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Behind the Furor: Why Karl Rove’s comments about Hillary’s health exploded

It was clear as soon as the Fox News interview started yesterday that Karl Rove wasn’t backing off from his comments about Hillary Clinton.

“I didn’t say she had brain damage,” as the New York Post suggested, Rove said. But he proceeded to raise questions about the illness she suffered at the end of 2012 and to accuse her of not coming clean about what happened.

Rove’s comments caused a media uproar, and for good reason. He is the former Bush White House lieutenant who raises hundreds of millions of dollars for the Republican Party through American Crossroads and a new spinoff, Conservative Victory Project. At the same time, he enjoys an unusually prominent platform as a Fox News contributor, thus straddling the worlds of media and partisan politics.

As Rove himself said yesterday, “I’m the bête noire for the Democrats.”

To Fox’s credit, anchor Bill Hemmer pressed Rove throughout the interview on “America’s Newsroom.” MSNBC’s Abby Huntsman, for one, praised Hemmer for an “interview done right.”

The ruckus began on the Post’s Page Six, which reported that Rove and former Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs had spoken with CBS’s Dan Raviv at  a conference near Los Angeles. Rove, according to this report, questioned what happened in December 2012 after Clinton fell and was reported to have suffered a concussion and a blood clot.

“Thirty days in the hospital? And when she reappears, she’s wearing glasses that are only for people who have traumatic brain injury? We need to know what’s up with that,” the item quoted Rove as saying.

As the Post and Hemmer pointed out, Hillary was hospitalized for three days.

This is hardly the first time the issue has surfaced. Some Republicans initially suggested that Clinton had exaggerated her illness to avoid testifying about Benghazi (which she eventually did). But those criticisms faded after the concussion was disclosed.

“I still have some lingering effects from falling on my head and having the blood clot,” Hillary told “60 Minutes” in January 2013. “But, you know, the doctors tell me that that will all recede.”

There is no known audio of Rove’s remarks.

On Fox, Rove said that “look, she had a serious episode, a serious health episode…She’s hidden a lot…She spends over a month fighting this…and they’re not particularly forthcoming.”

Rove came prepared with dates and details, so these were not offhand comments. He intended to put this into play as a media controversy, and judging by the coverage from Drudge to Politico to Huffington Post to MSNBC, he succeeded. CNN’s John King called the comments “shocking and reprehensible,” and his CNN colleague Newt Gingrich said it was "the worst kind of Republican consultant behavior."

Rove brushed aside a Clinton spokesman’s response when Hemmer read it on the air: “Karl Rove has deceived the country for years, but there are no words for this level of lying.” The spokesman added that Hillary’s health is “100 percent.”

What gave the story rocket fuel, obviously, is the “brain damage” report; if the Post misquoted Rove, then the whole thing may turn out to be hyped.

The longtime Bush confidant is right about one thing: Hillary Clinton’s health, and her age, will be fair game if she runs. It was for such senior citizens as John McCain, Bob Dole and Ronald Reagan. The New York Times always runs lengthy reports on the nominees’ health, as Rove noted, and beyond the media coverage, voters will make their own assessment about fitness for office.

Clinton is 66, would be 69 upon taking office, and 77 if she served two terms, putting her clearly in Reagan territory.  

You can’t accuse Rove of sounding a dog whistle, since his comments were clearly audible to humans. He is putting the Hillary health issue out there early and, until she demonstrates her vigor in a campaign, sowing the seeds of public doubt.

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Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz. 

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