The clearest example of the breadth of political discourse in last week's Aspen Ideas Fest came with two of the week-long event's featured speakers: former President Bill Clinton and Karl Rove, President George W. Bush's deputy chief of staff.Clinton enjoyed a warm reception Friday night, after the Atlantic Monthly's James Fallows introduced him as the most popular man on earth. Rove was met with tough questions from moderator Walter Isaacson, president and CEO of the Aspen Institute, and hisses from the audience. Rove appeared to be on the defensive on questions about Guantanamo, the Valerie Plame affair, Iraq and other issues. Rove made jokes about his hecklers and at one point referred to them as "people who fly in and out of Aspen in their jets." But he had his moments with the crowd as well, drawing applause now and then, and silencing it with the comment, "Republicans will keep their majorities in the House and Senate."Asked how America can regain the moral high ground in Iraq, which Issacson termed a "messy occupation," Rove replied: "I'm not sure we've lost the moral high ground. If we don't see a path to success we shouldn't be there."Audience dismay with Rove widened during an exchange on the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Isaacson recalled that both Gen. Colin Powell, the former secretary of state, and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., recommended shutting down the detention center. "And do what?" Rove responded. "When we close Gitmo, the question is 'What do we do with the bad guys at Gitmo?' What do you do with them?"
"That's my question," Isaacson shot back, to laughter.Rove then said that the detainees are enemy combatants, and that this is not a normal war, that the people at Guantanamo are from countries that haven't signed the Geneva Convention. He placed the question in the realm of courts."We've been respectful of the courts while these issues worked their way through the courts," he said. Hissing from the audience drowned out the rest of his answer. Isaacson soon brought up the three questions Clinton had posed Friday night: If he had the opportunity, Clinton said, he would quiz Rove about a 2002 Republican advertising campaign questioning the patriotism of Sen. Max Cleland, a Vietnam veteran. Clinton also wanted to ask why repealing the estate tax is more important than port safety, and why no one has had to answer for outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame."Contrary to the suggestions, the mythmaking of D.C., I didn't run the [Saxby] Chambliss campaign," Rove said of the 2002 Senate race in Georgia. In that race, Republican challenger Chambliss attacked Cleland, a Democrat, as unpatriotic, despite the fact that he'd lost two legs and an arm in the war.Cleland lost his seat to the Republican challenger."Make up your mind: I'm either a genius or an idiot," Rove said. He denied that he played any role in the campaign, adding that he did not think it was helpful for any campaign to call a war hero unpatriotic.
As for the Plame affair, Rove stumbled and then refused to answer. Valerie Plame was an undercover CIA agent whose identity administration sources revealed to conservative columnist Robert Novak after her husband, Ambassador Joseph Wilson, publicly challenged the administration's claims about Iraq's nuclear program. Her career with the CIA ended, and some of her sources may have been in jeopardy as a result of the leak.Isaacson posed the question in the same way Clinton had Friday night. Issacson, parroting Clinton, pointed out that if a member of the Clinton administration had outed a CIA officer, "You'd be sending people to demand impeachment. You'd be playing it better than the Democrats can play it against you."Rove then said that after a "careful, thoughtful, aggressive investigation," then the person responsible should be fired."Have confidence in the process," he said.But Isaacson continued pressing on the issue asking, "Don't you have some regrets about that? That was [a] regrettable event.""I'm going to respect the fact that there's an ongoing case," Rove said, again to hissing from the audience.
Finally, Isaacson also asked about the estate tax.Rove said that the administration is already spending large amounts on port security, then he defended the quest to remove the estate tax."It is a moral wrong to tax something twice," he said. "We tax that estate when it is built, then we tax it at death. It's just wrong."When Rove started out talking about the estate tax, he said that Clinton "may have been misinformed" about his facts and figures, then mentioned he knew what Clinton had said through his NSA spies.Joel Stonington's e-mail address is email@example.com