove disclosures are the first to begin filling in the timeline in the Plame Game — a threat that could unravel others.

It's not campaign season
It’s a paradox that key issues often aren’t fully explored by the Mainstream Media in the midst of a presidential campaign season, which, if you think about it, is when there is the most urgency to do so. Why? Because the MSM doesn’t want to be accused of taking sides, especially when the story they are looking into involves a sitting administration.

I know that this sounds ridiculous to Bushies on the inside of the White House gates — they see enemies out here everywhere on Pennsylvania Avenue — but it’s true. The situation is different now. It’s the second term. Think Clinton and Monica.

Rivalries within the MSM
There is a civil war brewing within the MSM, and the Rove story is exposing it — and is fueled by it. Until now, the rivalry between the Fox and non-Fox worlds has been confined to cable, where Rupert Murdoch’s forces have all but overwhelmed the competition.

But now the broadcast networks are in the game, with some non-FOX reporters openly complaining about the White House’s effort to defend Rove by offering its legal spin to certain preferred reporters and news organizations. By dividing the press corps into Red versus Blue — and talking only to the Red — administration strategists are inviting attacks from one side.

But that might be precisely what they want. After all, they won two national elections that way.