BY MARTIN SCHRAM
When governments or the politicians who run them make announcements that are highly unusual, the journalist’s job is to begin asking: "Why this?" and "Why now?"
Of course, journalists shouldn’t expect to be spoon-fed the true answer by the folks they cover. Things rarely happen that neatly and honestly in governance and politics. So the best way journalists can get closer to the truth is to begin by putting the unusual announcement into its true context. Which means asking themselves: "What else is happening that involves these players and could cause them major problems ahead?"
That’s a good way to look behind the most unusual White House announcement of April 19: That Karl Rove, the most important adviser to President Bush throughout his career, was no longer going to be overseeing all policies. He’s just going to continue doing politics. (Never mind that the news actually didn’t come in the form of an official announcement; it surfaced as a leak to the Associated Press that was then confirmed.)
Begin by considering the potentially stormy dark cloud that Bush, his new chief-of-staff Josh Bolten, and of course Rove all knew _ and had to be worried about _ in the run-up to that announcement:
_ Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald has continued to pursue evidence involving Rove, who remains a subject of the grand jury inquiry into the leaking of the identity of former CIA secret agent Valerie Plame.
_ More e-mails have surfaced in recent months (some written by Rove, others by journalists to their bosses) that indicate Rove was far more involved than he initially told FBI investigators, which prompted Rove’s return visits to the grand jury.
_ Rove surely knows (and the president and others may know now) precisely what he actually did and said _ and how likely it is that he may be indicted, as Vice President Cheney’s former chief-of-staff Lewis (Scooter) Libby was, for obstruction of justice, making false statements and/or perjury.
Now put yourself in the boots of the president. You are enduring bottom-dwelling poll numbers and unending bad news from Baghdad and beyond. Do you really want to risk one more potentially shattering development? Do you want to see headlines everywhere that say the beleaguered Bush White House was suddenly shattered by the indictment of its chief overseer of all policies, foreign and domestic? Do you want to endure a tsunami of chattering pundits cascading doom all over the nonstop TV news?
No way. That’s why it begins to seem likely that someone (it could have been Bush, or Bolten or even Rove himself) came up with this smart stroke of potential crisis management _ the one and only way to get out in front of what could be the next bad wave of news. Separate Rove from all policy. Then, if the indictment comes and he must resign, it can be said to have no effect at all on White House policy. And of course, if no indictment comes, well, Rove can still be the dominator in the wings, shaping all policies foreign and domestic _ without portfolio, but with his uninterrupted, Bush-bestowed clout. Just as he was during the first four years of the Bush presidency.
So it came to pass. And in the hours after the news was dribbled about Rove’s newly reduced official portfolio, the care and feeding of the White House press corps got under way in a manner far different from the usual tight-lip, taut-ship style that has made the Bush White House what it is today.
The news the next day was itself bizarre in that the Washington Post, The New York Times and just about everyone else led with reports that Rove had "surrendered" (the Post) or "gave up" (the Times) the policy duties _ but the news leads didn’t really say who said this. And in fact you could read the whole story in the major newspapers and still not know how the news was obtained. (Rove was not portrayed as being summarily stripped of his policy role. Yet it is unclear whether any reporter knew which version might be true.)
Meanwhile, the glossy buildup of new staff chief Josh Bolten continued, unabated, as it had ever since he got his job. This was clearly and carefully said to be his shake-up.
Unmentioned in all of this was the role of The Decider. While Bush famously declared "I’m the decider" when it came to keeping Don Rumsfeld in the Pentagon, he left no discernable fingerprints in the unusual displacement of his old pal and policy chief.
Some day we may all look back and hail the move as a stroke of image-saving crisis prevention.
(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com.)