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Symbol manipulation and boomerang spin.

July, 2005

THOSE WHO LIVE by manipulating symbols also might find themselves the victims of such manipulation.

Karl Rove, White House chief of staff and longtime GOP political adviser, seems to fit in this category.

At issue as I write this ETC article is the story of a CIA-sponsored trip taken in 2002 by former ambassador (and White House critic) Joseph Wilson to investigate reports that Iraq was seeking to buy uranium from the African country of Niger.

When Wilson, who has supported Democratic candidates in the past, returned to say he didn't think any such deal had been in the works, that report didn't fit the Administration's spin on reasons for going after Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

So, somebody leaked the fact that Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, is a CIA official who monitors the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Since it's illegal to leak names of CIA undercover agents, controversy has raged, leading to the jailing of New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who refused to reveal sources in the story, and the threatened jailing of Time reporter Matt Cooper. Time agreed to cooperate in the investigation, thus saving Cooper from heading to the clink.

The e-mails surrendered by Time Inc., which are largely between Cooper and his editors, show that one of Cooper's sources was Karl Rove. Cooper and a Time spokeswoman declined to comment.

Columnist Robert Novak also reported that Wilson had been sent on his investigative trip at the suggestion of his wife, who was identified by name as a CIA operative. The leak to Novak, apparently intended to discredit Wilson's mission, caused a furor when it turned out that Plame was an undercover agent. A special prosecutor was appointed and began subpoenaing reporters to find the source of the leak.

At the time of this writing, the investigation continues, and Rove's name is being mentioned more and more. Supporters scrambled to say he had done nothing illegal. The spin would make you dizzy.

The Making of a Spin-Meister

Rove has spent his career making people dizzy with spin. He began working for Texas Republicans in the 1970s. Slowly working his way up the political ladder, Rove earned a reputation of being a shrewd political strategist.

In 1980, he ran George Herbert Walker Bush's unsuccessful primary campaign for president against Ronald Reagan. He also worked for Senator Phil Gramm.

He founded a political consulting firm, Karl Rove & Company, in Austin, Texas in 1981. Rove helped George W. Bush win the Texas gubernatorial election in 1994. He then served as chief strategist for Bush's presidential campaign in 2000.

During Rove's years in Texas, he earned a reputation for being a savage political strategist, willing to engage in dirty tricks. Some of the tricks associated with Rove have been detailed by journalists James Moore and Wayne Slater in their book Bush's Brain, which was later made into a documentary.

In more recent years, Rove has been criticized for working closely with the producers of the Swift Boat commercials that accused Democratic Presidential candidate John Kerry of lying about his Vietnam War record.

Very recently, Rove went to the heart of Manhattan to accuse Democrats of responding weakly to Sept. 11 and placing American troops in greater danger by criticizing their actions.

"Conservatives saw the savagery of the 9/11 attacks and prepared for war; liberals saw the savagery of the 9/11 attacks and wanted to prepare indictments and offer therapy and understanding for our attackers," Rove said at a fundraiser for the Conservative Party of New York State in June.

"I don't know about you, but moderation and restraint is not what I felt when I watched the twin towers crumble to the ground, a side of the Pentagon destroyed, and almost 3,000 of our fellow citizens perish in flames and rubble."

Rove also said American armed forces overseas were in more jeopardy as a result of remarks by Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, who compared American mistreatment of detainees to the acts of "Nazis, Soviets in their gulags, or some mad regime--Pol Pot or others."

"Has there ever been a more revealing moment this year?" Rove asked. "Let me just put this in fairly simple terms: Al Jazeera now broadcasts the words of Senator Durbin to the Mideast, certainly putting our troops in greater danger. No more needs to be said about the motives of liberals."

Democratic Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York, replied: "In New York, where everyone unified after 9/11, the last thing we need is somebody who seeks to divide us for political purposes."

Howard Freeman of Newsweek wrote this of Rove:
 In the World According to Karl Rove, you take the offensive, and
 stay there. You create a narrative that glosses over complex,
 mitigating facts to divide the world into friends and enemies, light
 and darkness, good and bad, Bush versus Saddam. You are loyal to a
 fault to your friends, merciless to your enemies. You keep your
 candidate's public rhetoric sunny and uplifting, finding others to
 do the attacking. You study the details, and learn more about your
 foes than they know about themselves. You use the jujitsu of media
 flow to flip the energy of your enemies against them. The Boss never
 discusses political mechanics in public. But in fact everything is
 political--and everyone is fair game. (1)

General Semantics Applications

General semantics applications can be applied to Rove's spin, what Freeman refers to as "Rove's World," and to the spin coming from opponents of the GOP, who would love to see Rove brought down by the Plame case.

First, Rove has become a master at putting out images that first strike the viewer or reader at the lower level of abstracting, nearer the sensory level, and then encourage a big semantic leap to a higher level, of political theory, social values, or cultural bias.

He has done that with rhetoric and other symbol manipulation. He created sound bites and visual images of George W. Bush that convinced millions of Americans he shared their values and was better for the country than Kerry. Bush came across as the plain-spoken, Christian-values candidate. Rove did that again in his speech about 9/11, using language that invoked emotional, sensory reactions and then sent you soaring to those higher-order biased abstractions.

Rove expertly takes a slice of rhetoric, or part of what sounds like a factual statement, and uses it out of context. To use general semantics terms, he knows how to create elementalism--symbols and images that seem to take on a truth of their own even though they are not in their original context.

He creates maps, without any way for the consumer of those maps to really know how well they match up with the territory. Did any of us know what really happened on that boat in Vietnam? We only heard about the maps of some men who served with Kerry. In fact, some of them were not even on the boat with him.

Freeman wrote about how Rove structures the world in extreme Aristotelian, two-valued structure. There is only black and white, no gray. There are good guys and bad guys, who use what Hayakawa referred to as purr and snarl words.

Rove also understands the structure and biases of the media--either-or, conflict-oriented, timely at all cost, celebrity-crazed, etc. He feeds "the beast."

To be fair, many of these same tactics now are being used against Rove in an attempt to get him to resign or to have Bush fire him. We really don't know what Rove said to whom. He claimed at one point that he got Plame's name from Novak. Democrats see this issue as an opportunity to remove Rove and few have called for caution or fairness in their reactions.

Democrats also have demonized Rove as a hate-monger who will do anything to win. Granted, we have some examples of his tactics that we might find offensive, but how much of that depends on opinions about the larger picture in which he serves?

Before we get too sympathetic to Rove, let us note he already has launched a counter-attack, once again using some of the symbol manipulation he has applied with such skill in the past.

So, the symbol manipulation and spin continues. It remains to be seen who succeeds and who suffers in the spin-makers' dizzying world of either-or.


1. See


* Gregg Hoffmann is a veteran journalist and author. He is a retired senior lecturer in journalism and media studies at UW-Milwaukee and writes frequently about applying general semantics to media literacy.
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Author:Hoffmann, Gregg
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2005
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