WASHINGTON -- Not to be "ungenerous or self-centered," said White House counselor Ed Gillespie, but he thinks some people overestimate Karl Rove's importance. After all, Gillespie pointed out, in the 2004 presidential campaign he himself headed the Republican National Committee, the heart of the party's operations. And he only talked to Rove "from time to time"
Another White House official, asked what it would mean to lose the legendary strategist, whose departure was announced Monday, recalled that Rove had started the staff's "ice cream Fridays."
As one of the most powerful and controversial presidential advisers in modern history heads out the door, the White House is engaged in an unusual game of double spin: While President Bush bear-hugged Rove and showered him with praise in a South Lawn ceremony, officials such as Gillespie quietly began to whittle down Rove's image as the man who played a key role in almost every major decision of the Bush era.
If all that sounds contradictory, it's just politics:
Praising such a prominent member of the administration as he prepares to leave office at the end of the month is almost obligatory, especially since Rove remains an admired figure and longtime friend to many in the Republican Party's conservative base. At the same time, downsizing Rove puts some distance between Bush and a man who, for all his service to president and party, has become a lightning rod for Democratic attacks.
Reducing Rove's stature as he leaves could help the administration in the same way that Donald H. Rumsfeld's departure as secretary of defense last year temporarily eased pressure on the president's Iraq war policy.
White House aides deny they are engaging in spin. Spokeswoman Dana Perino said she was just trying to humanize Rove when she told a Fox News interviewer about his creation of the Friday ice cream tradition. And she said any attempt to play down Rove's role is only meant to counteract misimpressions fostered by the press and Rove's critics.
"There's probably a tendency on our part to explain that this has been a team effort and he has been an integral part of the team," she said yesterday.
Yet Rove has been more than just another member of the White House team.
A posse of Democratic congressional investigators has been pushing hard for evidence that Rove went too far in politicizing the federal government, including the possibility that he improperly injected politics into the decision to fire several U.S. attorneys. The administration's Office of Special Counsel is also investigating Rove's activities.
Those inquiries are still scheduled to go forward, but they might lose some of their steam with Rove out of government. And the smaller Rove's overall role in the administration and Republican affairs is made to appear, the less important any inquiry into his past activities is likely to become.
"If the person you've been focusing on now leaves and goes to Texas, what do you do? That's the question facing Democrats at this point," said David Winston, a Republican pollster who has advised Capitol Hill Republicans.
Said Perino, "If he actually did all the things he was accused of doing, he'd be 20 people and never sleep; maybe 200 people."
Peter Wallsten writes for the Los Angeles Times.