Karl Rove and James Fallows Up-Close

Last year, I did two posts summarizing a few dozen speeches I heard at the Athenaeum, including those by Gregg Easterbrook, Bono, Bill Kristol, Anderson Cooper, Orville Schell, Peter Wehner, Orhan Pamuk, David Gergen, David Brooks, and Jonathan Rosenberg.

This time around I will try to post some of my notes and impressions in real-time, when my thoughts are fresh. Today: Karl Rove and James Fallows.

Karl Rove, former deputy chief of staff in the White House, advisor to George W. Bush

Rove had such a high profile in the Bush administration that most people are predisposed to the guy in one way or another. The usual media accounts call him "Bush’s brain" or "The Architect" — I for one had an image of some evil mastermind tapping his finger tips together while plotting how Republicans can take over the world. In real life he comes across as a normal, folksy, nice guy. There’s something about the flesh which strips larger-than-life figures of their aura.

His speech, which was occasionally supplemented by the din of protesters outside chanting "War Criminal," was long on anecdotes and short on real substance. Usually these types of speech are annoying. But when the anecdotes are, say, how Vladimir Putin melted in awe when he stepped into the historic Oval Office, or the father of a Navy Seal who cried in a meeting with Bush, or just the blow-by-blow "day in the life of the President," you can get away with it. The sheer proximity to power that Rove enjoyed for many years affords him a well of stories that can keep even skeptical audiences entranced.

Rubinkarlrove1h When he did speak on policy issues, he was predictable. History will judge Bush favorably – just look at Truman’s low approval ratings when he left office. Iraq will prove ultimately worthwhile. Etc. In one section he delivered a 3-5 minute non-stop "defense" of the Bush presidency, dwelling on some of the lower-profile Bush initiatives like aid to Africa. In the end all that matters in terms of the Bush legacy is Iraq, but it was interesting how Rove painted a broader picture of the eight years. I don’t blame him for wanting the legacy to rest on ground wider than Iraq.

He also demonstrated subtle political cunning that would be expected of someone in his position. When referring to Obama, he plainly framed Obama’s experience in the Senate as all of "143 working days," not the "two years" that’s often cited. He reviewed the Republican and Democratic parties’ strategies and noted how the Democrats have outspent the Republicans in all the recent elections and will do so again this year. It’s not the points themselves that demonstrate a certain savviness but how he delivered them — by not making them "points" but rather sentences as commonplace as "Nice weather today." It implies a certain unquestioned truthfulness to them, even if they are actually surprising, like in the case of Dems outspending Repubs, or actually damaging, like in the case of Obama’s non-record in the Senate.

All in all, college drop-out Rove struck me as a quick thinker, well versed in all aspects of both the ground warfare that is politics and high level strategy that animates campaigns, a true student of U.S. history, and more personally, somewhat bemused at his standing at go-to punching bag for Bush bashers. Insofar as I understand Rove’s influence in the Bush administration, I can’t say I’m a fan of his policies, but I was happy to see him up close, if only to help me process / rebut / agree with the countless media portrayals.

James Fallows, national correspondent for The Atlantic

There are maybe a half dozen people whose work I always read. James Fallows is one of them. For about four years, I’ve read or skimmed all of his articles in The Atlantic and all his blog posts. There are many smart people writing today. Fallows is different due mostly to his range — aviation to Iraq to economics to technology / software — no stone is left unturned in his reporting. The product of a mind that’s lived at the intersection of ideas and industries consistently stimulates me more than the product of a monoculture / niche. Who else is qualified to interview on-stage (at different times) Bill Clinton and Larry PageFallows and Sergey Brin? Along with interdisciplinary thinking Fallows’ writing style strives for clarity above all. Showboating or literary experimentation rarely enter into the equation and thus never distract from the idea at hand. Finally, unlike many pundits on politics, Fallows actually reports. He’s lived in many countries overseas (currently Beijing), for example, and did a multi-month programming stint at Microsoft to aid in his tech reporting. I love a clever turn of phrase, and adore many Washington columnists, but isn’t it heartening to know that someone is actually immersing himself out there in the big bad world and writing back to us about what’s going on?

Of course, enjoying someone’s writing from afar doesn’t mean you’ll enjoy him in-person. We all know the super successful and super smart asshole. Fallows, by contrast, is a commensurate professional, classy, gracious with his time. He took a genuine interest in students’ ideas, betraying not a hint of condensation. My notes from his talk I re-print below:

  • As a journalist you must talk to people who know more than you about a topic, and then explain it to people who know less than you. Challenging!
  • The Atlantic has the richest readership of any magazine. It’s a "high end" publication. This in some ways will make it endure more the general economic hardship afflicting mainstream media.
  • Vis-a-vis the New Yorker, a competitor, the Atlantic’s entry point to big ideas is via the "conceptual scoop" as opposed to the profile of an individual.
  • Youth: travel and live abroad as much as you can! China wouldn’t be a bad place. A strong, influential China will be part of your adult lives, so see what it looks like and get comfortable with its existence.
  • Speaking of China, there’s no "one China." China is made up of a billion plus individuals and many distinct cultures. We need to recognize it for what it is, rather than one big blob "China."
  • He quoted David Foster Wallace twice — in particular DFW’s brief missive on the meaning of the American idea.
  • "When meeting foreigners I’m impressed by their willingness to be re-seduced by the American idea."
  • What will matter in the presidential debates? The candidates’ temperament and bearing.
  • The "global war on terror" unites factions that would otherwise be not united. Saying "the terrorists" unites terrorists that would otherwise be disparate.
  • We needn’t worry about China militarily. There are greater military worries elsewhere. For now China is still consumed by Taiwan.
  • As a former speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter, Fallows knows how to organize a speech. He laid out the road map for what he was going to talk about over the 40 minute time frame and then regularly gave an update as to where he was ("Ok, that’s point #1, XYZ, now let’s go to point #2 of 4"). In the many keynotes and sales presentations I’ve given I’ve found this a very important rhetorical device to orient the audience and display a command of the clock. Also, during Q&A, Fallows wrote down the questions as they were asked, prior to answering to prevent "Now what was your second question again?" time wasters. I need to do this.
  • His first and main foreign policy point was that the next U.S. administration needs to "think big." This surprised many of us, I think. Most commentators grimly lay out all the international entanglements President Obama or McCain will inherit (and a domestic economic and political situation that’s not much better). Thus, their prescription is, "Hold tight and deal with existing crises." Fallows’ guidance, however, is that we need to think big, fight harder for our ideals. What the "big idea" should be is unclear. During Q&A Fallows said, contra Bush’s 2nd inaugural, it’s not democracy around the world, although it might be "liberty around the world."

4 Responses to Karl Rove and James Fallows Up-Close

  1. David says:

    Great treatment, Ben. For what it’s worth, I linked to this — anyone who ends up on my blog and reads my liveblogs should see your superior analysis, as well.

  2. Franklin says:

    Great post Ben. I really enjoyed it. Thanks for taking us into the Athenaeum.

    I wouldn’t ordinarily get an opportunity to interact with people in the Rove/Bono/Fallows ilk.

    Just curious – to what extent did your pre-conceptions about Rove, influence your writing on him?

  3. khc says:

    This post was very much on my mind last night while watching Karl Rove on Fox talking with one of the anchors. He somehow managed to blame the bailout vote failing on Democrats, saying that several prominent House Democrats voted against it. All I could think was, “But…but…but more Republicans voted against it!”

    I can’t claim to be too deeply entrenched ideologically with either side; your post about how he frames issues resonated strongly while watching.

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