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Jewish Journal

Karl Rove lecture spins crowd animosity to admiration

by Brad A. Greenberg

February 28, 2008 | 5:00 pm

Karl Rove. Photo by Peter Halmagyi

Karl Rove. Photo by Peter Halmagyi

The Gibson Amphitheatre at Universal Studios was packed Monday evening for the second in this year's Public Lecture Series from American Jewish University (AJU). But the atmosphere was different from last month, when former British Prime Minister Tony Blair captivated a packed house with talk of his new job as a Middle East envoy, working for a peace deal between the Israelis and Palestinians.

This time, you could hear the grumblings before the lecture began, friends asking each other why Karl Rove -- "Bush's brain," as he was known before resigning last summer as the president's chief adviser and deputy chief of staff -- had been invited to speak. Why, some in the community asked, would the university give a forum to someone who has been blamed for many of the things they don't like about the Bush administration?

But once Rove began talking, the animosity not only slackened but seemed to slip away for many in the crowd of 4,000. When the room cleared two hours later, people seemed relieved that Rove, who said "the horns are retractable and so is the tail," was actually "a likeable guy."

Rove presented a 41-point program that anyone could use to get elected. And with about 30 minutes to speak, he moved at breakneck speed, jumping from the importance of staying on message to looking for voters who can be wooed away from your opponent's party to focusing on the Electoral College and not just the popular vote -- "Ask President Gore about that," he said.

"When running for president, the best way to describe it is 'The Emperor's New Clothes,'" he said. "Remember that childhood fable? At the end of the parade, the voters are going to see you exactly as you are: buck-naked. They are going to see you with your warts, your strengths, your weaknesses and your failings, your high points and your low points. And the people are not stupid. The masses are not asses."

Self-deprecating to a point, at a VIP dinner before the event, Rove spoke briefly, saying he didn't know what to talk about: "Somebody suggested I tell you about what it was like to work at the White House. I can't do it in three minutes. But I had a fantastic experience. I knew a lot more before I showed up there than I know now."

Rove opened his lecture by threatening to send series organizer Gady Levy, who had ribbed him in an opening remark, on a red-eye to Guantanamo Bay.

The lecture was followed by a longer Q-&-A with AJU President Robert Wexler, in which Rove offered his insights on growing up in Utah, the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and the impact of another Ralph Nader run for president.

Rove was coy, though, when Wexler asked if he knew exactly how to get Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) or Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) elected.

"Yes, and I ain't telling ya. I only work for Republicans -- and Joe Lieberman," he said. "The problem with political junkies is instead of sitting around talking about their fantasy football teams, they sit around talking about political strategy. This is an endless conversation. Heck, we talked about a strategy that could get John Kerry elected. Of course, he didn't follow it -- thank God."

"This is football," Wexler said.

"Um," Rove responded, "three-dimensional chess."

Rove joined a list of more than 50 presidents, pundits, comedians and influential people who have spoken at the lecture series since it began in 2002. Many before had been divisive figures, like President Bill Clinton, James Carville, Ann Coulter -- and that's sticking with the Cs. But Rove's invite generated an unusual amount of complaints.

Still, Levy, the series organizer, said Rove was an ideal lecturer. Not only would he offer a political perspective sure to encourage discussion, but 2008 is a presidential election year and Rove is considered one of the greatest political strategists of modern time.

"We are an educational institution, and part of educating people is having access to opinions we might not share," Levy said before the event. "If we only invited people we liked, it would be boring."

Levy's gamble appeared to have paid off after the talk.

"I came here with a Republican customer, though I had a lot of trepidation," said Pat Wheeler, a banker and supporter of Clinton who thought she would spend most the lecture rolling her eyes. "I found Rove very charming; I'm not walking out of here thinking he is the devil. This is a powerful mind, and I am walking out of here thinking better about him than I did walking in."

Now teaching at his alma mater, the University of Texas, and contributing columns to Newsweek, Rove remains a public figure -- and source of controversy, including in a segment on "60 Minutes" Sunday, in which a former Republican campaign volunteer in Alabama accused Rove of a five-year campaign to destroy the career of former Democratic Gov. Don Siegelman. Rove denied the allegations Monday.

He said it was all part of what he had come to personify.

"I'm not a human being," he said. "I may appear to be flesh and blood, but I am a myth. The mark of Rove is: If you can't explain it, Rove is responsible."

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