Karl Rove: Political diehard who plays dirty for Bush

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The Independent Online

Depending whom you believe, Karl Rove is either a visionary instrumental in the drive towards a permanent Republican revolution in US politics, or an evil genius who has dragged campaigning into the gutter and so compromised the foundations of American democracy.

Depending whom you believe, Karl Rove is either a visionary instrumental in the drive towards a permanent Republican revolution in US politics, or an evil genius who has dragged campaigning into the gutter and so compromised the foundations of American democracy.

Either way, it is clear that no mere campaign consultant has wielded such power in more than a century. Nobody is more closely associated with George W Bush's improbable rise to power - Rove's frequent nickname, in fact, is "Bush's brain". And nobody will be able to take more credit if the President succeeds in clawing his way to a second term in the Oval Office.

It is Rove who has kept President Bush and the rest of the campaign team relentlessly on message, making the argument that America is safe only in their hands - and never mind the fact that Iraq is falling apart and al-Qa'ida stronger than ever.

It is Rove who has been the inspiration behind the slimiest attacks against the Democratic challenger, John Kerry. The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth adverts, which sought to transform Senator Kerry from a wartime hero into a coward and a traitor, may have been mounted by a Republican front group, but their peculiar brand of character assassination was straight out of the Rove playbook, just like earlier, vicious, utterly distorted attacks on Senator John McCain during the 2000 Republican primaries (his ordeal in a Hanoi prisoner-of-war camp, it was suggested, made him mentally unstable) and on Governor Ann Richards of Texas (a closet lesbian!).

It is also Rove who, as chief White House political strategist for the past four years, has retained an unprecedented degree of control over White House policy in every conceivable area, from trade to social issues to the planning and conduct of the war in Iraq. John DiIulio, a senior White House appointee who quit in 2002, memorably deplored what he called "the reign of the Mayberry Machiavellis, in which everything - and I mean everything - is run by the political arm".

It used to be that certain matters of national security were off limits to partisan intrigue, but not in this White House. Unlike the first President Bush, who waited until after the 1990 mid-terms to hold a congressional vote on kicking Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, George W and Rove made the most recent showdown with Iraq part and parcel of their 2002 midterm election campaign - and profited handsomely from it.

Then, just a few short weeks after the fall of Baghdad, Rove had the President dress up in a flight suit and land on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln beneath the slogan "Mission Accomplished", in what appeared to be a brazen photo op for the presidential re-election campaign. Hindsight and the mounting body count have taught us that this was a rare Rove play gone wrong. But it also speaks volumes about the cynicism of an operation willing to create political sales pitches out of the very gravest issues of war and peace, life and death.

Democrats regard Rove with a mixture of awe and deep fear. Even at this late stage of the campaign, they are half-expecting him to produce Osama bin Laden like a rabbit out of a hat, or to disclose some devastating new personal smear against the Kerry-Edwards ticket to which there will be no time to respond. They remember the hard-nosed, win-at-any-cost attitude Rove and the Republicans brought to the post-election fight in Florida four years ago, and anxiously wonder whether they have the cojones to go up against him in the event of another contested election.

Rove himself clearly relishes the fight. He has telegraphed for a long time his opinion that this will be a close one, and given every indication that he will enjoy it all the more for it. At the same time, he has ambitions stretching far beyond this election. What he wants to achieve is nothing less than a major alignment in US politics, making the Republicans the natural party of government for a generation or more. His much-cited model is the 1896 election, in which an amiable, ineffectual figurehead of a Republican candidate, William McKinley, was propelled into office through the unstinting efforts of his wily campaign manager, Marc Hanna, and inaugurated an almost unbroken period of Republican domination lasting until the Great Depression.

The echoes are unmistakable. When Rove - a voraciously keen student of history - was first launching George W towards the presidency in the late 1990s, he even took a leaf out of McKinley's "front porch" campaign and had influential party figureheads and donors fly into Austin, the Texas capital, for daily lunches with the prospective candidate. (Hanna had arranged much the same thing for McKinley at his home in Canton, Ohio.)

Anyone conversant with the full story of 1896 has reason to tremble at the comparison, however, because that was the year that big corporate money first entered politics, smashing the nascent Populist movement, eliminating for ever the prospect of a viable party of labour in the United States, abandoning southern blacks to their fate at the hands of the segregationists, and disenfranchising the working class - both white and black - to such an extent that voter participation has never recovered.

Rove couldn't fully achieve his realignment in the 2000 election because, of course, his candidate did not really win. And he may have a similar difficulty this time around, because the Republicans are deeply divided over Iraq, over the growing sway of the Christian right, and over the White House's growing detachment from, and indifference to, objective reality. That makes some of his less superstitious critics wonder whether he is really so invincible after all.

At the same time, absolutely nobody is underestimating him, or his propensity for utter ruthlessness. This is a man who played dirty in his first ever campaign - almost tearing the heart out of the nationwide College Republicans when he himself ran for the chairmanship in 1973 - and has continued in the same vein over three decades. In the College Republican race, Rove challenged the legitimacy of every delegate who voted for his opponent, and came up with an entirely bogus alternate slate of delegates he claimed had greater standing. The matter was ultimately decided in Rove's favour by the then head of the Republican National Committee, a certain George Herbert Walker Bush. Both men have remained unwaveringly loyal to each other since.

Rove had come from unassuming origins in Colorado but developed a passion for conservative politics while studying at the University of Utah, where he described himself as a "diehard Nixonite" entirely out of sympathy with "all those Commies" in Vietnam. His campaign partner in the College Republican race was none other than Lee Atwater, later to become notorious as the man who sealed Michael Dukakis's defeat in the 1988 presidential election with a blatantly racist television advert demonising the Democratic candidate for offering a weekend prison release to a violent black prisoner in Massachusetts. Atwater and Rove became lifelong friends as well as colleagues, sharing a very similar outlook including a passion for Machiavelli's The Prince, the ultimate political document about the ends justifying the means.

Under the Bush family's wing, Rove developed a direct-mail political consulting business and worked on Republican campaigns in Texas. He tapped into oil money and other corporate interests and helped a succession of candidates to clean out the old Democratic order in the South. One campaign, for a spot on the Alabama state supreme court, was so nasty it led to a year-long court battle in which Rove accused his opponent - who had led in the initial vote tally - of systematic vote fraud and thereby prevented a batch of all-important absentee ballots from being counted at all. Florida in 2000 was a doddle by comparison.

Rove first met George W in the mid-1970s, when he was running a political action committee on behalf of his father. "I was supposed to give him the keys to the car whenever he came to town," he recounted later. They talked about a run for Texas governor in 1990, but decided to wait until Bush Snr was no longer president. Four years later, they were ready, daring to go up against a popular incumbent - Ann Richards - with a strategy of pure venom based, essentially, on God, guns and gays.

Every day for two years, the Bush campaign put out negative stories about Governor Richards, hinting she was soft on crime and overfond of homosexuals, culminating in a devastating revelation that a prominent Richards appointee had lied about her college education. From the start, Rove kept Bush away from unscripted situations, offering him just three or four key talking points which the candidate repeated ad nauseam until the electorate not only memorised them but also started to believe them. Rove also became adept at handling the media, rigorously controlling their access and never shying away from calling a dissenting reporter at home and screaming.

Such was the template on which the presidential runs were based. Bush has occasionally bristled at the perception that Rove is running the show - his unlovely nickname for his consultant is "Turd Blossom" - but for the most part he has been given absolutely nothing to complain about. Bush campaigns, like the Bush White House, are always about supreme control, and anyone who gets off message - usually because of an unwarranted fit of honesty - is ruthlessly dispatched from the scene.

Rove does not share Bush's religiosity, but the two men have a similar antipathy to East Coast intellectual types and a preference for political discourse that is simple, forceful and appealing to the gut more than the head. One of Rove's favourite books is The Dream and the Nightmare, an excoriation of the progressive values of the 1960s by a neoconservative thinker called Myron Magnet. Magnet blames poverty on liberal permissiveness and suggests the problem is best left to Christian charities - an embryonic form of what Rove and Bush would come to call "compassionate conservatism". Rove is a master coiner of such political labels. "Compassionate conservatism" manages to appeal both to the religious right and also to moderates. In this campaign, accusing Kerry of being a "flip-flopper" has been singularly effective (even though the president has flip-flopped plenty himself). The Democrats have managed nothing half so memorable, believing - perhaps naively - that they can still win this election the old-fashioned way, by arguing the issues.

The Rove camp dismisses such thinking as the workings of the "reality-based community", something they believe they have moved beyond. In a few days, we'll know if the rest of the United States is prepared to follow their lead.


Born: Born one of five siblings in Colorado 25 December 1950. At 19, discovered that his mother's husband was not his biological father. At 30, his mother committed suicide.

Family: Married twice, with a 15-year-old son from second marriage.

Education: Enrolled at University of Utah, but never graduated. Completed studies at Texas University and George Mason University.

Career: Volunteered on his first campaign while still in high school. Worked with College Republicans in Washington. Through the Bush family, ran Republican campaigns throughout Texas and the South. Masterminded George W Bush's runs for governor of Texas (1994, 1998) and president of the United States (2000, 2004). His job in the Bush administration is senior adviser on political strategy.

He says...: "[George Bush] was the kind of candidate and officeholder political hacks like me wait a lifetime to be associated with."

They say...: "A junkyard dog of campaign consulting, no holds barred" - Texas political commentator and satirist Molly Ivins