The Curveball of Karl Rove

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,…

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