Bush's Hit Man
In early December 1999, George W. Bush's chief political strategist, Karl Rove, and Dallas Morning News reporter Wayne Slater squared off in the Manchester, New Hampshire, airport. Rove was angry over a story Slater had written suggesting that it was plausible that Rove was behind the whispering campaign that warned that Senator John McCain--then soaring in the GOP presidential primary polls--might any day unravel because he had been under so much pressure when he was tortured as a POW in Vietnam.
In a 700-word article that Slater said wasn't the most significant thing he'd written about Rove, he referred to questionable campaign tactics attributed to Rove: teaching College Republicans dirty tricks; spreading a rumor that former Texas Governor Ann Richards was too tolerant of gays and lesbians; circulating a mock newspaper that featured a story about a former Democratic governor's drinking and driving when he was a college student; spreading stories about Texas official Jim Hightower's alleged role in a contribution kickback scheme; and alerting the press to the fact that Lena Guerrero, a rising star in the Texas Democratic Party, had lied about graduating from college. Rove was explicitly linked by testimony and press reports to all but the gay and lesbian story; the college incident had been so widely reported for fifteen years that it was essentially part of the common domain. Slater also reported that primary candidates Steve Forbes and Gary Bauer blamed the Bush camp for the smear campaign.
"He said I had harmed his reputation," Slater recalls. Says another reporter who was traveling with Bush, "It was pretty heated. They were nose to nose. Rove was furious and had his finger in Slater's chest." Adds the same reporter, "What was interesting then is that everyone on the campaign charter concluded that Rove was responsible for rumors about McCain."
That Karl Rove, who, according to the White House press office is not giving interviews, hasn't always abided by the Marquess of Queensberry rules of political engagement is not exactly breaking news. As long ago as 1989, when Rove collaborated with an FBI agent investigating Hightower, the then-Texas agricultural commissioner complained about "Nixonian dirty tricks."
That was at a time when Rove was a big player only in Texas. Since then, he has become George W. Bush's closest adviser, directed Bush's presidential campaign and is now working in an office just down the hall from the most powerful official in the world. Some wonder to what extent Rove will use the power of the federal government against those who would cross the President. Rove's past suggests such worries are not unfounded. "This guy is worse than Haldeman and Ehrlichman," a source who worked in Hightower's office twelve years ago said in a recent interview, referring to Nixon's advisers at the time of the Watergate break-in. "He'll have an enemies list." The interview ended with a request common among sources speaking about Rove, even those no longer involved in politics: "I'd prefer you didn't quote me on this."
Rove operates from deeply held conservative beliefs, which were shaped when he was a child growing up in Utah. His sister told Miriam Rozen of the Dallas Observer that as a child Rove had a Wake Up America poster hanging above his bed. Rove has said that while going to college, he was never inclined to identify with the antiwar movement and supported the troops because "it was hard to sympathize with all those Commies." The "die-hard Nixonite" remains deeply resentful of the legacy of the counterculture of the sixties. Visitors to his Austin office would often leave with a copy of The Dream and the Nightmare by Myron Magnet, a Manhattan Institute fellow who argues that the political and cultural left corrupted the nation's poor and deprived them of the work ethic they now need to lift themselves out of poverty. Rove is an eclectic and voracious reader, and although he never completed college, a self-taught historian. He is absolutely dedicated to George W. Bush, whom he describes as "the kind of candidate and officeholder political hacks like me wait for a lifetime to be associated with."
Rove arrived in Houston in 1977 to work for a George Herbert Walker Bush PAC run by James Baker 3d. Rove subsequently moved from Houston to Austin, and in the ten years it took George W. Bush to lose $2 million of other people's money in the oilfields of West Texas, he became the Republican Party's premier political consultant. At the time of Rove's arrival, US Senator John Tower was the only Republican holding statewide office. When Rove left earlier this year to serve as a senior adviser to President Bush, all twenty-nine statewide elected offices were held by Republicans, and both US Senate seats were occupied by Rove clients: Phil Gramm and Kay Bailey Hutchison. Almost half of GOP officeholders--including the governor, the attorney general, the chief justice and several justices on the Texas Supreme Court--were also clients. Rove and the consulting firm he owned until joining the Bush campaign have represented more than seventy-five candidates in twenty-four states.
There have always been nagging questions about the tactics Rove has used to establish market domination. So when a tape of Bush's practice debate sessions was mailed to Congressman Tom Downey, Al Gore's opponent in practice debates, the speculation among the press corps in Austin was that Rove had arranged it. (A post office surveillance camera captured an image of an employee of Bush media consultant Mark McKinnon mailing a package that might have been the tape; a federal grand jury in Austin is still looking into the incident.) Some speculated that the move was intended to eliminate Downey from his role as debate coach (which it did), others that it would provide an excuse to cancel the debates (which, in hindsight, would have been helpful to Gore).