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The Curveball of Karl Rove

Karl Rove; drawing by John Springs

Karl Rove grew up in Colorado, Nevada, and Utah. As a student at the University of Utah he joined the College Republicans. He worked on the 1972 Nixon campaign, and has often been described as a “protégé” of Donald Segretti, the virtuoso of dirty tricks who went to jail as a Watergate conspirator. Whatever the nature of Rove’s contact with Segretti, the fate of Nixon’s advisers, campaign organizers, and tricksters doubtless formed a subject of meditation for him in the years 2004–2006, when he found himself threatened with indictment by a special prosecutor. The name of Donald Segretti appears nowhere in the present book.

Rove blames himself for a dirty trick at the start of his career. In 1970, he got hold of an invitation to the opening of the campaign headquarters of Alan Dixon, a Democratic candidate for Illinois state treasurer, and used it to counterfeit a flyer: “Free Beer, Free Food, Girls, and A Good Time for Nothing.” The fake invitation spelled out the time and place of the actual opening of the headquarters, and Rove handed out his forgery to “vagrants, homeless, and drifters,” as he puts it, “in bad parts of downtown Chicago and at a free rock concert in Grant Park.” He pleads guilty to the misstep but he says it had no successor. He denies that there was ever a poll in the 2000 South Carolina primary in which voters were asked: “Would you be more likely or less likely to vote for John McCain for president if you knew he had fathered an illegitimate black child?”

Rove’s general advice on running a political campaign is pragmatic. You have to answer the question “Why elect your guy?” He thinks this means that his approach is not essentially negative, but of course it can end up that way—if, for example, the typical ad closes by saying “Because my guy loves his country.” The ads that Rove still defends for Saxby Chambliss, who defeated the Georgia senator and Vietnam veteran Max Cleland in 2002, followed precisely that strategy. They juxtaposed images of Cleland with images of Osama bin Laden. To justify his party’s tactics, Rove resorts to a sophistry: no slander was conveyed, he says, since many seconds of montage separated the images of bin Laden from the images of Cleland. Interspersed with the self- acquittals are judgments of a cleverer sort that show why Karl Rove & Company was a highly prosperous consulting firm in the years between 1981 and 1999.

Thus Rove recalls how Robert Dole in 1996 asked voters whether they would feel more comfortable leaving their children with him or with Bill Clinton. “Were voters supposed to be impressed with that?” asks Rove. It was a cheap attack that nobody could associate with a particular irritant. “To be successful,” he explains, “an attack must be perceived as both fair and relevant, backed with credible evidence, and launched at the right time.” The half-truth here is “credible evidence.” Rove means evidence that only appears credible, evidence that sprays fast enough and drips far enough to resist removal from the popular mind even when the whole truth comes out later on.

The Swift Boat attacks on John Kerry were like that. (Rove says he had nothing to do with them.) The veterans who spoke in the ads had fought in Vietnam themselves, but the ones who denied the public accounts of Kerry’s valor turned out to have been far from the relevant scene of action. This hardly mattered once the idea got about that something was “off” with Kerry and Vietnam. The ads also picked up credibility from Kerry’s refusal to respond to them. Rove thinks the most damaging were those that recalled Kerry’s charges of war crimes against American forces.

Were the charges true? That question would have carried no importance for Rove; anyway, he has no interest in exploring the facts. His point is that you cannot speak of a war crime by Americans and get elected in America. The least personal of the Swift Boat ads hurt Kerry the most because he had made the decision to run on his fame as a veteran while running away from his opposition to the Vietnam War. The ads may not have answered the question “Why vote for my guy?” They did ask about Bush’s opponent: Why is this man running away from himself? Kerry might have fought on his own ground by affirming his honest opposition to both the Vietnam and the Iraq wars. This he was never willing to do, and the ads called his bluff.

Shrewd assessment on points like these gives the narrative here its occasional value. But vulgarity and spitefulness come out of the pores of the prose. Of Al Gore’s candidacy in 2000, Rove recalls: “August was defined by Al Gore’s recovery, and I was surprised at how he did it: by picking a Jew and kissing his wife.” The ugliness of the image and diction alike betrays a mental lowness. It comes out again in Rove’s pages about the defection of Senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont, which cost the Republicans their Senate majority in 2001. Jeffords was repelled by the Cheney-Bush decisions to reject the Kyoto treaty on climate change, to withdraw from the ABM treaty, to ram through the regressive tax cuts of 2001, and to loosen the environmental regulations of the Clinton years. Many who had listened to the “compassionate conservative” of the 2000 campaign shared the same reaction, but Rove denies its legitimacy: “Bush had spent two years making his ideas and proposals clear.”

This is demonstrably false. The Bush tax cuts of 2001 were not a foregone conclusion, not even to Bush, who asked in the middle of the discussions (as we know from Paul O’Neill’s White House memoir): “Didn’t we already give them a break at the top?” On this issue Rove sinks to purest demagogy. The Democrats, he says, “would rather have high taxes and a lower standard of living than low taxes and a higher standard of living.” But every link in that proposition depends on what you mean by a standard of living—a formula as ambiguous as prevenient grace or innate depravity—which Rove treats as if it were a substance like Cheerios.

Rove thinks in slogans. Yet he has an exalted idea of history. He reads a lot of books, wishes he had finished college, and boasts of the promise made by an adviser at the University of Texas (where Rove has taught classes on political campaigning) that he is to be admitted to their Ph.D. program in government once he obtains an undergraduate degree. In Courage and Consequence, he writes like a man accustomed to producing memos, instructions, and publicity releases. It is not a manner suited to personal narrative any more than it is to history. The departure of his stepfather when Rove was eighteen, his mother’s practice of intercepting the checks his stepfather sent to support the children, her suicide when he was thirty (leaving behind a letter that he described to Thomas Edsall as “the classic fuck-you gesture”), and the breakup of his marriage to the Texas socialite Valerie Wainwright—when Rove is tempted to think about any of these things, he says, he digs in harder and just bears down on his political work. He has reflected very little on a life whose unluckiness in its first decades might have broken a weaker or a more susceptible man.

His ascent to national stature began when he was elected national chairman of the College Republicans. This was in 1973, when George H.W. Bush was national chairman of the party. The elder Bush cleared Rove from allegations of crooked campaigning—which surfaced when The Washington Post discovered a tape of Rove discussing the ins and outs of dirty tricks—and four years later asked him to lead his exploratory PAC for a presidential run. Soon after being approved by the elder, Rove met the younger Bush, and he felt an immediate attraction. As he told Nicholas Lemann for a 2003 New Yorker profile:

I can literally remember what he was wearing: an Air National Guard flight jacket, cowboy boots, blue jeans, complete with the—in Texas you see it a lot—one of the back pockets will have a circle worn in the pocket from where you carry your tin of snuff, your tin of tobacco. He was exuding more charisma than any one individual should be allowed to have.

The friendship was always unequal. Bush saw his effect on Rove and acted as he was used to acting with people over whom he enjoyed such ascendancy. Bush is a top-dog nicknamer: part of a good-humored lordliness that keeps aggression in play. Rove professes never to have understood the nickname Bush gave him: Turd Blossom. (Out of this turd, Rove, this blossom, victory.) Bush, in much of his visible relation to Rove, exhibited a trait peculiar to him and in no way admirable: contemptuous gratitude.

Since Rove’s experience of grown-up friendships has been confined to a narrow circle, he may not be aware that the world is full of employers, superiors, and patrons who show their authority in gentler ways. Yet something about his manner plainly invites ridicule. He was always a practical joker, with the practical joker’s unconscious sadism. There can be a weird innocence under the aberration, and it can lay you open to unexpected mockery in turn. Colin Powell on entering a room with Rove in it used to call out: “Private Rove, drop and give me twenty!” It hardly seems Powell’s style, but something about Rove triggered it. Josh Bolten, the President’s chief of staff, when asked by a friend what it was like to be Karl Rove’s boss, replied, “He comes when you call.” Bush added without missing a beat: “But he doesn’t fetch.”

Only once does Rove blanch at a memory of a public act that placed him in a regrettable light. This was his “twitching and shouting” rap dance at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner of March 2007. He got into it pretty convincingly, and seems to have enjoyed himself, but later had to meet the eyes of dignified spectators. “Speaker Pelosi’s face conveyed abject horror, as if she had just seen a favorite family pet slaughtered.” He may exaggerate the grossness of his offense on this occasion, but he just as surely underrates it elsewhere.

Rove seems not to have participated firsthand in the sifting of evidence to justify the war against Iraq. He writes about that all-important period, between August 2002 and March 2003, as an in-house observer, using the approved opinions and documents. Still, his view offers a glimpse of a state of mind that is widely shared by people who served under George W. Bush. He defends Bush in retrospect by attacking his attackers: lawmakers of both parties favored the war, says Rove, and everyone agreed that Saddam Hussein was in possession of weapons of mass destruction.

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