If you consumed any political news at all Tuesday, you likely know that Karl Rove, former political guru for George W. Bush, reportedly suggested during a conference last week that Hillary Clinton suffered a “traumatic brain injury” recently.
Rove quickly denied the charge, and told The Washington Post later in the day that “of course she doesn’t have brain damage.”
But the idea that the former first lady and possible future presidential candidate is brain damaged is already all over the media. Elsewhere in the Post, one can find over a thousand words from the ever-credulous Chris Cillizza on the subject of Clinton’s health, pivoting off Rove’s remarks. (Cillizza isn’t entirely sure if Rove’s bizarre charge is wrong: he actually begins a sentence “Putting aside the ‘brain damage’ debate, which seems like a bit of a red herring….”)
You could believe Rove’s denial—but you would have to ignore virtually his entire political career. For decades Rove has been circulating nasty, personal rumors about political opponents and placing them in the public conversation, all while obscuring his fingerprints, making the rumors become the opponent’s problem, not his. It’s page one of his playbook.
Take for example the tale of Mark Kennedy, a Democratic candidate for Alabama Supreme Court in 1994, as recounted in James Moore and Wayne Slater’s book on Rove, The Architect. Rove was working for Harold See, Republican and law school professor backed by the Business Council of Alabama.
Kennedy was “not your typical Alabama macho, beer-drinkin’, tobacco-chewin’, pickup-drivin’ kind of guy. He is a small, well-groomed, well-educated family man,” Moore and Slater noted. A central feature of Kennedy’s campaign ads was the private nonprofit he founded for abused and neglected children.
That seems like an entirely benign, harmless résumé point to offer—but as Moore and Slater note, Kennedy “had never been in an election against Karl Rove.” This is what began to happen:
“[W]ord began to spread along the loose network of University of Alabama Law School faculty and students that Kennedy was a pedophile. The whisper campaign moved with a kind of ruthless efficiency from the hallways of the law school to folks back home, to big cities and small Alabama communities, everywhere students lived. [Kennedy’s campaign manager] said he heard about the whisper campaign directly from friends inside the law school, and as he studied polling data, he saw that it was working. But what to do about it?”