Monday, August 13, 2007

Don't mess with Karl

The news that Karl Rove is stepping down brings to mind my first, and rather peculiar, encounter with Rove, an encounter that caused me to largely avoid him during the time I covered the Bush campaign.

It was just a few days before the New Hampshire primary in 2000. Bush was touring the headquarters of the state police, but the building was quite small and cramped. That meant only a handful of reporters, known as the press pool, and a few staff could go on the tour. That left the rest of us cooling our heels outside. The temperature wasn’t too cold, but there was plenty of snow on the ground. Some of the reporters and staff began pitching snowballs back and forth. Eventually, Rove jumped in and began hurling snowballs at a couple of reporters hiding behind a snow bank – an event immortalized by Alexandra Pelosi's documentary "Journeys with George."

Rove turned out to be surprisingly nimble, however, and nobody could hit him. Spirits seemed high, everyone was laughing, including Rove. Finally, a cameraman blindsided him, coming up from the side and hitting him with a snowball, though I don't recall exactly how hard. Rove continued to laugh and joke, and ran after the guy, who ran away, all very playfully.

But not only was Rove nimble, he was fast, particularly for a guy who is short and rather doughy. He caught the cameraman and grabbed him around the neck, laughing and joking the whole time. He bent the much larger man over, held him in a powerful headlock, and began cramming snow in his face, scooping it up in handfuls from a snow bank. His jovial demeanor never wavered but I was the closest reporter, standing by myself in an area where nobody else was standing, and I heard the cameraman begin to splutter and protest and I could hear the impact of the snow as Rove shoved handful after handful into his face. I suddenly realized that Rove was actually hurting him deliberately, while making it look like a game.

I am not sure exactly how long the whole event lasted – it seemed like an eternity, though it was probably just a couple of seconds. As Rove shoved another handful of snow into the man's face, all the time laughing and shouting jokes, he looked up and locked eyes with me for just a moment. His eyes were both cold and triumphant – he had managed to exact brutal revenge for a playful, harmless attack and make it look to the world like an equally playful moment. But he was playing for keeps, even in a snowball fight.

That look so unsettled me that I pretty much stayed away from Rove for the rest of the campaign, talking to him mostly in the small groups of reporters. It was, in retrospect, a glimpse into the darker side of the Bush operation. I wish I had realized it at the time.


NewsCat said...

Interesting story. You see that in people sometimes...that moment where no one but you and them knows exactly what happened but they just revealed what an asshole they were.

It kind of reminds me of Bush's also public trick of the "demeaning nickname." I get to call you "little stretch" and you have to call me "Mr. President."

I think Bush also thinks (or thought) that no one figured this out. No one saw the little game of control the nickname thing gave him.

Sean Scully said...

yes, the nickname game was interesting. I never got a nickname, though Bush knew who I was. I think he was punishing me (nicknames were much sought after in those days) - I annoyed him one day (a long story) and so he never talked to me again. Had I stuck it out longer into the administration, I suppose he would have been forced to bestow some name on me. But it's not a loss I have felt that keenly.