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Karl Rove likes to compare himself with Mark Hanna, the powerful industrialist and senator in the waning nineteenth century who is often credited with the transformation of American political campaigns. Hanna showed that money could be a powerful tool to sculpt the nation’s political course. He raised $3.5 million for the 1896 campaign of his friend, William McKinley–up to that point an unimagined sum–and he brought in a campaign staff of 1,400, crafted leaflets, did the first direct mailings, devised the notion of surrogate speakers, and refined the notion of political messaging. When I have spoken with Rove’s friends and his competitors in Texas, Alabama, and other states where he refined his skills, I usually hear a litany of praise. “Karl is a master tactician,” they say. They turn almost immediately to his uncanny ability to spot and target “his voters,” and his use of direct mailing and other techniques. One Texas philanthropist described bringing Karl Rove in to work with her board in raising money for a museum as the “smartest thing I ever did.”
But then we come, very quickly, to the dark side of the genius of Karl Rove. In 1970, Rove, using a fake ID card, entered the campaign office of Alan J. Dixon, a candidate for Treasurer of Illinois. He stole a box of Dixon’s campaign letterhead and used it to solicit homeless people to attend Dixon’s campaign events, promising free food and alcohol, and disrupting the events.
George H.W. Bush fired Rove after discovering that he had planted a story with his friend columnist Robert Novack attacking chief Bush presidential campaign fundraiser Robert Mosbacher.
But all of this is minor. The graver matters go to the tactics he embraces. In a strategy memorandum he wrote in 1986 for Texas Governor William Clement, Rove quoted Napoleon: “The whole art of war consists in a well-reasoned and extremely circumspect defensive, followed by rapid and audacious attack.”
But what were the elements of the “audacious attack?” As James Moore documents in his political biography of Rove, Bush’s Brain, politicians who faced Rove in election contests had recurrent problems.
One was rumor campaigns questioning their sexual orientation, adulterous liaisons and similar tawdry matters. Prime examples of this were the rumor campaign launched against Texas Governor Anne Richards suggesting she was a lesbian, and even more pointedly, the curious telephone push-polling during the decisive 2000 Republican primary in South Carolina, suggesting that John McCain had fathered a child in an adulterous relationship with a black woman (McCain and his wife have an adopted daughter from South Asia, whose photograph with her father was circulated in connection with these insinuations).
Second, Rove’s opponents would regularly find that they had suddenly become the target of a criminal investigation, and details concerning the investigation would be aggressively fanned to the press. Rove mastered this technique in a contest for the Texas Agriculture Commissioner’s post that he managed for now-Governor Rick Perry.
Third, and probably the most characteristic of the Rovian tools—“swiftboating.” Rove would cultivate groups which were arguably distant from the campaign proper which would run extremely well funded vitriolic ad hominem attacks on the adversary. The most vivid display of the technique, and indeed the case that produced a new verb for the English language, was the use of military veterans to attack John Kerry over his military record in Vietnam. For a candidate who abandoned his station as a Air National Guard Reservist, refusing to take a physical, and refusing combat service to launch a massive attack on a war hero with a silver star and host of other medals was, well, “audacious.” And ultimately very effective.
These days, Karl is taking a bit of heat over his involvement in the Siegelman case. As I noted in a recent on-air discussion with Dan Abrams, nearly every stone you overturn looking through this case reveals traces of Karl Rove. Rove was serving as campaign advisor to William Pryor, who, as a rabidly partisan Alabama attorney general, launched the investigation into Siegelman almost as soon as he was sworn in as governor. Rove’s close friend and associate William Canary was advising a Republican running against Siegelman, and busily raising money for him as his own wife, Leura Canary, pursued a criminal investigation against Siegelman as U.S. Attorney. A Republican campaign worker disclosed internal discussions about using a criminal prosecution to take out Siegelman, and Rove’s name appeared at every turn, uttered by a person close to Rove. And then the same source, Jill Simpson, described some of her own interactions with Rove in a 60 Minutes segment, followed by another interview on MSNBC’s Dan Abrams show. And we haven’t even begun to discuss the Washington angle…
Rove seems suspiciously concerned about the Simpson allegations, and he’s striking back. The curious thing is that he’s using many of his darker tactics to do so, a move which could well serve in the end to strengthen Simpson’s accusations.
As usual, the Rove approach involves surrogates in the media and the blogosphere. In what may be a sign of desperation, however, Rove is making many of the attacks himself, or is leaving a clear set of fingerprints behind.
Take Rove’s interview in the current issue of the men’s fashion magazine GQ. Here’s how Bush’s brain responds to a query about the Simpson allegations:
[rolls his eyes] Will you do me a favor and go on Power Line and Google “Dana Jill Simpson” [the Republican lawyer who told 60 Minutes that Rove asked her to take a picture of Governor Siegelman cheating on his wife]? She’s a complete lunatic. I’ve never met this woman. This woman was not involved in any campaign in which I was involved. I have yet to find anybody who knows her. And what the media has done on this… No one has read the 143-page deposition that she gave congressional investigators—143 pages. When she shows up to give her explanation of all this, do you know how many times my name appears? Zero times. Nobody checked!
Q: Then how did this happen?
Rove: Because CBS is a shoddy operation. They said, “Hey, if we can say ‘Karl Rove,’ ‘Siegelman,’ that’ll be good for ratings. Let’s hype it. We’ll put out a news release on Thursday and then promo the hell out of it on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.” And Scott Pelley—the question is, Did [60 Minutes correspondent] Scott Pelley say to this woman, “You say you met with him. Where? And you say that he gave you other assignments earlier. When did he begin giving you assignments, and what campaigns did you work with him in? What evidence? I mean, this woman, she said she met with him: Okay, you met with him—where? Did you fly to Washington?” Now she says that she talked to me on the phone and she’s got phone records. Of calls to Washington and Virginia. But what’s Virginia? I don’t live in Virginia. And it’s 2001. What is in Virginia? It’s not the Bush headquarters; that was in Austin, Texas. What is in Virginia? So—but look, she’s a loon.
Note Rove’s thematic line: Simpson is “a complete lunatic… a loon.” It apparently gets worse than this. In the original interview, as reported in at-Largely, Rove apparently made scurrilous insinuations about Simpson’s family life and her relationship with her children. GQ made the wise decision to strike them from the published text.
But we should keep one fact in sharp focus: the allegations that Jill Simpson makes are all things that Rove has done, and been caught at, in innumerable other campaigns. They belong to his established modus operandi. And vehement denials are another part of the Rove rapid response pattern.
Rove talks about telephone calls to Virginia and denies that they could relate to his dealings with the Bush campaign and transition team. But public records show that the Bush-Cheney transition effort was headquartered in McLean, Virginia.
Rove tells us that CBS, the nation’s leading news broadcaster, is a “shoddy operation.” But Powerline, a rightwing blog site with close ties to Rove, famous for its vicious political attacks, is the ultimate source for information. Powerline can, of course, be counted upon to come through for Rove in a pinch, and that’s exactly how they’re being used here.
It’s true that the deposition taken of Simpson did not include discussion of Simpson’s accounts of dealings involving Rove other than the now-famous discussion with Rove’s pal William Canary right after the 2002 Alabama gubernatorial contest. But as Rove knows, that issue was covered exhaustively in the investigator’s examination and by several national journalists, not just CBS.
Today, the editors of the Tuscaloosa News call this just right:
Rove can hardly afford to hurl around accusations of shoddy operation. Ethics and morals mean little to him. He has proven time and again that he will do anything to get his way in politics.
And John Mashek at U.S. News & World Report, looking at the evidence of Rove’s involvement in the Siegelman matter, put it this way:
Rove’s methods are a direct contrast to the conduct of two now deceased GOP consultants of the past, John Deardourff and Bob Teeter. Deardourff was the TV ad specialist, while Teeter did the polling and strategizing. As a team, they played to win, but they operated with class and integrity. Rove has neither.
What’s gotten Karl worked into a lather? It’s simple. Jill Simpson and the United States Congress are saying exactly the same thing: Karl, if you’re so clear about this, then certainly you will have no problem appearing in response to a Congressional subpoena, swearing an oath and answering questions–just as Simpson did. Moreover, Congress wants to ask him just the same questions that GQ asked, and that he happily answered. How does Rove explain agreeing to be interviewed by a fashion magazine, but refusing to answer the same questions when formally posed by Congress? And certainly Rove should also turn over documents and answer questions about them, just as Jill Simpson did. Rove’s conduct in chatting up the media but refusing to testify before Congress on the same subjects has certainly been audacious. It’s also been stupid.
Karl’s taunts hurled at CBS are designed to get CBS to put all its cards on the table before Karl goes out wading any further into what he obviously recognizes is a minefield. It’s not that he doubts that CBS did their investigation and confirmed Simpson’s credibility. He knows that they did. And he’s frantic to discover exactly what the evidence is.
Rove has a fundamental problem. His denials will not stand up under scrutiny. And worm and evade as he may, he can’t avoid that simple fact. Which is another reason for us all to say we’re dying to hear Karl Rove’s views about the Siegelman case—as soon as he’s placed under oath and agrees to submit to questioning about them.
In the meantime, tune in tonight for CBS 60 Minutes. (Full disclosure: I have been repeatedly interviewed for the program’s Siegelman coverage.) We’ll see a snippet or two from Scott Pelley’s recent interview with Governor Siegelman. And something tells me that Karl Rove will continue to figure prominently in this story.
More from Scott Horton:
Six Questions — October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm
Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.
Mark Denbeaux on the NCIS cover-up of three “suicides” at Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp
From the June 2014 issue
Hours per day that a death-row inmate in China wears hand and ankle restraints:
A multidisciplinary team detected cardiac arrhythmia in the works of Beethoven.
There was a run on cases of 5.56mm M855 green-tip rifle bullets, after the White House moved to ban their manufacture and sale because they can pierce police armor.
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