WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The capital's political languor between midterm elections and convening the new Congress was interrupted Monday by accounts in major newspapers of a news-making magazine article. A former adviser to President Bush was accusing him and his White House of a policy-free obsession with politics. This was low political intrigue, in which I declined to participate as a very minor figure.
The article in Esquire's January edition by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind is actually about Karl Rove, Bush's powerful political adviser. But what made it newsworthy were highly critical direct quotes attributed to University of Pennsylvania Professor John DiIulio, who briefly advised Bush in the early months of his administration. DiIulio's subsequent written statement backing away from the quotes hardly mitigated the impact.
All this is part of an indirect assault on Bush, which is all the more intense considering his current popularity. The vulnerable target is Rove, principal architect of the brilliantly executed midterm Republican victory. He tries to keep a low profile but cannot escape his early self-identification as another Mark Hanna. Republicans fear magazine cover stories about Rove, and two planned biographies of him will attempt to stigmatize Bush as poet Vachel Lindsay described William McKinley: Hanna's "echo, his slave, his suit of clothes."
That was my reaction several weeks ago when Suskind called me, requesting a background interview on Rove for a forthcoming article. I am loath to give my colleagues information about public figures that I do not reveal in my column. Also, Rove was caricatured as a right-wing ideologue in Suskind's July Esquire article about Bush adviser Karen Hughes, and his new venture looked like a sequel. Finally, several people interviewed by Suskind for his earlier article complained to me that he took no notes, did most of the talking and did not accurately reflect their views.
I declined his request, and so did many other people that Suskind approached (out of fear of Rove, he claimed). Like a wildcat oil driller who is frustrated by one dry hole after another, he hit a gusher in the Penn professor. Unexpectedly, John DiIulio became the article's focus.
Bush, reaching out to non-Republicans and non-conservatives after the Florida vote recount, named DiIulio -- a registered Democrat who voted for Al Gore -- to run his faith-based initiative. It proved a bad idea. DiIulio, a distinguished social scientist (not a historian, as reported by Suskind), was uncomfortable in a political environment. He opposed Bush's proposed estate tax repeal, attacked conservative Christians and was a disorganized administrator. He left after seven months (not 14 months, as reported by Suskind).
Unfortunately, I did not escape Suskind's article, which includes these sentences: "Sources close to the former president say Rove was fired from the 1992 Bush presidential campaign after he planted a negative story with columnist Robert Novak about dissatisfaction with campaign fund-raising chief and Bush loyalist Robert Mosbacher Jr. It was smoked out, and he was summarily ousted." I was called by no fact-checker, who would have learned of multiple errors.
Suskind has confused former Secretary of Commerce Robert Mosbacher Sr., Bush's 1992 chief fund-raiser, with his son Rob, who headed the Bush campaign in Texas (Victory '92). Criticism of the younger Mosbacher, a frequent unsuccessful candidate in Texas, was not "planted" with me by Rove but was passed to me by a Bush aide whom I interviewed. Rove was indeed fired by Mosbacher from Victory '92 but continued as a national Bush-for-president operative.
Three mistakes in two sentences lend credence to claims by White House aides that they were misrepresented in Suskind's July article and to DiIulio's statement on Monday. "Several quotes and anecdotes concerning me or attributed to me in the article are not from" his long memo responding to Suskind's questions, he said, specifically denying the juicier anecdotes.
Belatedly, said DiIulio, "I will not be offering any further comment or speaking or writing further on any aspect of my limited and, as I stressed to Mr. Suskind, unrepresentative White House experience." That is good advice for neophytes swimming in Washington's treacherous seas. It would also be good advice for a president not to appoint neophytes to politically sensitive positions.