The Curious Case of a Supposed Karl Rove Quote Used on The National's New Album 'Sleep Well Beast'

The National
Matt Berninger of The National performs on day three of the Glastonbury Festival 2017 at Worthy Farm, Pilton on June 24, 2017 in Glastonbury, England. Ian Gavan/Getty Images

I never expected to use Karl Rove and The National in the same sentence.

But 2017 is full of strange pop culture pairings. Taylor Swift and Right Said Fred? Sure, she interpolates "I'm Too Sexy" on her latest hit. Damon Albarn and Noel Gallagher? Yeah, why not. The ex-nemeses have a song together on the new Gorillaz album. The president of the United States and rap-rock monstrosity Kid Rock? They hang out sometimes.

But Karl Rove and The National? What does the GOP mastermind responsible for launching Dubya to the White House have to do with the brooding indie-rock heroes responsible for making one of the best albums of 2007?

Here goes. The National has a (very good) new album out Friday called Sleep Well Beast. There's a striking moment during the third track, "Walk It Back," during which the vocals drop out and a female voice recites an eerie spoken-word bit about the manipulation of discernible reality for political ends. (It sounds so un-National-like that it's hard to miss.) Here's the quote:

People like you are still living in what we call the reality-based community. You believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality. That's not the way the world really works anymore. We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you are studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors, and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.

The quote originated in a 2004 New York Times piece about the Bush presidency. The author, Ron Suskind, attributes it only to an unnamed "senior adviser to Bush," who was later said to be key Bush architect Rove (though Rove denies ever saying it). Back then, Suskind thought the words were key to the "very heart of the Bush presidency," with its catastrophic lies about Iraq and weapons of mass destruction.

The chilling quotation has become somewhat infamous in the years since 2004 ("reality-based community" has its own Wikipedia entry). It's a haunting passage that lays bare the craven, cynical distortions of political messaging. In 2017, the quotation has re-emerged, for reasons that seem obvious (see: President Trump, existence of reality, etc). 

Related: How Donald Trump distorts reality

"The quote has had quite an extraordinary life since 2004," Suskind tells me. "We understood it in a particular way in that time. I think we understand more deeply some of the innovations of those in power in that period in terms of separating public dialogue from agreed-upon, discernible reality. Now the loosing of those moorings has grown."

The quote makes Bush-era White House staffers uncomfortable because "they were all talking in this fashion at that time," Suskind says. "But they were very, very ardent about no one understanding the playbook they were using. Which is why the quote lives so powerfully in revealing what was happening in that era as well as revealing many of the demons that were loosed in that time, [which] really are inhabitating our nightmares in this time."

Suskind, now a WBUR host, likes The National's music. (His son introduced him.) When the band reached out about using the quote, he had no objections and directed them to his agent. He will likely receive a cut of the publishing revenue. Suskind says that he will donate any proceeds from the song to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

The National's political commentary tends to be more oblique, more muted ("Mr. November," "Fake Empire"). But these are different times. Matt Berninger, the band's baritone-voiced singer, came upon that quotation after the election, he told Rolling Stone, and it caught his eye:

...Then Ron Suskind re-purposed it after Trump won and that’s where I again saw it and it struck another chord—a special chord. It’s somebody saying out loud one of the things we fear most—when we can control what people understand is real or true, we can do whatever the fuck we want to—that’s what he said…It’s terrifying and I just couldn’t get it out of my head, so I re-purposed it and had Lisa Hannigan speak it.

I lied about part of it. I said it was written in a red sharpie on a whiteboard—that’s fake news from me.

From a senior Bush adviser to the New York Times to a critically acclaimed release by The National—isn't that the Information Superhighway? (In a separate interview, Berninger jokes that he wants to give some royalties to Rove.)

Anyway: I reached out to Karl Rove. I asked him what he thinks of The National repurposing this Bush-era rhetoric.

He replied to my email within 10 minutes.

"Not familiar with the band and the quote is fictitious," Rove wrote. "The only person in the room who supposedly heard this quote was the 'reporter'—none of the other people in the room heard anything like it, including its supposed author (me)." (When I repeated this to Suskind, he confirmed the validity of the quote but clarified that he's never identified Rove as the speaker. He won't say either way; the conversation was meant to be not for attribution, and that agreement still stands.)

Karl Rove Karl Rove listened to The National's track "Walk it Back." He was not impressed. Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

I asked Rove whether he thinks the quote is relevant to the Trump administration. He wrote, "The supposed quote is so weird, it’s hard to consider how it would be relevant to any administration."

Rove didn't seem particularly interested in The National, but I sent him a link to listen to the song on YouTube anyway. He replied with his brief review (which he marked as "off the record," though I'd never agreed to any such terms):

Off the record: starts with a Euro Tech Pop thing and transition into a more peppy tune that’s easier to dance to and has a sound track that on YouTube is impossible to heard. Suspect it won’t make Casey Kasem’s Top 40.

 

I realized, to my embarrassment, that the YouTube link I'd sent was a low-quality rip in which the vocals are almost inaudible. So I sent Rove the Spotify link instead, so he could hear the track more clearly. He wasn't interested:

Off the record - thanks - but wasted enough time on this already.  Now you tell me there’s a best audio available.

I tried to explain the band's reasoning for using that Bush-era quote. "It strikes some people as a prescient quote in 2017, whether or not you said it," I wrote. "Do you think the quote about the 'reality-based community' holds relevance during Trump's administration?"

The Republican political consultant did not respond.

Karl Rove, if you're reading this, it's really not too late to get into The National. Please just check out the 2007 album Boxer.

This article has been updated to reflect that Ron Suskind plans to donate any proceeds from the National song to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

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