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Paul Alexander is a former reporter for Time magazine who has also written for Rolling Stone, the New York Times Magazine and various other publications. He is also a radio talk show host for WABC and the author of a series of popular biographies, including one of the most appealing portraits of John McCain, Man of the People, published in 2004. Alexander hones his skills as a biographer with a headline-grabbing look at the life and career of Karl Rove entitled Machiavelli’s Shadow, just out. I put six questions to Alexander about his book.
1. You start your account with Rove’s appearance earlier this year at the University of Iowa which reminded me of an account recently given by a trustee at Choate of Rove’s appearance there: the audience was mixed, and certainly included some well-disposed listeners, but the young people in general revile Karl Rove, they seem to view him as the architect of nearly everything they see as wrong in the country. Yet a victory in two successive presidential elections is the standard definition of political success and a recent survey placed Rove as the most influential political pundit in the country, he is routinely labeled a “political genius” and he seems to command air and print space at will. How can these points be reconciled?
I started my book off the way I did in part because I have an M.F.A. from the University of Iowa and, since I spent two years in Iowa City, I knew exactly the kind of community Rove had booked himself into. Over all, Iowa may be a conservative-leaning state, but Iowa City is decidedly liberal, mostly because of the university being there. If Rove was not fully aware of the city’s politics beforehand, he certainly was within minutes of setting foot on stage for his “Evening With the Architect.”
Rove had strictly controlled the media access to the event, but he was not able to dictate the make-up of the audience itself, and he was virtually booed off the stage. Somehow he managed to endure the persistent heckling and stayed until the end of the appearance as it was planned, fulfilling his obligation—and picking up a one-night payday of $40,000. To be sure, the reaction in Iowa City shows the mood of younger voters towards Rove and President Bush, if not the Republican Party in general. I wanted to start my book there to illustrate where public sentiment is for Rove today—at least that part of the public as represented by the audience in Iowa City.
Rove’s legacy will be based on the fact that he helped get Bush elected Texas governor twice and president twice. There is no denying that political achievement. However, Rove must also own the fact that his president has now chalked up the longest sustained sub-par approval rating of any president in modern times. According to the latest national poll I saw, Bush has a 23 percent approval rating, roughly the number Richard Nixon had when he resigned from office.
Republican leaders have described the Bush brand as “toxic.” Party insiders view Rove harshly. “I think the legacy,” Ed Rollins told me for my book, “is that Karl Rove will be a name that’ll be used for a long, long time as an example of how not to do it, as opposed to an example of how to do it….I think, at the end of this, the party will be weaker in numbers in the Congress, numbers of governors, numbers of state legislatures, and numbers of Republicans. He did little to attract young people to become Republicans. Anybody who’s a Republican today became a Republican during the Reagan era. Nobody who’s come of age during the Bush era will stand up and say, ‘I’m a Bush Republican. I’m going to spend the rest of my life being a Bush Republican.’” What’s more, John McCain, an otherwise attractive candidate, will have to distance himself from Bush significantly if not completely in the fall in order to have a chance of winning.
As for Rove’s days as a commentator, I suspect that those will come to an end if he is indicted or held in contempt of Congress. While someone like Oliver North became a folk hero for his legal problems, Rove is a much different figure. Rove did what he did almost exclusively for the sake of pure politics—not the advancement of any lofty, noble cause.
2. Karl Rove springs from what might easily be termed a dysfunctional family. His biological father abandoned his mother, Reba, when he was very young, and she remarried Louis Rove, a geologist, who shocked the family when Karl was 19 by announcing that he was gay, divorcing his wife, and moving away to California where he gained prominence for his devotion to nipple piercing. Yet according to James Moore, Rove maintained a loving, positive relationship with his adoptive father. You write that he had a cold relationship with Reba, who committed suicide and left behind a note to her sons that Rove summarized as “a classic fuck you gesture.” Also, Rove never wanted to have anything to do with his biological father. This background suggests that Rove on a personal level had no problems accepting his homosexual father and maintaining a father-son relationship with him, but on the political side, Rove’s relationship with homosexuality is dark and complex. You link Rove to whispering campaigns that persistently painted his political rivals, and at one point even his business partner, as gay because he knew this would damage them with their socially conservative base, and of course attacks on the civil rights of gays figure as one of his signature social issues. Does this show Rove’s crude Machiavellian instincts at play—his desire to score political points by exploiting the homophobia of target voters—or does all of this point to some unresolved issues from Rove’s childhood? How do you judge it?
From all indications, whatever issues Rove had concerning homosexuality left over from his teenage years—and he must have had some emotional challenges created when the man he thought was his father came out and left his mother when Karl was 19—he had resolved them by the time he was an adult. “I knew Louis Rove both in Los Angeles and when we retired to Palm Springs,” Joe Koons told me. “We were very close friends. He was my strongest friend at the time. We were like brothers…. As for his son Karl, Louis and Karl had a pleasant father-son relationship—very close. I would see Karl coming and going at Louis’s house when he visited him, particularly in Palm Springs. We would chat, Karl and I, often about politics. Karl knew his father was gay, of course. There was a group of us. For the most part, the men were very intelligent, well-to-do people, Louis among them.”
Despite his close relationship with his father, Rove would use homosexuality and gay rights as wedge issues in his career. Famously, he helped fuel a whisper campaign in the 1994 Texas gubernatorial race that implied Ann Richards was a lesbian—or at the very least sympathetic to gay people. At one point the whisper campaign went public when Bill Ratliff, a Rove client who was a state senator, called a press conference in Mount Pleasant and declared his concern about the number of lesbians Richards had working for her. The smear contributed to the defeat of Richards, who had a 60-plus percent approval rating on the day she lost to Bush.
In 2000, as part of the Rove-lead smear against John McCain in the South Carolina primary, McCain was labeled a “fag candidate,” because he had spoken to gay groups and taken essentially a libertarian position on homosexuality and some gay issues. But the 2004 race saw Rove’s most effective use of gay rights as a divisive issue. Rove had Bush propose a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, which led to a number of states adopting ballot initiatives. When conservative voters showed up to cast their vote for those initiatives, they also voted for Bush for president. Many analysts believe that that vote provided Bush with his slim margin of victory in 2004.
Machiavelli believed that the end justifies the means. The gay man’s son who is not homophobic using homosexuality and gay rights as wedge issues to win elections is the very definition of Machiavellian tactics.
3. Perhaps the chapter with the greatest immediate relevance to Rove’s problems is the tale of his rise in Texas politics, which you tie to the fortunes of a rogue FBI agent named Greg Rampton. It seems that every time Rove picked up a client with a campaign for office, Rampton suddenly began a criminal investigation targeting his client’s political opponent, and that Rampton consistently got very free range from his superiors at the Bureau and the U.S. Attorneys appointed by Presidents Reagan and Bush 41. This ultimately provides a powerful one-two punch used to label the Texas Democratic leadership as corrupt and to achieve a fairly dramatic makeover of Texas, from the home of the yellow dog Democrats to one of the reddest of the red states—a makeover that is often scored as Rove’s signature accomplishment. Can you describe one of the Rampton-led investigations and tell us what evidence you have linking Rove to it? Do you see any parallels between the Rampton investigations and prosecutions and more recent events?
In the 1990 race for agriculture commissioner in Texas, Rove represented Rick Perry as he ran against incumbent Jim Hightower, a popular figure in the state. In the eighteen months leading up to the election, Hightower saw his office become the object of an ongoing investigation by Greg Rampton, an FBI agent based in Austin. During the campaign, no charges were filed against Hightower or anyone in his office, but there was a steady steam of negative news stories concerning the investigation. The Perry campaign—run by Rove—even used the fact that the FBI was investigating Hightower in its fundraising mail-outs. Was Rove involved in the investigation? “This summer,” Rove wrote in a 1989 federal questionnaire that would later surface, “I met with agent Greg Rampton of the Austin FBI office at his request regarding a probe of political corruption in the office of Texas Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower.” Perry—today Texas governor—won the race in a squeaker, by less than 15,000 votes.
Tellingly, there would be a similar investigation of Governor Don Siegelman of Alabama when he was running for re-election in 2002. In the run-up to that election, Siegelman was the subject of a combined federal-state investigation carried out by William Pryor, the state attorney general and a Rove client, and Leura Canary, the U.S. attorney and the wife of a former Rove business partner, William “Bill” Canary. Information from the investigation routinely ended up in the news, which was then used by one or more Republican candidates. The negative attacks—helped for sure by large sums of money spent to run ads against Siegelman—made the race close. In a disputed election (another story in itself), Siegelman was defeated by Republican Bob Riley by just 3,000 votes.
The Rove forces didn’t let up. Ultimately, they would see to it that Siegelman was indicted. And how would that investigation lead to an indictment? “Don’t worry,” Bill Canary is reported to have said on a conference call concerning the matter, “I’ve already gotten it worked out with Karl. Karl has spoken with the Justice Department and they are already pursuing Siegelman.”
4. In the lead-up to the 2000 presidential campaign, you offer us a fascinating description of the role that Rove played with respect to the two Bush biographies. First there was the official biography which was to be crafted by a Bush family friend, Mickey Herskowitz. He lands a series of interviews with Bush, gathers a candid account, and proceeds to draft on that basis after Rove repeatedly brushes him off, apparently too concerned with his vacation plans to be bothered by the project. He quickly finds himself fired and the task turned over to Karen Hughes, who produces a volume of absurd pablum entitled A Charge to Keep. Then there is the alternative account, J.H. Hatfield’s Fortunate Son, which had been commissioned by St. Martin’s Press. Hatfield identifies a key source he met secretly on an Oklahoma resort who provided much of the information necessary to credit a scandalous account of Bush’s youth, linking him to cocaine use and a community service sentence: the source is Karl Rove. And when the book, in print, is about to circulate, a Texas paper with close ties to Rove publishes a story revealing that Hatfield had a criminal past, and discrediting him. Do we see in the treatment of Herskowitz and Hatfield the essential features of Karl Rove’s press management techniques?
Looking back, one of the reasons Rove was so successful as a political operative was his ability to control the information about Bush that reached the public, or even the media. In the case of Mickey Herskowitz, here was a friend of the Bush family who, no doubt because of that closeness, was able to get Bush to open up about his life prior to 1999 in a series of candid and revealing interviews. Bush admitted he was a “failure” in his business career before becoming Texas governor and he speculated about how he would have handled the 1991 Gulf War differently than his father did.
When the Bush inner circle discovered exactly what Bush had told Herskowitz, they panicked. Then Rove did what he is so good at: he shut down the process and controlled the message. Herskowitz was removed from the project, told by Bush lawyers to keep quiet about what Bush had told him in the interviews, and watched as Karen Hughes took over to create a book that said precisely what Rove wanted the book to say about Bush: nothing. It’s hard to underestimate the expert skills used by Rove to manipulate the message in this case. He had to take decisive action to correct the potential damage his candidate had unwittingly done to himself, and he did. If a Bush family friend had to be thrown under the bus in the process, so be it.
With James Hatfield, Rove played the game differently. When Rove discovered Hatfield was writing Fortunate Son: George W. Bush and the Making of an American President, he kept a watch on the project from afar and when the compete manuscript was done, according to Hatfield, he offered to become an unnamed source and set up a rendezvous with Hatfield in Eufaula, Oklahoma. While fishing on Lake Eufaula for three days, Rove confirmed information Hatfield had in his book but in the exchange Rove also discovered exactly what material Hatfield had been able to unearth.
It is not clear if at this point Rove knew Hatfield had a criminal past. But by the time the finished book was being shipped to stores, a reporter for a Texas newspaper sympathetic to Bush knew Hatfield’s past and broke the story in a way guaranteed to make national headlines. Needless to say, when it was revealed that Hatfield had been in prison—for attempted murder, no less!—the book was discredited, and St. Martin’s recalled it. In the process, the key allegation in the book—that Bush had been arrested for cocaine use and had his record expunged through volunteering for community service in Houston, a deal arranged by his politically connected father—was totally lost in the controversy that erupted over the background of the book’s author.
What could have been a campaign-ending controversy—Bush’s use of cocaine—was somehow dismissed because the journalist making the revelation had a criminal past. It seems advantageous to the Bush campaign that Rove had met with Hatfield as the book was being written so he could find out just what was in the book—and determine how the book could be discredited. Rove has been unable to deny his association with Hatfield since telephone records prove the calls Hatfield made to Rove at both his business and private numbers.
5. In tracking the Siegelman controversy down in Alabama, I routinely see apologists—most recently Governor Bob Riley, another man who benefited from a quiet Rove “makeover”—insist that Karl Rove, as the president’s senior political advisor, had far loftier and more important things to busy himself with lowly state-level politics. But your account, particularly in the chapter entitled “Mr. Rove Goes to Washington,” makes the case that this was the essence of his mission: to engineer a political transformation that would make the G.O.P. dominant across the country for a generation or more, a transformation that took aim at Congress, courts, state legislatures and statehouses and that required attention to the state political level. Indeed, watching Rove speak on primary election nights on Fox, it’s amazing to watch him spew forth his knowledge of detailed precinct-level voting patterns in northern Alabama and Georgia. Of course, Rove has emotional ties to Alabama since his wife is from Mobile and he scored some of his earliest political successes there, but still, the state has only nine electoral votes. Why would Bush’s brain care about a governor’s race in the heart of Dixie?
When Rove headed with Bush to Washington after winning the presidency in 2000, Rove had one overriding goal, which he would state publicly over the coming years: to set up what Rove termed “a permanent Republican majority.” “When Karl got to the White House,” Texas-based Republican strategists Mark Sanders told me, “he immediately started putting together a plan for what was essentially the Third Reich of Republican majority in this country. That was absolutely his plan, a Republican majority domination not just of the U.S. House, the U.S. Senate, and the presidency, but also state legislatures across the country. This was not just a pie-in-the-sky dream that Karl had. He wanted to see the Republican Party rule for the next 30 to 40 years.”
To do this, Rove needed the South to remain solidly Republican, and of looming concern was Don Siegelman—a popular, effective governor in Alabama, and a Democrat. It is not surprising, then, that Rove targeted Siegelman as someone who needed to be defeated and then driven from the political scene so he would not be able to reappear in the future to pose a threat.
“So all roads lead to Karl Rove, who wanted me out of the way,” Siegelman told me, “because I was a threat not only in Alabama but also on the national level. I was the first Democratic governor to endorse Al Gore. Heading toward 2004, I had spoken out at a Democratic Governors Association meeting against Bush’s policy in Iraq and his education and economic programs, and I was ready to take that message to key primary states.” To achieve this, Rove participated in a political prosecution of Siegelman that culminated with Siegelman going to prison which ended Siegleman’s political career—or so it appeared at the time.
6. Karl Rove tells us that he left the White House to spend more time with his family—but as you pointedly note his son is off at college and his wife is perfectly content with the long hours he puts in politicking, and he has continued to work the same pace since leaving the White House. So why did he leave so abruptly? Your book gives us the answer. You tell us that about a year ago, President Bush decided to join Rove in a visit to the Episcopal Church that Rove occasionally attended. While the two were seated together during the service, Bush leaned over to Rove and said “Karl, there’s too much heat on you. It’s time for you to go.” You attribute this account to a “source close to a key advisor to the president.” But tellingly, Rove has not challenged it. How do you parse the president’s words, and in particular, what do you assume to be the “heat”? The timing would suggest it’s the public uproar relating to the political manipulation of the Justice Department which had just brought down Alberto Gonzales and his entire senior echelon, and to which Karl Rove was firmly linked. How do you read it?
According to my source, there were a number of ongoing scandals involving Rove about which the administration in general and the president in particular were worried. There was concern that new information might surface from disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, a convicted felon, who had a number of dealings with Rove over the years. Susan Ralston, Rove’s former assistant, was said to have changed his calendar to cover up meetings he had had with Abramoff. There was concern about how Rove had used White House resources, such as PowerPoint presentations, for political purposes—a violation of the Hatch Act. There was concern that committees in Congress had evidence linking Rove to the U.S. attorneys scandal.
In fact, Rove is the target of the Judiciary Committee in the House of Representatives, which has been investigating the Valerie Plame Wilson case and is said to be looking into the Siegelman matter. Rove has now been subpoenaed by the committee and so far has refused to appear to testify. A potential contempt of Congress fight may be in the works.
President Bush and others in the administration saw any one of these scandals as a potential time bomb and felt it would be best if Rove were out of the White House. The heat would be slightly less on Rove if he was being looked at as a former White House official instead of an adviser working in close proximity to Bush—a role he had played, after all, since Bush had started running for governor of Texas back in 1993.
More from Scott Horton:
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From the June 2014 issue
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On CIA secrecy, torture, and war-making powers
Abortions per 1,000 live births in New York City:
Researchers discovered an “Obama effect”: African Americans’ performance on a verbal test improved, to equal that of white Americans, immediately after Obama’s nomination and his election.
“All I saw,” said a 12-year-old neighbor of visits to the man’s house, “was just cats in little diapers.”
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“I hope that after reading the following pages the leaders of the Y. M. C. A. will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.”