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Speakers Series: Karl Rove vs. James Carville, Moderated by Charlie Rose

(26 May 2009: Radio City Music Hall — New York)

The 2009 Speakers Series: The Minds That Move the World is obviously meant to attract a great deal of attention. How often do we, the innocent spectators, get the chance to sit down and literally watch world-renowned political pundits (and politicians) argue it out onstage without the filters of video editing? The 2009 Speakers Series has hosted such personalities as “silver fox” Anderson Cooper, former vice president and die-hard democrat Al Gore, media mastermind Arianna Huffington, brazenly outspoken comedian Bill Maher, and debatable hottie Ann Coulter.


Tonight’s final debate was probably the most tantalizing yet, featuring none other than the slippery republican and former Bush senior advisor Karl Rove as well as former Clinton adviser/Crossfire host James Carville. The debate was to be moderated by Emmy award-winning broadcast journalist Charlie Rose. As the audience filed into their seats in Radio City Music Hall, there was a particularly tense quality to the air. The audience chattered excitedly, waiting for the final and most controversial debate to begin. There was also no doubt in my mind that a New York City crowd would side with the James Carville from the get-go: Not only because of his democratic status, but because Karl Rove would be his opponent. So, my question tonight was: What do you get when you throw Karl Rove, James Carville, and about 2000 New Yorkers into a room? It was impossibly clear from the beginning that the event’s conductors would pander to the absurdly liberal audience, even going so far as to slip in the opening speech “the next forty (oh, I mean four) years under the Obama administration are sure to be exciting.”


Charlie Rose calmly walked on stage, taking easygoing strides. “Our goal tonight,” he said to the audience “is to figure out different mindsets.” Rose went on to discuss the formation of political thought and stated again that the objective of tonight’s debate was to sift out the differences in Rove and Carville’s political approach. After the two men were invited to join Rose onstage, Rose addressed the audience politely “Now, how many of you at this point would say you mostly stand with Karl Rove?” The room filled with a smattering of polite applause. After asking the same question for Carville, the audience erupted with cheers and considerably heavier applause. Rove looked unruffled while Carville tried not to look too pleased. After the appropriate introductions were made, Rose jumped in with the first question, regarding newly selected Supreme Court Nominee Judge Sonia Sotomayor. Karl Rove answered first stating his gratitude for a country where not only can an African American rise to presidency, but to live in a country where the first Latina woman can be nominated to the Supreme Court, well that’s just great. “Do you think she’ll be a leader?” followed Rose. Rove responded that no, he didn’t exactly see that happening. As the discussion moved forward, Carville noted how proud he was to see Barack Obama in the White House and that already the country’s mood had tangibly risen through a noticeable rise in consumer confidence.


Following this somewhat subdued opening things began to get interesting. The subject matter included Colin Powell, Nancy Pelosi’s (maybe) knowledge of the 2002 waterboarding scandal, Cheney vs. Obama, Obama’s policy on Afghanistan, Freddy vs. Fanny, Hurricane Katrina, ex-president Clinton, and finally Charlie Rose’s general question “How do you see politics?”


As the debate wore on, the questions grew more prodding, the responses fiercer (complete with finger pointing), and the audience more aggravated than ever. It became harder and harder for Rose to moderate. Rove seemed particularly interested in getting Rose involved in the debate. Rose seemed to be fighting the urge, but at one point tried to make Rove admit that President Obama inherited a disaster, set by ex-president Bush. Rove literally did everything he could to keep from admitting any fault in the former Bush administration, which Carville did everything he could to point it out, even going so far as to state that the only reason for Bush’s presidency was that it was orchestrated by Karl Rove. Rove proved difficult to rile up, but Carville was riled from the debate’s beginning. Crowing and flapping and pretending to almost fall out of his chair, Carville seemed so at ease with the idea of himself being in the right, that he almost failed to answer questions and jab back at Rove accurately, choosing instead to focus on the same obvious points. On the other hand, Rove acted no saint. Though his debate skills were whetted and sharp, Rove’s points were weak and roundabout. Concerning Hurricane Katrina, Rove insisted that Bush had followed procedure (which was to notify the New Orleans’ mayor Ray Nagin of an emergency), while Carville responded angrily that Bush’s response had been to blankly stare with confusion at having been told of the impending disaster.


As the debate against Katrina’s handling intensified, both debaters began screaming at each other, faces close together and fingers pointed directly at each other’s eyes. Charlie Rose looked defeated. One audience member disrupted the debate entirely by standing up and screaming “KARL ROVE IS A WAR CRIMINAL” over and over again. At first the rest of the audience egged her on, but as it became clear that this woman, whoever she was, was not going to stop, the audience turned against her, shouting choice expletives. Even James Carville was ticked off shouting, “Oh shut up! Put a sock in it!” Karl Rove smiled gratefully and leaned over to pat Carville’s knee in gratitude.

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