Liberals would seem to believe that Bush strategist Karl Rove is a monster genetically engineered from the DNA material recovered from a fair copy of Il Principe, Pat Nixon’s cloth coat, and one of Lee Atwater’s old guitar picks, while moderates regard him with a vague but considerable sense of respectful queasiness. I will not pretend to understand what our friends on the Right think of the man, but the president of the United States calls him “Boy Genius,” and those nicknames have got to count for something. All concerned parties must be a bit unnerved by Rove’s recent performance as a contributor to Fox News.
Since materializing on-air on Super Tuesday, Rove has merely offered clarity, concision, humility, good humor, good posture, and dispassionate analysis. To be sure, there are lefties distraught that he does not eat babies on-air. Maybe some conservatives, too. But the only thing more impressive than hearing the man drop political science—what other cable-news analyst has lately name-checked Henry Cabot Lodge?—is seeing that one of our culture’s most controversial figures is one of its most mild-mannered. Given the jaunty clattering of MSNBC’s 24/7 locker room, the rapid-fire banter of CNN’s endless phalanxes of conventional wiseguys, and the screeching maelstrom summoned nightly by Rove’s Fox colleagues, the guy plays like a human comma, a very welcome thoughtful pause.
Unlike most other campaign managers who’ve made their way to the analysis desk, Rove is not in possession of a shtick. No full-throated James Carville gumbo for him. None of the hissing superiority of Dick Morris, who eagerly embraces the role of a blow-dried weasel. Rove leaves only an impression of relaxed competence and happily resigned nerdiness. On The O’Reilly Factor last Monday, Rove’s stiffness either unsettled the host or triggered his bullying instinct. (“Are you ready for this?” Bill blared. “You look a little, you know. Just relax now!”) The new kid, beyond the occasional smirk or mouth-breathing giggle fit, makes little effort to project personality. It thus falls to Fox News to massage his image for him.
The other night, Rove appeared, by satellite, on Hannity and Colmes, whose producers lit the Boy Genius as if attempting to establish an aura of creepiness. The shadows of venetian blinds wavered on the wall behind him; his chin cast a shadow on his second chin; you could imagine that he was doing the segment from an office he’d just broken into. The noir mood was only shattered when, in an endearingly assistant-managerial touch, he produced a white board and began doing some delegate math.
True, the white board was derivative of Tim Russert’s old Electoral College math prop from 2000. (Rove to Hannity: “Hey, I was doing white boards when that boy was still shoveling sidewalks in Buffalo!”) But there was something appealing about its homeyness and homeliness, especially in an era when CNN’s election-night returns coverage features a wall-sized map combining a Telestrator, an interactive Smithsonian display, and HAL 9000. And, after years of hearing about Rove as an ogre or mastermind or dark architect, it’s a pleasure to see him looking like Dilbert.