Tonight I scored an invite to one of those innumerable D.C. meet-and-greets, The Week magazine's Opinion Awards. Journalists, think-tankers and policy geeks from the high and low circles of the city gathered in a Georgetown hotel, downed free drinks, and ate free food, as The Week handed out prizes for cartooning (Mike Lukovich), blogging (Joshua Micah Marshall) and column writing (Ruth Marcus). Mingling around the small ballroom, seemingly seated at random, were figures from all over the political spectrum. Karl Rove, seated next to Ben Bradlee and across from Ana Marie Cox, was right next to the stage as The Week editors awarded journalists who'd exposed his misdeeds. And they joked while they did so.
When Josh Marshall (in absentia) was credited with exposing the White House's abuses in the U.S. attorneys scandal: "Karl... I'm sorry to bring this up." Big laughs.
When Mike Lukovich got his award: "When I got this I got a call from Karl Rove, telling me, "I want to be there for you, Mike!'"
When emcee Margaret Carlson made a joke about wiretapping abuses, Rove stage-whispered a joke: "Your calls aren't that interesting, incidentally."
MSNBC host Chris Matthews arrived a bit late, and Carlson pointed him out as he took his seat. "I want more recognition and attention!" He laughed that glass-shattering "HAH!" that Darrell Hammond has such an easy time parodying. Throughout the night, even though I wasn't close to Matthews, it was hard not to hear him.
Rove was there for a purpose: He, Democratic pollster Doug Schoen, and former New York Times Editor Howell Raines ambled onstage after the awards for a rambling forum on "How We Pick the President." Magazine editor-at-large Harold Evans trodded up and down the stage, asking them open-ended questions about the election, and seeming way too surprised when fireworks started burning. Schoen mostly antagonized the audience, wrenching every topic back to his belief that Centrism was what Americans were lusting after, refusing even to call Fox News a conservative network. Raines seemed to curdle whenever Rove spoke, and crackled when he got a chance to attack him. "One of the biggest changes in my lifetime," he said, "has been this rise of negative campaigning."
Rove was a bit more credible. Hillary Clinton, he said, had run an "appalling, lousy" campaign. He'd beaten Al Gore in 2000 by making it look like Gore was running away from Bush, looking weak, instead of defining himself and looking strong. When the conversation turned to Jeremiah Wright, Rove rolled out an argument he'd been using on Fox News and in other interviews: Obama missed the opportunity to denounce Wright, and the fact that he'd stayed in the pews for 20 years implied that he agreed with Wright's craziest statements. There was some applause and a lot more low-decibel grumbling. Raines challenged Rove on how John McCain had sought the endorsement of fanatics like John Hagee. "That's not the same as sitting in that church for 20 years as this pastor said the government created crack to kill the black community," said Rove, "that the CIA created AIDS."
Chris Lehmann, an occasional reason contributor, piped up from the second row from the stage. "He wasn't in the pew!"* Lehmann said. "He wasn't in the pew when Wright said that!" Evans tried to quiet the room down. "We're moving on to another subject," Evans said. "Then he should stop lying," Lehmann said.
The rest of the panel followed this pattern: Schoen getting rolled, Raines getting annoyed, Rove launching effective Republican attacks. Negative campaigning only worked if it reinforced a worry that voters held: For an example, he used Mike Dukakis and the issue of crime. Ana Marie Cox (who's married to Lehmann) was obviously thrown. As the panel wound down, she raised her hand. As the speakers filibustered, she waved both her hands with more an more energy, swinging them like a distress signal. When Evans called on her she sarcastically complimented the organizers for putting together "so many experts on race and gender," then asked Rove if Dukakis's problems with crime had anything to do with race.
"The Gallup poll showed that 60 percent..."
Cox repeated her question.
"It was first reported in Reader's Digest. Al Gore was the first to make it an issue."
This sounded like a non sequitur, and the audience wasn't satisfied. So Rove clarified: "I will not say it had nothing to do with race. But the ad the Bush campaign ran on this did not exploit race. The image was blue." Everyone scratched their heads, including me, because the iconic Willie Horton ad was on a blue screen... with an embedded picture of the very black Horton.
Two thoughts occured to me after Evans moved the conversation on from here. The first was that Rove must get this a lot, touring the rubber chicken circuit in a country and a city where he's still largely loathed. The second was that the crowed must have loved what Lehmann and Cox were saying. That second thought was proven after the event was over, and a bevy of journalists, who'd largely sit and smiled during the presentation, rushed over to thank Cox for her question.
You have to respect Chris Matthews: He's blunt enough to say what he thinks without waiting for someone else to say it. When Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute asked Rove about John McCain, Evans asked who Ebell's ideal candidate would be. "I would have liked to see Haley Barbour," Ebell said.
"Hah!" said Matthews. "I could tell you stories about him!"