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.”